Eric Kaler’s tenure as University of Minnesota president came to an end this week as Joan Gabel took over as the first female president in school history.
For Kaler it marks the end of a tenure that started in 2011 and included a number of big changes in the athletic department.
He said that in his mind, Gabel is starting in a much better position when it comes to facilities and fundraising than he did, but he said there are still challenges ahead as revenue sports face big questions when it comes to attendance.
“I have tried to leave a university that is well-positioned across the board, and I think that is true in athletics, as well,” he said. “There are always cost pressures. The amount of money needed to be competitive continues to grow, and [athletic director] Mark Coyle and others continue to work hard to generate the revenue to pay those expenses.
“The financial tension that is present in just about every athletic department across the country will be here for President Gabel. I know she has a high interest in athletics and I think will be a great leader for the university.”
One thing that Kaler pointed out is that the Athletes Village already is proving to be a game-changer.
“Athletes Village is a huge upgrade in facilities for us,” he said. “I think that will enable our coaches to recruit more effectively and also enable our student-athletes to have a better experience. I think that’s a facility that has equipped the department to be more competitive going into the future.”
Long road to facilities
Kaler was here to not only see the Athletes Village get built but also a new baseball stadium at Siebert Field and a new track for the cross-country and track and field programs.
He said a lot of the credit for the hard work in those projects goes to people besides himself.
“That was a vision that dates back to [fired former athletic director] Norwood Teague. We agreed that we needed to make those improvements and set out to raise some money to do so. All of that construction has been due to philanthropy, to gifts, or to debt we have taken out and the athletic department is servicing that debt.
“We really have improved the environment for student-athletes across the board.”
Challenges in attendance
Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing the president when it comes to the athletic department is the battle for ticket sales in a city that features the Timberwolves, Vikings, Twins, Wild, Lynx and Loons.
“That is the challenge because there are lots of options for sports fans,” Kaler said. “That is a national trend. It is true that sports fans have lot of options of events to attend in the Twin Cities, and they also have lots of options in staying home and watching in the comfort of their living room on a big-screen TV.
“We need to continue to work to make the fan experience better for Gophers fans as they come to our events, and of course a big part of a good fan experience at a sporting event is having your team win. Continued improvement in those three sports on the playing field or the court or the ice will also help us. I think we have the right coaches in place to make that happen.”
On another pro sports angle, Kaler said he was on the search committee to replace outgoing Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany with former Vikings CFO Kevin Warren, whom he calls one of his close friends.
“I was delighted to see him interview for that job and to ultimately get it,” Kaler said. “He is a terrific human being, a great leader, and I think he will do wonderful things for the Big Ten.”
Kaler did think that the decision to allow beer and wine sales in at Gophers games was a step in the right direction.
“I think it will again be an improvement in the fan experience and goes back to making the whole event more enjoyable for someone who chooses to come watch the Gophers play,” he said.
Difficult coaching moments
Kaler said that when former football coach Jerry Kill resigned because of health issues, it was a difficult day for the university. But he did stand by the way the university handled Kill’s struggle with epilepsy.
“We were very supportive of him during his health challenges and not everybody thought that that was appropriate, but I think we did the right thing in supporting him and enabling him to move on when it became necessary for him to do so,” Kaler said.
How has he felt about the job P.J. Fleck has done as head coach?
“I think everybody would agree that P.J. brings a lot of energy and a unique pace to what he does,” he said. “But Jerry Kill was a good coach for us, as well, until he had his health challenges. I think we’re well set with P.J., and I look forward to his success.”
Great memories remain
Were there any great athletic moments that stood out for him?
“I have a terrific memory of our basketball team beating Indiana when Indiana was ranked No. 1 in the country [in February 2013], and fans storming the court and my wife holding on to my arm so I wouldn’t storm the court, which would have probably been a bad idea,” Kaler recalled. “That is one I particularly enjoyed. The football team beating Wisconsin and bringing home the axe [last season], lots of very good memories, particularly visiting the White House with the women’s hockey team when they won the national championship a few years ago. Lots of good memories.”
Did he have any advice for Gabel?
“The same advice I give everybody: Listen carefully and ask a lot of questions,” Kaler said.
• CBS Sports reports the Chicago Bears have the NFL’s most difficult schedule, according to Super Bowl odds of their opponents, and gave a lot of weight to their first three opponents. The Vikings have the second-hardest schedule.
• The headline in Pro Football Focus read: “Vikings CB Mackensie Alexander is poised for a breakout 2019 campaign.” ...The website also listed the NFL’s best tandems and only the Vikings won two groups: Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs as the best pass-catching tandems and Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith as the best safety tandems.
• It’s a shame that Arnold Palmer, who played in the 3M Championship senior tour event four times in the Twin Cities, attended as a celebrity several times and helped design the TPC Twin Cities course, wasn’t alive to see the 3M Open.
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said to expect big things out of Brevyn Spann-Ford, the redshirt freshman tight end out of St. Cloud: “I think a lot of people are really excited about him. He came in at 224 pounds and now he’s 270. He’s 6-7, 270 and everybody didn’t know if he’d gain the weight and be big enough. Now he’s one of the most athletic and biggest athletes we have.”
• Bovada out of Las Vegas reports that the Twins have the fifth-best odds to win the World Series at 9-1, trailing the Dodgers (11-4), Yankees (4-1), Astros (9-2) and Braves (15-2). The Yankees and Astros are both 2-1 to win the American League and the Twins are 9-2.
• The latest football recruiting rankings by 247 Sports has the Gophers No. 22 overall and No. 5 in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Iowa.
• Say what you want about the Wolves’ decision to trade Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia, but with Butler heading to Miami, the Wolves got Robert Covington and No. 5 pick Jarrett Culver by trading Dario Saric to Phoenix, for half a season of Butler.