Hutchinson, MINN. – Early on Mark Coyle’s first day as athletic director, the Gophers’ coach bus pulled up to the immaculate greens at Crow River Country Club and a banquet room full of fans awaiting the new boss’ first remarks.
Goldy Gopher came bounding off, and Coyle followed, having time to shake only a few hands before being whisked away to a throng of TV cameras and reporters.
Forty-six seconds into his first media session, Coyle was asked to address the Gophers wrestling program’s drug abuse controversy that roiled the athletics department in the week leading to his arrival.
“We hit the ground running,” he said Wednesday at the opening stop for this year’s Gopher Road Trip caravan. “I did not know all the details of this when I got the job, but obviously I’ve been brought up to speed quickly.”
The 47-year-old Waterloo, Iowa, native with the reputation of putting troubled athletics programs back on solid footing made his debut amid a cloud that hung over his Day 1 festivities. Earlier that morning, Coyle met with wrestling coach J Robinson, who is at the center of both the university’s investigation and the university police’s probe, and told the 30-year coach the school was placing him on paid administrative leave.
Facing the media, Coyle fielded questions about what the administration knew before he arrived, the department’s morale and the NCAA’s banned substance list, among other things. Coyle answered what he could while trying to convey his excitement for his return to Minnesota — where he worked in athletic administration from 2001 to 2005 — and express his desire to be thorough in his evaluations.
“I want to get a feel for what’s going on in the department, what I can do to help this program achieve the great things we want to achieve,” he said. “I think it’s important to listen. You’ve got to get the information. Stuff comes at you quickly, and I want to make sure we take the time to listen and understand, and then make the best decisions for our program.”
In the days ahead, he’ll make many complicated decisions. But after a five-minute flurry of questions Tuesday, a day that was supposed to be about pomp and circumstance and the kickoff of a new era continued.
Mike Grimm, the radio voice of the Gophers and the emcee of the Hutchinson event, took the podium and joyously invited Goldy on stage.
“You know the drill,” Grimm hooted to the crowd. “You’ve got to be loud and proud!”
At Grimm’s request, Coyle got the chant for the mascot’s trademark trick going: Spin-Your-Head.
Minutes earlier, though, frustrations simmered around the mostly full room of about 200 Gophers supporters and fans.
“He better not screw it up,” Tyrone Wacker, 71, said of Coyle with half-grin, half-growl. “I’m getting tired of all the chaos. I really wish this guy well. … There’s too much turmoil going on. Every time you pick up the paper, there is something else going on. It’s really tough staying loyal.”
Not everyone was so ready to express such concern.
Deron Johnson, a 1995 Minnesota graduate, sounded more measured despite a year that has seen the former AD, Norwood Teague, resign amid accusations of sexual harassment, the men’s basketball team post the most losses in school history and an outbreak of off-court issues make headlines.
“I will support them because I know they’ll get the right people in, and I think the new athletic director was the first step,” he said. “I think they found the right man.”
Both Grimm, who also acknowledged the Gophers have taken some “self-inflicted hits” in his opening comments, and Coyle tried to promote highlights.
Before the session, which included appearances from football coach Tracy Claeys and volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, a video touted the peaks of 2015-16: women hockey’s national title, several Big Ten championships. Coyle smiled widely, talked of his positive Minnesota memories and pointed out “there are a lot of special things going on in this department.”
It’s a narrative many in the room were hoping to hear and even more eager to see.
“Hopefully he can pump us up a little bit,” Dick Cosek, 67, said before the event began. “We’re kind of depressed about everything. We were looking for big expectations and instead of going higher, we’re going lower.
“We want to hear some positives.”