University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle moved quickly — and appropriately — to fire Tracy Claeys after the football coach sided with his players against the administration in the recent scandal of sexual assault allegations against multiple players.
In explaining the decision, Coyle noted that upon accepting the AD position six months ago, he had pledged to build a program that “competed at the highest level academically, athletically and socially.” He has a long way to go. Dumping Claeys was a first step. Even after a 9-4 season, no one can tolerate a coach who appears more interested in buddying up to his players than in upholding the standards that student-athletes are expected to live by.
But much more must be done to change course at the U, not only by Coyle, but by university President Eric Kaler with strong oversight from the Board of Regents. This is not the first time a men’s athletic program has been embroiled in scandal. Even Sports Illustrated, which follows college sports all over the country, has asked, “Why does stuff like this keep happening at Minnesota?”
Why indeed. That is the essential question that must be asked, answered and dealt with, and it’s going to take more than the firing of a coach who clearly was not able to put the interests of the university first. It takes more than winning on the field. It takes genuine leadership, from the top down. Coyle, it should be remembered, is in his position only because the previous athletic director, Norwood Teague, resigned in disgrace, after reports that he was sexually harassing female co-workers and others.
Coyle spoke of changing the “culture” of the football program. Minnesotans want to hear more about that, what he’s seen, what needs changing, and just how it came to be that some heavily subsidized student-athletes allegedly felt entitled to break their code of conduct and engage in behavior that, while failing to merit legal action, was nevertheless reprehensible. If Coyle is to make a fresh start, he should be willing to talk openly and honestly about what needs changing in men’s athletics and hire a coach who can carry out that vision in the football program.
Kaler, who hired Teague, is now on his third athletic director in less than six years. There has been too much transition and turmoil in sports programs that are too seldom in the news for their achievements.
Sports should be an asset to the university, an add-on that builds character, community and, occasionally, the glory that exceptional performance on the field can bring. It’s also critical to recognize that the U is more than that. It’s one of the top 25 research universities in the country, with some of the nation’s best programs in chemical engineering, pharmacy, law, primary medical care and business.
Right now the university is deep into a project to create a $166 million athletes village. Before that facility opens in 2018, it would be good to ensure that the staff and athletes who will benefit are committed to high integrity and the combination of athletic and academic achievement that should mark a student-athlete at the state’s top university.