All across Minnesota on Wednesday, there were unconfirmed reports of men biting dogs, unicorns riding flying pigs, Democrats lunching with Republicans, and Minnesotans speaking to people with whom they did not attend college.
It was a strange day in the heartland, a day when the University of Minnesota’s bosses concluded an overly long, bafflingly bureaucratic search for an athletic director by hiring someone … qualified?
University President Eric Kaler announced the hiring of Syracuse athletic director Mark Coyle on Wednesday. While the challenges inherent at the state’s only Division I athletic department remain troubling and entrenched, the U’s decisionmakers wound up choosing a legitimate candidate from an accomplished group of applicants.
Coyle is uniquely qualified to run Gophers sports. He has worked and raised funds at Minnesota. He has worked with powerhouse basketball operations at Kentucky and Syracuse. He has overseen a winning football program at Boise State. He has shepherded programs through NCAA sanctions. Whether this is a positive or a negative, at Syracuse he oversaw a football program with great tradition that has had trouble recruiting and winning in the modern era.
In most of these contiguous 48 states, his job at Syracuse might be seen as superior to his new gig at Minnesota. Syracuse is a basketball powerhouse with a great lacrosse program in a region where lacrosse is equivalent to Minnesota hockey.
You have to be from Minnesota to think the Minnesota job is an upgrade. Luckily for Kaler, Coyle identifies himself as being from Minnesota. He choked up early in his news conference when talking about returning to the state. He bragged about bringing Goldy Gopher to his daughter’s birthday party. Coyle is one of those adoptive Minnesotans who becomes attached to the land of black ice and white winters.
“So the question is why Minnesota, and it was very simple for me,’’ Coyle said. “I’ve been in this for a long time. We love this place.’’
Then Coyle required a minute to compose himself.
Over the past few months, people with insights into the search process expressed fear that the university regents and their intent to oversee all aspects of the athletic department was frightening off impressive candidates.
Credit the U for winding up with a solid group from which to choose anyway, and for making a better hire than should have been expected from the people who brought you Norwood Teague, Tim Brewster and Richard Pitino.
Minnesota could have done much worse than Coyle.
We know this because Minnesota has done much worse than Coyle.
Kaler often is aloof, but after the news conference he approached a row of Star Tribune reporters, shook hands, and said, “I think we got this one right.’’
Now for the hard part: Coyle has to run an athletic department featuring a rookie head football coach and a failing young basketball coach. Coyle steps from the podium into the sporting equivalent of quicksand.
Kaler and Coyle spoke glowingly about the quality of Gophers nonrevenue sports. They’re right: Gophers athletics produces excellence on many fronts.
Kaler and Coyle also know that winning in football and men’s basketball is more important financially and perceptually than any number of volleyball Final Fours or conference wrestling championships.
Tracy Claeys will get a chance to prove himself. The most pressing question facing Coyle is how much benefit of the doubt he should give to Pitino, who went 2-16 in the Big Ten last season and has presided over a series of embarrassing actions by his players.
There is no way to predict how Coyle and his new department will perform, but there is reason to believe the university conducted an intelligent search and hired an excellent candidate.
The best moment of the news conference arrived not when Coyle choked up, or mentioned Goldy Gopher, but when he said he doesn’t use search firms to hire coaches.
For too long, the University of Minnesota has substituted bureaucracy for leadership. Coyle appears capable of taking full responsibility for his responsibilities. That would be a welcome change in Dinkytown.