Maturi steps aside as AD, will stay at U to raise funds, teach

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2012 - 7:00 AM

He took over a department -- two of them, actually -- engulfed in turmoil, divided by gender and rancor and reeling from the dishonor of NCAA scandal, and birthed a unified, relatively tranquil and sanction-free athletic program, with all 25 sports intact. He inherited a campus that farmed out its signature athletic events to a dreary downtown rental space, and replaced it with a transformative jewel of a football stadium. He oversaw football and basketball programs that seemed to specialize in disappointment and dysfunction, and ...

Well, Joel Maturi's tenure as athletic director at the University of Minnesota will leave a decidedly mixed legacy.

That decade-long term ends June 30, Maturi and university President Eric Kaler announced on Thursday, when Maturi's contract runs out. The Gophers sports executive, who in 2010 turned down an offer to extend his contract, will retire to a special assistant's position -- at his current $351,900 base salary -- to raise funds for athletic needs, teach a class or two and help ease the transition for his successor.

"It makes a lot of sense to make a change now," said Maturi, who turns 67 on Feb. 11, in a voice thick with emotion. "We have a new president, and we have an old athletics director."

By July 1, the Gophers will have a new athletic director, the product of a national search, conducted with the help of corporate head-hunters, that will emphasize "integrity, first and foremost," Kaler said. "I will look for someone with experience in [Division] I athletics, and I am looking for someone with good business acumen. This is a large sports entertainment activity in lots of ways. We need to be smart about that."

He will gather the opinions of Gophers coaches, alumni, boosters, students and even fans, too, Kaler said, "so the job description of the AD describes not only what I think is important, but what the community thinks is important in the next athletic director."

Kaler faces huge decision

The stakes are enormous, considering the department's $78 million budget and image-defining prominence. The choice could well define his own administration, Kaler admitted, given the visibility of college sports. "I fully expect to be judged, for better or worse," Kaler said, "by the performance of the next athletic director."

And as Maturi learned the hard way, that athletic director will be judged largely by the performance of the football team. Jerry Kill already understands that, too.

"There's more pressure on me today. I want to make sure [Maturi] leaves knowing he made the right hire," said Kill, who was plucked from Northern Illinois 14 months ago to overhaul a stumbling football program. "We need to win."

Maturi could tell him that better than anyone. Controversy and criticism will age you, not to mention long days spent trying to preserve a department whose overall success, including national championships in wrestling and men's and women's hockey, was frequently obscured by the failure to establish a competitive football program. Maturi was routinely the first person to arrive in the athletic offices, and he was known for attending dozens of Gophers events annually, from tennis to track.

So when former university president Robert Bruininks proffered a one-year extension to his contract 18 months ago, "I was, for the first time in my life, feeling a little bit tired," Maturi said. "That tiredness has not gone away. I do not know how to do this job differently [and] 14-, 16-hour days have become more difficult."

His life will be a bit more relaxed now, though his day planner will still be full. As an assistant to Kaler, he will continue to solicit donations from boosters for unfinished projects such as the baseball stadium and basketball practice facility. He will create and conduct classes in the university's kinesiology department. And he will serve as a human Rolodex and owners' manual for the next AD.

"The new athletic director will benefit from a transition period, connecting with people in the community that Joel knows," Kaler said. "If the athletic director is from outside this community, having a guide to show the way early on is useful."

He started from scratch

Maturi had no such guide when he took over for Tom Moe in 2002, because the department he now heads didn't exist. Minnesota was one of a handful of universities that still operated separate departments for men's and women's athletics, and Bruininks hired Maturi away from Miami (Ohio) with orders to merge them under one budget.

The process was wrenching, the debate frequently nasty, said Maturi, who still choked up at the thought of it on Thursday.

"It was a lot more difficult than people realize," he said. "I guess in many ways, that's probably the greatest compliment -- we did it."

Maturi also kept the Gophers off the NCAA's blotter, insisting that his coaches follow all the rules and enforce classwork requirements in an effort to erase the stain of an academic fraud scandal only four years earlier. He raised graduation rates to 80 percent, one of the highest in the nation. He underwrote 25 sports during an era when many universities cut back, proudly declaring that "I'm athletic director of all 700 student-athletes."

And perhaps his preeminent accomplishment was the funding and construction of TCF Bank Stadium, a $288 million, 50,000-seat landmark that opened in 2009 and allowed the football team to escape its Metrodome purgatory.

But those achievements are tangential to Maturi's public image, and he knows it.

"People have the right to make decisions, and today, many of them base my success on wins and losses," he said. "That goes with the territory."

At Minnesota these days, so do last-place football finishes and one-and-done NCAA basketball tournament appearances. Maturi's record is sullied by the clumsy firings of football coach Glen Mason and men's basketball coach Dan Monson, revenue sports that posted winning Big Ten records only once apiece during the decade and the resulting declining attendance in each, and the disastrous anointment of inexperienced football coach Tim Brewster in 2007. Maturi fired Brewster seven games (and six losses) into the 2010 season, and much of the public's disgust with the ex-coach seemed to transfer to the man who hired him.

He was lampooned as Badger Joel, for his background as a coach and administrator in Wisconsin, and Mac-turi, for his ties to the smaller Mid-American Conference. A group of former football players publicly lobbied to have him removed from the search for Brewster's successor, fearing another 15-30 mistake.

Maturi remained composed and taciturn during the six-week search that ended in Kill's hiring, and makes no apologies for his record.

"I can assure you that every decision I've made was done thoughtfully, with a lot of research and a lot of homework," Maturi said. "I'm not naive -- some decisions were a whole lot better than others, but that's a reality of life."

So is retirement, and Maturi said he relishes the prospect of spending more time with his wife, Lois, and their three kids and three grandkids. He has another goal, too, one that eluded him at Minnesota.

"I'd like to go to the Rose Bowl," Maturi said. "But a lot of people have waited a long time to see that happen."

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