University of Minnesota Board of Regents chair Dean Johnson voiced strong support for Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys on Sunday but said any decision regarding Claeys’ contract will be made by athletic director Mark Coyle.
Coyle has yet to say which way he’s leaning, but university officials expect him to publicly address Claeys’ future soon. The Gophers closed their 8-4 regular season by blowing a 10-point second-half lead in Saturday’s 31-17 loss at Wisconsin.
Johnson said all Minnesota fans were disappointed with the team’s 13th consecutive loss to Wisconsin.
“But when you look at these matters, you have to look at the totality of the season, and 8-4 is very respectable,” Johnson said. “Tracy Claeys, in my opinion, has done a very good job. He’s assembled a great coaching staff with great values.
“The grade-point averages for the football team have increased, the graduation rate has increased, and those are all positive, positive things.”
Claeys still has two years remaining on his three-year, $4.5 million contract, but the deal includes a relatively small buyout — about $500,000.
It’s worth noting that Claeys’ nine assistant coaches are all under contract through next season. Even if he were fired, their salaries — a combined $2.93 million — are guaranteed. So it’s much more than a $500,000 decision.
Coyle was hired away from Syracuse in May, and is said to have a strong working relationship with Claeys. It’s been widely expected that Coyle either will extend Claeys’ contract for recruiting purposes, or replace him.
“Should Tracy Claeys be given an extension?” Johnson said. “Like anybody, you’d like to have some security, we understand that. And also for recruiting — recruits want to know who they’re going to play for — we understand that. But I think the decision will be made by the athletic director in consultation with the president.”
Johnson said he speaks almost daily with university President Eric Kaler, and together, they’ve put their trust in Coyle, whose five-year deal pays him a base salary of $850,000.
Coyle has run two football coaching searches in the past three years. In 2013, when he was the AD at Boise State, Chris Peterson left for Washington and Coyle replaced him with Bryan Harsin, who has gone 31-8 in three seasons.
Last year at Syracuse, Coyle fired Scott Shafer with one week remaining in the regular season and the Orange at 3-8. Two weeks later, he replaced him with Dino Babers, who went 4-8 this year.
Coyle watched the Gophers take advantage of their schedule, with their wins coming against teams with a combined 35-60 record and their losses coming against teams that went 37-11.
The four losses were by a combined 31 points, all fairly close. The Gophers rode a strong defense and increased their scoring average from 22.5 to 30.3 under new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson.
The Gophers will learn their bowl destination Sunday. Claeys hit the recruiting trail after Sunday’s team banquet, in another sign Minnesota is sticking with him.
“You look around the country; Les Miles loses two games [at LSU] — he’s gone,” Dean Johnson said. “Charlie Strong loses to Kansas, he’s packing his bags. I don’t think we exactly do it that way in Minnesota. We take our time. We’re thoughtful. We want to be strategic and look at the grand picture of our athletic department and our coaches, their values, but most importantly our student-athletes.
“When all is said and done, stability is a good thing. Stability in any program — and yes, with appropriate adjustments — but you start changing out personnel, you’ve got these players who have to get to know new coaches. So I err on the side of stability.”
Besides his work for the regents, Johnson has spent the past 43 years as a pastor at Calvary Lutheran in Willmar, Minn.
“All these people want to win,” Johnson said. “Even in church this morning, people had all kinds of Sunday morning quarterback suggestions. I listened and listened, and then I told them, ‘Have a nice day, but I’m grumpy.’ ”
Mitch Leidner threw four second-half interceptions against the Badgers, after throwing critical fourth-quarter picks in the close losses at Penn State and Nebraska.
“Do we want to beat Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa? Absolutely,” Johnson said. “And just generally speaking, I’m confident that that’s going to happen under this rebuilding program. Recruiting will be better with our new Athletes Village.
“Having said all that, it’s only my opinion. I have the full trust in Mark Coyle to make the right decision.”