As the University of Minnesota expands the national search for its next athletic director, the school could be battling a perception that the eventual choice already has the job.

Interim AD Beth Goetz has drawn repeated praise for her leadership of the department since Aug. 7, when Norwood Teague abruptly resigned. Goetz even made her own hire recently, filling a vacant senior associate AD position.

University President Eric Kaler said this week that this will be “an open national search” for Teague’s permanent replacement. He insisted Goetz “is not a lock.”

But nationally, at least some potential candidates think it’s a done deal.

“There are people who’ve called me to inquire if I knew if it was a legitimate search,” said former Gophers AD McKinley Boston. “And I told them I have no idea.

“The people that call are potential candidates. They want to know if they should put their names out there and then be put at risk at their home universities for applying for a job when they have a job.”

Boston’s comments echoed those made by three college sports administrators in interviews with the Star Tribune. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity, so their current schools wouldn’t know they’re open to leaving.

“I’m interested,” one said, “but I don’t just want to be run through the mill.”

The university hired Turnkey Search for $150,000 plus expenses to assist in the search. Kaler said, “A firm like Turnkey allows us to maintain the sort of confidentiality needed to recruit candidates who are already employed in top athletics programs.”

But later in the process, especially when semifinalists are being interviewed by a 16-member search committee, candidates’ names could leak.

When Illinois hired Josh Whitman as its AD last month, for example, the Chicago Tribune reported that the school had interviewed or at least pursued Colorado AD Rick George, Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier, Eastern Illinois AD Tom Michael, Central Michigan AD Dave Heeke and Maryland deputy AD Kelly Mehrtens.

“The biggest problem with managing college athletics is you’re managing emotion,” said Boston, who spent 35 years as an athletics administrator. “As soon as a significant donor knows that you’re a candidate at another school, then that person thinks that you’re no longer committed to them.

“They’re investing in you and your leadership, and so the risk at that point is significant. So that’s why people don’t necessarily want to be linked to jobs unless they think they have a legitimate chance of getting the job.”

Boston played for the Gophers’ 1967 Big Ten championship football team, and he served as Minnesota’s AD from 1991 to 1995 and later served as vice president for student development and athletics from 1995-99. He resigned after an academic scandal rocked the men’s basketball program, but went on to spend a decade as New Mexico State’s AD before retiring last year.

Goetz came to Minnesota from Butler, where she was the associate athletic director and senior woman administrator from 2008 to 2013. Previously, she spent 11 years at the University of Missouri-St. Louis as the head women’s soccer coach and senior woman administrator.

Goetz served as deputy AD under Teague and took over as interim when he resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed two members of Kaler’s senior leadership team. Goetz has taken the department from that dark, low point and quietly built support during the past seven-plus months.

At the Board of Regents meetings in February, for example, several school officials went out of their way to commend her performance.

Kaler said Goetz will go through the “exact same vetting and interview process” as everyone else for this job.

“I understand that we have a strong internal candidate,” Kaler said, acknowledging it be “human nature,” to assume the deck is stacked in her favor.

Earlier this month, Goetz hired Ayo Taylor-Dixon as a senior associate AD, who will oversee marketing and sales. Taylor-Dixon, who held a senior associate AD position at the University of Northern Colorado, has already started at Minnesota.

His hiring only fueled the national perception that Goetz is a slam-dunk to get the job.

“She and I talked about that and I told her — and she told the person [Taylor-Dixon] that she hired — ‘I might not be here,’ ” Kaler told the Star Tribune. “And he came into that with eyes wide open.”

With a stated goal of filling the permanent AD post by July 1, Kaler might have to convince other potential candidates that he’s keeping his eyes wide open, too.