First-year University of Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle fired football coach Tracy Claeys and most of the team’s assistants Tuesday while calling for a cultural overhaul in Gophers sports.
Coyle gave a blistering assessment of the football program, which has been engulfed in turmoil for three weeks, and declared Tuesday night a need for more “integrity and class” across athletics.
Gophers football has been roiling since Dec. 13, when Coyle suspended 10 players in connection with an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault. The players responded with a two-day boycott, and Claeys publicly supported their stance, pitting him against the administration.
The Gophers ended their boycott and upset Washington State in the Holiday Bowl last week, finishing 9-4 in their best season since 2003. But a week later, Coyle made the decision to fire Claeys while eyeing sweeping change.
“When I was hired six months ago, I committed to everyone that we would have a program that competed at the highest level academically, athletically and socially,” Coyle said. “With that as my foundation, I thought it was in the best long-term interest of our football program to make this change now.”
Coyle reversed course after saying in late-November that Claeys and his staff would be back for next season. The players changed the equation Dec. 13 when they decided to boycott despite their coach telling them it could cost him his job.
Before informing Claeys on Tuesday, Coyle spent five hours meeting with University President Eric Kaler, Board of Regents Chairman Dean Johnson, Regents Vice Chairman David McMillan, general counsel Douglas Peterson and other school officials.
Coyle said he made the decision to fire Claeys himself and thanked Kaler and the others for their support.
Describing the meeting, Johnson said, “A lot of questions were asked today and finally director Coyle said he would like to make a change, and you have to take a step back, which I did. I walked down the hall and took a good drink of water.
“And I said, ‘If this is what the president and athletic director wish for our department of athletics, then we have to go with it, trust them that they’ll bring us to a different level and different culture and an even more successful program going forward.’ ”
After the Holiday Bowl win, Coyle said he and Claeys would take time to “reflect.” Tuesday was the first time they were both back on campus.
“I think it was important after the bowl game — you don’t want to make decisions based on emotion,” Coyle said.
Claeys confirmed that he had been fired but could not be reached for further comment. Asked how Claeys took the news, Coyle said, he was “professional. He was disappointed, but he understood.”
Speculation will start immediately on who will replace Claeys, with Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, former LSU coach Les Miles and Boise State’s Bryan Harsin (a Coyle hire when he worked at Boise State) among the names being tossed around.
“I have received phone calls from people [regarding candidates],” Coyle said. “We will move as quickly as we can to find the best fit for Minnesota.”
Claeys, 48, went 11-8 as Gophers head coach, including 2-0 in bowl games, after replacing Jerry Kill in 2015.
“I guess my first reaction is total shock,” Kill said of Claeys’ firing. “I think they’re making a huge mistake. I know what kind of person Tracy is, and what kind of people the assistant coaches are, and their families, and they’re giving up a lot.
“It’s shocking. It’s sad, and I don’t think it’s fair in my opinion. To put people’s lives in limbo until Tuesday; how would anybody like to have their family go through that?”
Coyle fired seven of Claeys’ assistant coaches — including offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel — while retaining linebackers coach Mike Sherels and safeties coach Dan O’Brien.
A spokesman said athletics will spend up to about $5 million fulfilling the departing staff’s contracts, including a $500,000 buyout for Claeys.
“It’s a sad day for Minnesota football,” former quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “It’s a scary thing when an administration fires a coach for standing up for his players. It’s going to be very challenging for another coach to want to come into this situation.”
The Gophers hadn’t won nine games in a season since they went 10-3 in 2003. But the on-field story was eventually overshadowed by the continuing fallout from an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault.
Hennepin County has twice reviewed the case and declined to press charges, but a school investigation led Coyle to suspend 10 players from the team on Dec. 13. When the players launched their boycott two days later, Claeys tweeted: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”
Asked what impact that tweet had on his decision, Coyle said, “This isn’t about one specific incident. … I think the events over the past few weeks underscored the concerns and some of the things I’ve been seeing in that program.”
Coyle pledged a better image for Gophers athletics when he took office June 1. For the past year, the department’s troubles have often overshadowed sports success.
The men’s basketball team suspended three players last spring when a sex video was posted to a player’s social media account. Another player was suspended this summer while the university investigated a sexual assault allegation. A drug problem permeated the wrestling program, resulting in the firing of a longtime coach. The year before, Coyle’s predecessor, Norwood Teague, resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
“We have teams winning the Big Ten Conference championships, teams going to the Final Four, and we are not talking about those things,” Coyle said.
“What I am trying to do is to build a culture of excellence. I’m trying to build a department,” he added. “… You can do things the right way, and you can win at the highest level, and you can graduate your students, and that’s what we’re going to strive for every day.”
Claeys viewed this season as the best of the six since Kill’s staff arrived. The Gophers went 5-4 in the Big Ten, blowing second-half leads in each of their four losses. “I saw a team that competed,” Coyle said. “But … it was an overall evaluation of the program and moving forward, we want to find a leader who embraces what Minnesota is all about.”
The Gophers have the Big Ten’s lowest-ranked recruiting class, and Coyle cited concerns about ticket sales. The Gophers averaged 43,814, their smallest average attendance since 2002.
“I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program,” Coyle said. “We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges.”