Eric Kaler probably won't ask for personal recommendations Tuesday morning, when the University of Minnesota president meets with the school's head coaches to talk about the search for a new athletic director. Gary Wilson has a few names in mind, just in case.
Wilson, the Gophers women's cross-country coach, knew the time was coming when Joel Maturi would step aside as AD. Over the past few years, whenever Wilson talked to track coaches at other schools, he asked how they liked the people running their athletic departments. "I've got a list of about 50 guys that would be great,'' Wilson said. "They're easy to find. It's just whether you hire them or not.''
Given the attention and money lavished on Division I sports, it is not an exaggeration to believe this could be the most heavily scrutinized personnel move Kaler will make at the U. His choice will reveal how he views the purpose of athletics at a public university. It will establish the principles he expects the department to uphold and the values he wants it to reflect among students and community.
The loudest public voices have insisted Kaler must hire a CEO, someone who will run the department like the multimillion-dollar corporation it has become. But amid the din of Maturi's many critics, Kaler should not sacrifice a defining principle of the former AD's legacy: the U's continuing commitment to a broad array of nonrevenue sports.
As a realist, Wilson knows that a Big Ten AD must be able to raise money, market his school like a Madison Avenue kingpin and maximize the cash churned out by the high-profile sports. As a lifelong coach and educator, he doesn't want money to become the mission. He is hoping Kaler will choose a leader who genuinely believes in the value of nonrevenue sports, where the primary purpose of college athletics has not been distorted by chasing the dollar.
"You never know, with a new president, what direction it's going to go,'' said Wilson, in his 27th year with the Gophers. "I just hope it goes along the line of providing educational opportunities for kids, as opposed to a business model that isn't healthy for anybody. This isn't about selling Scotch tape in South Dakota. It's about teaching kids life lessons.
"You've got to have both sides of the equation. You need money to survive and prosper, but when it's all said and done, money does not make the program. The things that make the program are the coaches and the student-athletes, doing things the right way and having the right values.''
Kaler will hear that argument from Wilson, and probably from some other Gophers coaches, when he asks them Tuesday what qualities they want in the new athletic director. Wilson said there is some anxiety in the nonrevenue ranks, evidenced by the 20 people who stopped by his office last week to ask how he thought things might unfold.
Maturi gave unwavering, heartfelt support to all Gophers sports, cheering enthusiastically at track meets and wrestling matches and handing out academic awards like a proud dad. For that, he was mocked in some circles. Among those who want the U to shovel unlimited funds into the football program, or who view a new basketball practice facility as a need rather than a want, the golf and swim teams are often seen as expendable. If they're not on TV and they don't make money, the logic goes, then what's the point?
The point is that these sports can actually function in harmony with their universities' missions. Wilson maintains large rosters -- the current one includes 56 women -- so as many athletes as possible can enjoy the benefits of participation. His athletes earn good grades. He does not demand to be paid more than the school president or ask the admissions office to bend the rules.
Citing the need to cut costs, universities all over the country have eliminated nonrevenue sports in recent years. Yet they manage to raise money for projects such as the new basketball practice facility at Nebraska, the latest example of wretched excess. The $18.7 million temple includes a TV in every bathroom stall and an iPad at every locker.
That symbolizes the current state of college athletics, where profit is often more highly prized than principles. The U has an opportunity to take a stand, to choose an athletic director who can view the big picture without losing sight of the irreplaceable benefits that nonrevenue sports bring to a university.
"We need to say, 'These are our values,' '' Wilson said. "I don't know what will happen. But I have hope.''
Rachel Blount • email@example.com
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