My name is Tracy Claeys, and I coach college football. I’ve been a football coach for 23 years. From Saginaw Valley State in Michigan to Emporia State University in my home state of Kansas. From Southern Illinois University to Northern Illinois — and eventually to the University of Minnesota.
Over the years, that has added up to countless practices, film sessions and game days. I’ve had the good fortune to be part of a successful coaching staff and the opportunity to lead a great program as the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
And through it all, the focus has been on the players, those 18- to 22-year-olds you mentor about respecting others, going to class and working hard. And that if you get out of line, in football or in life, there are consequences.
Much like parents or teachers, we as coaches define a culture and strive every day to support and maintain it. To me, that’s a mark of leadership.
However, a review released last week questioned my leadership, and that of my coaches, concerning the suspensions of U of M football players last fall and the decision by players to boycott the Holiday Bowl (“Review finds U followed law in football suspension case,” August 17).
To better understand that decision, let’s look back at how we got there.
Last September, I suspended five players for a reported sexual assault. When law enforcement authorities the following month declined to file any charges, the university reinstated those players. At the time, I was congratulated by our athletic director for my handling of this issue and promised that I would remain the head football coach in 2017.
But university officials soon conducted their own inquiry and in December resuspended the five players and suspended five more — again, even though prosecutors had determined there was no basis for formal charges.
Members of our Football Leadership Group and others on the team felt strongly that administration officials had overstepped their authority and that the accused players were treated unfairly and denied protection under due process. To amplify their argument and shine light on what players felt was a flawed and unjust process by the university, the team voted to boycott the Holiday Bowl.
It was a decision that moved us directly into the national spotlight. Unfortunately, some misunderstood or misinterpreted the players’ decision to boycott the Holiday Bowl. They felt that our team and coaches were condoning or downplaying sexual misconduct or assault. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
In light of this new report, are there things I would have done differently? Certainly. First and foremost, I would have remained on campus with my team and coaches rather than attend a Holiday Bowl news conference in San Diego. I’m confident that my presence would have better directed the conversation with our players and that I could have steered them toward something other than a decision to boycott the game.
I also would have refrained from using social media to state my support of the team’s decision. This was too complex and important an issue to address in a 140-character message. It generated more questions than it answered and likely created more problems than it solved.
If that’s proof of “weak leadership” as outlined in the recent Dorsey & Whitney report, then I’m guilty and accept responsibility. If the same goes for refusing to pull the scholarships of those players who voted to boycott the bowl game, as a number of people demanded, then I’m weak there, as well.
I like to think, though, that as a coach I respected my team’s decision, responsibly addressed the situation and quickly defused the boycott. Could it have been handled more smoothly? Maybe. Could it have gone much worse? Without a doubt.
Through it all, we wound up beating Washington State in the Holiday Bowl and finished the season 9-4. That marked only the second time since 1905 that the University of Minnesota’s storied football program won nine games or more in a season. This was a point of pride for our coaching staff.
We were also extremely proud of our student-athletes’ success in the classroom. Our Graduation Success Rate last year was the highest ever, our Academic Progress Rate was the second-best in the nation among FBS public universities and our cumulative team GPA was an impressive 3.03.
Those things don’t just happen by chance. A lot of really good people put in a ton of work to reach those standards. Every coach and staff member had a clear understanding of the value of academics in preparing our young men for life beyond football. We owed it to the players but, more important, we owed it to their parents. It was part of our culture.
Meanwhile, whatever happened to those five “additional” players who were suspended by the university in December? They were reinstated during the spring semester and will be on the 2017 roster — fulfilling their dream to play football for the University of Minnesota. They persevered, and I wish them and the entire team nothing but success this season.
In the months that have passed since the Holiday Bowl and my dismissal as the University of Minnesota football coach, I’ve thought a lot about last season and what might help to move us forward. At the end of the day it is this: Be truthful, hold yourself and others accountable, be mindful of the feelings of others and respect their right to express them.
Sometimes as coaches we learn more from the players than they learn from us. And that’s a pretty good lesson in leadership.
Tracy Claeys coached football at the University of Minnesota for six seasons. He was head coach in 2016.