When Joel Maturi stepped down as Gophers athletic director in 2012, the University of Minnesota had the opportunity to bolster its reputation for tone-deaf, hidebound decisionmaking, or to make the kind of bold hire that might drag the athletic department into one of the more recent centuries.
President Eric Kaler and his brain trust could have honored old-school thinking by hiring a former successful coach. This would have been a mistake. College revenue sports have always been big business, and they’ve evolved into profit centers that can reap or hemorrhage cash. Old coaches don’t belong at the CEO’s table.
The Gophers brain trust could have hired someone close and trusted, such as baseball coach John Anderson. Anderson is a good man with plenty of ideas, but he works on a different scale than a Big Ten athletic department. He’s more like the owner of the quaint coffee shop on the corner than the president of Starbucks.
The brain trust could have fallen in love with a big name from the sports or financial world, someone who would have used the job to build a résumé and show off to friends, the kind of person who might impress in an interview but fail to possess the savvy and resolve required by this difficult job.
The brain trust could have hired a pure fundraiser, someone disconnected from the sports world who would concentrate on procuring money. That notion became popular during the job search, but a Big Ten athletic director also needs to be able to assess, hire and fire coaches, which requires a certain sports-centric perceptiveness and experience.
Kaler and Co. surprised everyone by hiring Norwood “Woody” Teague away from Virginia Commonwealth, a school without a football program that had gained attention solely because the basketball program, after eking into the NCAA tournament in 2011, made a shocking run to the Final Four under hyperactive coach Shaka Smart.
If the NCAA selection committee hadn’t angered the likes of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas by selecting VCU that year, we might have never heard of Smart, and Kaler and Co. might never have heard of Teague.
As it turns out, that would have been a shame. Teague’s first year on the job has hinted at an aggressiveness and savvy that has been missing in the Gophers athletic department since Murray Warmath had the brains and guts to recruit black football players.
Wednesday, Teague announced plans to upgrade athletic facilities by privately raising $190 million, a stunning amount for a plan that will not replace a gameday revenue-sport venue.
The new facilities wouldn’t propel Gophers athletics past the competition. They would merely allow a great university to compete on equal footing with the average Big Ten athletic department.
Teague revealed much about himself with the announcement.
Ambition? Check. Teague isn’t trying to coax a few extra victories out of women’s cross-country. He is trying to elevate football and basketball, the sports whose revenues raise all ships.
Business-savvy? Check. When was the last time any sports entity in the Twin Cities revealed construction plans or hopes without begging for tax dollars? If Teague gets this done, the new practice facility should be called the Woody Pavilion.
Confidence? Check. Only someone with bravado and a successful track record could, in his first year on the job, fire a Hall of Fame basketball coach and propose to solve all of the university’s sports facilities problems in one privately financed swoop.
Minnesotans are never sure whether to trust the slick outsider. Burned by Lou Holtz’s shtick and angered by Red McCombs’ disingenuousness, many locals felt uncomfortable seeing an unknown guy from a small East Coast school singing the Rouser.
Maybe their fears will prove justified. Teague’s plan is audacious. But the Gophers athletic department needed a time machine to the 21st century, and Teague isn’t afraid to build one in the driveway while the neighbors gawk.
He’s either crazy or good, and either is an upgrade.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org