SAN DIEGO – Gophers coach Tracy Claeys, athletic director Mark Coyle and university President Eric Kaler each went his separate way after Tuesday night’s Holiday Bowl victory, with Claeys’ future at the football program’s helm still uncertain.
On Wednesday, Claeys flew home to visit family in Kansas, Coyle flew to Idaho with his family and Kaler returned to Minnesota, with an understanding that Claeys and Coyle will reconvene soon, after the dust settles.
With the media seeking answers, Coyle issued another statement: “Now that our football team has completed its season following an exciting win in Tuesday night’s Holiday Bowl, Coach Claeys and I will take this opportunity to reflect on this past season before sitting down together to talk about the future and my expectations for our football program.”
It’s unclear when Claeys and Coyle will meet, but there were indications it won’t be until later this week or early next week.
In the meantime, Claeys and the rest of the coaching staff plan to keep calling recruits, keeping them appraised and selling them on the success of a program coming off its first nine-win season since 2003.
But several sources who spoke to the Star Tribune said they’re not sure how this will end, with Claeys either being kept for 2017 or fired soon.
According to sources, contract extension talks for Claeys never got off the ground in December, even before the program became engulfed in controversy.
On Dec. 13, the university suspended 10 players from the team in connection with an alleged September sexual assault. Gophers players staged a two-day boycott in protest of the administration’s handling of the suspensions that threatened the team’s trip to the Holiday Bowl. Claeys tweeted his support for the players, which publicly aligned him against the administration.
Kaler later said he realized Claeys was in a difficult situation as a coach, but he continues to face public criticism. As of Wednesday night, a moveon.org petition calling for the coach’s termination had drawn 2,788 signatures, compared with 817 in another petition to retain him.
For Coyle and Kaler, the immediate decision will be whether to keep Claeys for 2017, with any extension talks likely to wait until the spring or summer.
Claeys still has two years and $3.1 million remaining on his contract, but the university can buy him out for $500,000. His top nine assistant coaches, including coordinators Jay Sawvel and Jay Johnson, all have one year remaining on their deals, and those salaries are guaranteed at a total of $2.93 million.
So if the university fires Claeys and his staff this winter, the cost would be about $3.43 million — his buyout plus the assistant salaries.
Claeys continued to dismiss questions about his professional future after Tuesday’s victory.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll deal with that. I don’t like doing that with the media. That’s not important. What’s important is you walk into that locker room, you see smiles on all these kids’ faces.”
Back on the Qualcomm Stadium field after the game, Claeys had tears welling in his eyes as he congratulated players and assistant coaches on their second consecutive bowl victory, this one despite being a 10-point underdog.
Beyond the 10 suspended players, the Gophers also were missing starting center Tyler Moore because of a back injury, forcing them to thrust third-stringer Matt Leidner into his first collegiate start.
Kaler could be seen with his arms crossed and a serious look on his face as he stood watching the game on the sideline next to Coyle and other athletic department officials.
But after the victory, Kaler pumped a fist and shared a moment with Claeys, shaking his hand. University Regents chair Dean Johnson was more exuberant, wrapping Claeys in a big hug.
Claeys, who turned 48 on Christmas Day, is 11-8 as the Gophers head coach since replacing Jerry Kill, who resigned in October 2015 because of health reasons.
Kill said he was overcome with pride watching the Holiday Bowl on television. Recently hired to be Rutgers’ offensive coordinator, Kill singled out the coaching effort by Claeys in the wake of the team’s suspensions and threatened bowl boycott.
“That’s probably one of the greatest coaching jobs of all time,” Kill said via telephone. “With all that stuff going on, and all the things those kids have gone through — from their old coach to the new coach to all the stuff they had to handle — that’s flat unbelievable the job those guys did. [Claeys] deserves a darn contract [extension].”
Kill is biased, of course. Claeys was his longtime assistant, and so were most members of the Gophers coaching staff. This call will be made by Coyle and Kaler, and in the first hours of the postseason Wednesday, they passed on making a quick decision.
Joe Christensen covers Gophers football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @JoeCStrib email@example.com