The news Friday that University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler would step down July 1, 2019, a year ahead of his contract, was a big surprise for the school.
But Kaler’s eight-year tenure is a fairly common length of time to serve in such a demanding position. Of the 17 presidents to serve the university, nine will have served eight years or fewer.
Still, there’s no doubt that Kaler’s accomplishments are wide-ranging, and he has overseen drastic changes in the athletic department during turbulent times for the Gophers.
He spoke recently about the state of college athletics.
Kaler’s biggest role with athletics is as the chairman of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, which is on the front line of the battle between the NCAA and NBA to figure out the best way to handle college eligibility and the NBA draft.
After 35 high school players were drafted between 1998 and 2005, the NBA and its players union agreed to implement an age limit of 19 to enter the draft. That had the effect of creating many one-and-done college freshmen, which has changed recruiting for the worse.
“I am pretty heavily involved in the NCAA conversations about basketball and our response to the Rice Commission report,” Kaler said. “... Not everything is under our control. To address the one-and-done phenomena does require the NBA and the NBA Players Association to agree to alter the conditions of their contract with regards to when they’ll draft players.
“The recommendation from the Rice Commission is to eliminate the one-and-done rule, and I believe that is very likely to happen.”
The reports of recruiting violations being uncovered by an FBI investigation have a lot to do with the one-and-done rule, as programs tried to get the best players by any means necessary.
That investigation already has led to men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich being fired by Louisville.
Kaler was asked how rampant he thinks this kind of pay-for-play is in college basketball.
“There certainly have been severe consequences for coaches who have been involved, or alleged to be involved, in recruiting players and involved in the exchange of money either with agents or apparel companies or the families of the players,” he said. “I think an important outcome of this work around the Rice Commission results will be a more transparent and clearer way to set up a recruiting process that can eliminate these kinds of cash payments.”
No more excuses
Kaler has overseen an aggressive $160 million fundraising campaign for new facilities with the sole purpose of competing for better recruits. On top of that, the school has hired new coaches in every major sport over his tenure, including the recent hire of Lindsay Whalen in women’s basketball.
“We’re just thrilled to have her back as a Gopher,” Kaler said. “She’s balancing her responsibilities with the Lynx and the Gophers very, very well.”
Does he think the football program is in a position to end a 51-year championship drought in the Big Ten?
“When I first met P.J. Fleck I said to myself, ‘This is a coach who is going to take somebody to the Rose Bowl, and it sure should be us,’ ” Kaler said. “I have a great deal of confidence in P.J.’s skills. It’s a process. It will be several years of building to the level that we want to be, but I’m fully confident in P.J.’s ability to get the program to the level that will enable it to compete for and win conference championships and be relevant in the national conversation.”
Kaler called the Athletes Village a game-changer and acknowledged that while the university can use some bonds to repay loans off revenue from the athletic department, the main key is to keep fundraising.
He added that the university has now done its part to bridge the gap between the Gophers and programs such as rivals Iowa and Wisconsin. Since Kaler took over in 2011, the Gophers are 0-7 vs. Wisconsin and 2-5 vs. Iowa in football, and 2-12 vs. Wisconsin and 7-7 vs. Iowa in basketball.
“I think it’s a combination of the student-athletes that come, the coaches that we provide for them, and the venues in which they work and compete and study. We’ve addressed those elements,” Kaler said. “I think our facilities are now amongst the best in the conference. I believe we have the pieces in place to be more competitive and that’s been a goal of mine since Day 1.”
Keeping things quiet
And after a number of scandals around the athletic department, Kaler said he believes athletic director Mark Coyle, whom Kaler called “superb,” is getting the department back in line.
“We did have some challenges in the past, but again Mark Coyle has brought a great vision and set of standards to the departments, and I believe our coaches and student-athletes are taking their behavior much more seriously,” Kaler said. “We have had a quiet time, and we’d like to continue to have a quiet time.”
Asked if the university had any statement on the lawsuit that was brought against it by nine football players regarding the 2016 sexual misconduct investigation, Kaler said, “The university will defend itself against any lawsuits that are brought forward, and we don’t have any additional comment on a legal matter that is pending.”
• Pro Football Focus has the Vikings as the favorites to win the NFC North with 38 percent odds, compared to 23 percent for the Packers and Lions and 16 percent for the Bears.
• PFF was less optimistic about the Vikings offensive line, projecting it to be 28th out of 32 teams after finishing 22nd last year. PFF wrote: “The only likely change is if second-round pick Brian O’Neill can win the starting right tackle job. Based on his 1-on-1 performances at the Senior Bowl though, where he won only 27 percent of his reps, he may not be NFL ready anytime soon.”
• While a lot of the focus has been on Kirk Cousins, Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said the team could have a great duo in Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. “The No. 1 thing I like is they’re good teammates,” Polamalu said. “They do the things because they know they care about the other guys and want to do it right.”
• General Manager Rick Spielman on what made wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, a New London-Spicer and Concordia (Moorhead) product, stand out to the Vikings: “Brandon has the size and the speed that we look for. He stuck out up in Canada [in the Canadian Football League] when we scouted there last year. He had a really good workout for us this winter when we brought him in and were able to get him under contract.”
• Athletic director Mark Coyle received a $30,000 bonus when the Gophers finished 19th in the Learfield Directors’ Cup. The highest bonus he can receive according to his contract is $50,000, if the Gophers finish in the top five.
• San Diego Padres closer Brad Hand was named to his second consecutive All-Star Game, and the 28-year-old Chaska High School product again will be the topic of trade talk up to the July 31 trade deadline. Though he has struggled a little bit of late, Hand entered Saturday third in the NL with 24 saves.