Mark Coyle invited Lindsay Whalen to his home the day before she officially became the Gophers women’s basketball coach. Coyle wanted to discuss contract details.
Coyle’s two sons met Whalen but didn’t know why she was in their home. The next day, after Coyle pulled off a shocker, his eighth-grade son, Nicholas, was none too pleased with being kept in the dark.
“We could have played basketball,” he told his dad.
That moment encapsulates Coyle’s first two years as Gophers athletic director. He’s hired a lot of coaches, conducted stealth searches and landed his top target in each case.
He also has saved the university considerable money by opting not to use outside search firms to assist the process.
“We’ve been very blessed to get the people that we targeted,” Coyle said. “That doesn’t always happen.”
Friday marked the second anniversary of Coyle’s hiring. In that time, he has replaced six of his department’s 21 head coaches, a turnover rate that he admits is “absolutely nuts.”
What’s particularly revealing is that without repeated rejections he hasn’t been forced to scroll deep down his list of candidates.
P.J. Fleck was his top choice for football. Bob Motzko was his top choice for men’s hockey. And Whalen was his top choice for women’s basketball.
“I got said no to a lot in high school,” Coyle said, smiling. “It’s not fun.”
Getting his first choice doesn’t guarantee it will be the right choice, but Coyle has displayed aggressiveness in making hires. His public persona is one of understatedness. He prefers to operate in the background. But he conducts coaching searches with self-confidence.
Coyle keeps a folder with spreadsheets that contain lists of coaches whom he would contact for job openings. He updates those lists periodically. He also trusts feedback from his connections around the country.
“I don’t want to talk to [a candidate] who wants a raise at their current institution,” he said.
Hiring coaches is a “very visible” part of his job that requires urgency because recruiting never sleeps, Coyle said. Hiring coaches in the most visible sports — football especially — often defines athletic directors and determines their future employment status.
“It doesn’t stress me out, which is weird because I worry about everything,” Coyle said. “That part, I just feel really prepared.”
Coyle typically interviews job candidates at his house. But his family was moving into a new home during his hockey search so interviews had to be held in a different location for privacy.
“I had workers [at my house],” he said.
Two phone calls solidified his decision to offer Whalen the job. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve blew him away with her sales pitch. Coyle then cold-called UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who told him Whalen would be an “absolute home run.”
Coyle hopes that proves true. On all his hires.
Year 1 in the transition to Fleck encountered challenges and disappointing results, but drawing conclusions at this point is unfair. It’s too soon to render a verdict on any hire after one year.
“I get that patience is a four-letter word,” Coyle said. “We needed to shake the tree. That’s not being disrespectful to anybody before. But in my opinion, we just needed something different.”
Coyle didn’t hire Pitino, but he continues to express faith in him after a season ruined by injuries and Reggie Lynch’s expulsion.
“I’m very comfortable and confident in Richard,” Coyle said.
Football and men’s basketball are tone-setters, so leaps by those two programs would alter the department’s narrative. Completion of the $166 million Athletes Village should be a game-changer, too.
Coyle recalled a conversation he had with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez at Big Ten meetings soon after being hired.
“You’re successful when people stop making excuses,” Alvarez said.
That message has stuck with Coyle.
“We need to stop making excuses, and we need to embrace the opportunity we have in front of us,” he said.
An immaculate new facility eliminates one major excuse. That complex paired with a wave of new coaches gives the department a vastly different appearance two years into Coyle’s tenure. As he relaxed in a coffee shop this past week, he sounded optimistic about a big payoff.
“I truly feel like we’re on the verge of taking that next step,” he said.