In an interview this past week, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said that even though the football team had a rough season, he continues to believe in coach P.J. Fleck.
But Kaler also noted that there are issues not only with football attendance but with the wide-ranging investigation into college basketball recruiting.
Q How do you feel about your decision to fire Tracy Claeys and hire P.J. Fleck, do you have any regrets?
A I think it was pretty clear that we needed to make a change with Tracy and his staff. It was a matter of communication with the team and where he was in recruiting, a variety of elements. But then I continue to think we hit a home run with P.J. It is going to take a couple of years to get where he wants to be, but I firmly believe he will lead this program to very high levels.
Q Will the program suffer financially going forward? They averaged just over 44,000 fans, ninth in the Big Ten.
A We’ll see. He’s just brought on a new quarterback who looks to be a pretty talented person. A lot of injuries this year, across the receiver core, across the offensive line. We’ll see. I’ve got a lot of confidence that P.J. will get us in a good place next year. We have some strong returning players as well. I’d sign up to be a Gophers fan next year, for sure.
Q He is good at public relations.
A He has a lot of energy, a motivational style around him that I enjoy a great deal. Not everybody does, not everybody is a P.J. fan, but [athletic director] Mark [Coyle] and I are. I have confidence that he’ll move us forward.
Q What about the “Row the Boat” campaign?
A It’s a catchphrase. It has worked for him in the past. If you look at what he did at Western Michigan that is a pretty remarkable turnaround. He took over a Western Michigan program that was in worse shape than our Gophers program by quite a bit and got them to the Cotton Bowl and one interception away from potentially winning it. That is the guy I want to see coaching our Gophers.
Q Do you get complaints about his style?
A I get a diversity of opinion on almost all topics athletic, I really do. There certainly is a group of people who are disappointed with P.J. and certainly are disappointed with the two losses at the end. I know P.J. is very disappointed in those as well. But changing coaching direction and rebuilding is a process and we need to stick with the time necessary to get that done.
Q The basketball program appears to be coming back.
A [Richard Pitino] has them back. Certainly the injury to [Eric] Curry was not a good one, and hopefully he’ll continue to excel in the classroom and get himself back healthy for next year and have a medical redshirt for him. But you look down in the post where Reggie Lynch is, they take up a lot of room down by the post, and [Jordan] Murphy and Lynch are occupying a lot of the paint. Obviously [Nate] Mason is one of the best if not the best in the Big Ten and the country. You have [Isaiah] Washington, who has a flair for the ball as a freshman. Amir Coffey is absolutely superb and they have a team that is pretty formidable.
Q How do you feel about the different basketball issues and someone like Rick Pitino getting fired from Louisville, how do you help with those kind of situations here?
A I think we’re in kind of an interesting space in the NCAA between the AAU amateur high school age organization that feeds the NCAA, and the NBA, of course, which takes the best players out of the NCAA. I think we need conversations about what those relationships look like.
Q The one-and-done rule with the NBA seems to be a failure.
A I’m not a member of the [Condoleezza] Rice commission, but as the chair of the [NCAA Division I board of directors] we will be charged with implementing recommendations that they make. I would be certainly surprised if there’s not some conversations about that one-and-done rule, which is a reflection of the age limit that the NBA has imposed for draft eligibility.
Q Do you feel good about the facilities? Any regrets about going into debt with some short-term loans?
A No, heavens no. We desperately need those facilities to enable our student-athletes to be competitive and to enable our coaches to recruit. That was the right thing to do. We’ll continue to raise private money for that. We have the capacity to debt finance given the revenue streams that come to us from the Big Ten Network. No regrets on that at all. It was exactly the right thing to do and something we really, really needed.
Q A big plus for academics and recruiting?
A Our academics are just superb right now. We’re the best public institution in APR, Academic Progress Rate, and that is a real testament to our coaching staff, our academic support services and the dedication of our student athletes. We are right at the top now. These facilities will continue to enable our student-athletes to improve and continue to enable them to be more competitive as they enter the business world and I think just make Minnesota an even more attractive place for student athletes to be.
Q Wisconsin beating the Gophers 14 times in a row, someday you have to do something about that?
A You know, Sid, we’re building a $160 million athletic facility, I hired one of the best young coaches in college football, and if we can’t get it done with those two combinations, then there probably really is a jinx and we’re going to have to do something else.
• The Falcons and the Vikings have the same odds to win the Super Bowl at 12-1, which is tied for fourth, according to the website Bovada. The Patriots have the best odds at 5-2. The Eagles are 7-2 and the Steelers 6-1.
• Vikings cornerback Terence Newman on facing Atlanta star Julio Jones, who broke the record for most receptions (563) and yards (8,649) in his first 90 NFL games last week: “He’s a great receiver who possess size, quickness, great hands. He’s able to go get balls that a lot of people can’t go get.”
• Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, the former Gophers great in his ninth year with NBC, is high on the Falcons and picks them to win the NFC South.
• Twins President Dave St. Peter talked about Joe Mauer’s contract being up at the end of the 2018 season: “We don’t know of anything to suggest that he doesn’t want to continue playing after 2018, but we will never take that for granted. At the end of the day we’ll have that discussion. I do believe Joe wants to win, and I believe he wants to play in Minnesota.”
• One trade target the Twins could go after is San Diego All-Star Brad Hand. The lefthander from Chaska had a 2.16 ERA and struck out 104 hitters in 79⅓ innings.
• Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher doesn’t have a timeline on Zach Parise’s return but said his star forward is progressing from October back surgery: “I think he’s in a much better place mentally and physically and from a pain standpoint. That is the most important thing, and he’ll just continue to rehab.”
• Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino stayed on the East Coast following his team’s two victories in New York last weekend, trying to land more top eastern recruits like he did a year ago.
• New Mexico announced it would not retain Bob DeBesse, who just completed his sixth season as offensive coordinator. He served in that role with the Gophers under Jim Wacker from 1992 to ’96.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. email@example.com