Hartman: Kaler taking right approach to sports

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2012 - 11:53 AM

The new University of Minnesota president knows the value of athletics and wants the Gophers to succeed.

Eric Kaler, the new University of Minnesota president, stopped the ongoing negotiations on a two-year extension for Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith because he wants Joel Maturi's successor as athletic director to be involved in working on Smith's contract.

"Joel and I haven't had a chance to talk about [Smith's contract] in real detail," Kaler said. "We'll be doing that shortly. Of course I want to have the new AD identified so that he or she can buy into whatever arrangement we have with Tubby. He has two years left and we'll try to make a fair arrangement with him."

A search committee is working to hire the next athletic director, who will decide Smith's future.

I've covered the university for a long time and my early impression is that Kaler will be more involved in sports than any president I've known over the years. In the short time Kaler has been in office, he really has impressed the men and women in the athletic department.

Speaking about the search for a new athletic director, Kaler said: "The joke I said at a news conference once was that I am willing to pay moving expenses. It's just fine for me to bring somebody from outside of the state. I came back to Minnesota after 30 years away. Minnesota culture is special.

"There's certain ways of moving forward here that don't work as well in other parts of the country, and vice-versa. I'm looking for the best possible person for this job. If they've got that skill and Minnesota roots, that's terrific. But if they have those skills and are from somewhere else, that's fine with me, too."

The fact that the Gophers have struggled in major revenue sports lately -- including not winning a Big Ten title in football since 1967 -- could be an issue that scares away good candidates for the job. But Kaler disagrees with that theory.

Kaler said he can't do anything about the Gophers' past athletic struggles.

"What we can do is control what we are and what we do going forward," he said. "I wasn't here in 1967, but I do plan to be here when we're football champions again.

"We can control where we are going forward. I think there's not a person that's met [football coach] Jerry Kill that doesn't believe he can move our program in the right direction. He is going to bring the right kind of students, the right kind of athletes. I think we are going to have success in football. But as I said, we can't control the past. I drive a lot better when I'm looking through the windshield instead of the rear-view mirror."

U has a lot to offer

Kaler said his view is that there isn't a community in the Big Ten that has more to offer student-athletes than the Twin Cities.

"We have great business connections, we're going to get the business community to re-engage with us -- it's a wonderful place to live, huge opportunities for student-athletes after they graduate or internships while they're here, enormously good facilities -- TCF Bank Stadium is, I think, the premier college football venue in the country in terms of amenities and sight lines and locker room facilities, it's terrific.

"We have championship-caliber teams right now in both men's and women's hockey -- I watched both of those games [last weekend against Alaska-Anchorage], both great games. We have a group of coaches that are tremendous. I've met with each of them as we've formulated what we're looking for in the AD. And we have a great university. This is a place where a student-athlete who is serious about preparing for the rest of his life academically can find tremendous opportunities.

"I think there's a wellspring of goodwill for the university and for Gophers athletics. I think people are frankly tired of talking about why we haven't won championships. I'm interested in bringing in a person who's going to grab the community by the lapels and say, 'Let's hook up and move this program forward.' I think that person is out there.

"I think you know, and probably most people know, that I think athletics is important to the mission of the university and to its visibility," Kaler said.

"I need to think of a new analogy, but I've been calling it a door and a window. It's an important window for people to connect with the university, to see what's going on, to take part in athletic sporting events. I'm pretty sure when people pick up the paper in the morning and see that the Gophers win -- especially if we beat a neighbor state -- people feel good about that. I think it's important to the university.

''You look around the country and high-quality institutions with good athletic programs co-exist in a very healthy way -- that's where I want Minnesota to be."

One good thing is that Kaler will have the final interview with any potential athletic director candidate, and there is no doubt that he has a good chance to sell the right person.

Jottings

• Kevin Love of the Timberwolves is leading all NBA players in scoring for the month of March with 32.3 points per game. Love also set a franchise single-season record with his 15th game of at least 30 points.

• Love has moved into second place all-time on the team in rebounds. After Monday's victory over Phoenix, he has 3,035 rebounds. He passed Sam Mitchell, who had 3,030, and now trails only Kevin Garnett, who finished his Wolves career with 10,542 rebounds in the 12 years he played here.

• With 20 games left, the Wolves have a 10-9 record on the road to equal the 10 road games won (10-72) over the past two seasons.

• For the first time in the history of the Timberwolves franchise, they had back-to-back crowds of at least 20,000, on Friday against the Lakers and Saturday against the Hornets. The eight sellouts the Wolves have had this year are the most since they had 14 during the 2003-2004 season. Going into Saturday's game, the Wolves were averaging 17,404 fans per game, a 14 percent increase over last year. The Wolves have renewed 90 percent of the 8,000 season tickets they sold this year.

And this past week, they sold more than 500 season tickets for next season. This included courtside tickets that sell for $1,310 and the seats on the opposite side of the player benches that sell for $655. Also the 120 Cambria Section seats that sell for $103 are sold out for next year.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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