Tracy Claeys had a football team to coach again Sunday.
After a week unlike any other in University of Minnesota history, the head coach was back on the practice field while dealing with the continued fallout from an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault, a two-day boycott that left lingering player tension with the University’s administration, and his own uncertain status with his bosses.
The Gophers football facility has been Turmoil Central for nearly a week, and these difficult days gave Sunday’s first practice after the boycott a different vibe. Supporting sexual assault victims remained a top talking point. Players had to call another meeting Sunday, sources told the Star Tribune, to address simmering frustration with the administration. And the media grilled Claeys about his future.
Claeys told WCCO (830-AM) that when players were headed toward a boycott last week, he told them, “There’s a great chance I could lose my job over this.”
He also knows he took a giant risk by tweeting support for the players during the boycott, positioning himself against the administration.
After Sunday’s practice, Claeys said it’s one thing to support players publicly and another to do it behind closed doors. “You are going to have a group of them that don’t believe you,” he said. “I needed to do that in a public way, and I tried to do it as short as possible. There are probably different ways to word it.”
University President Eric Kaler and Board of Regents chairman Dean Johnson both acknowledged that Claeys was in a difficult situation.
“If he doesn’t support his players and you go to the Holiday Bowl, guess what? I don’t think they’re going to play too hard for you,” Johnson said. “It’s just human nature. On the other hand, he has a boss, like I have a boss. You have to subscribe to what your boss wants you to do.”
Claeys had meetings this weekend with athletic director Mark Coyle and characterized them as “very good.”
“Mark’s a good boss, I’m telling you,” Claeys said.
Claeys still has two years remaining on his contract. After the Gophers lost to Wisconsin to finish the regular season 8-4, Coyle voiced support for Claeys, and sources indicated Claeys and his staff would soon be getting extension offers.
But Claeys said he doesn’t worry about job security.
“I never have,” he said. “I work hard. Our coaches work hard. We do the best we can each day. I don’t want to work for somebody who doesn’t want me working for them, either. Life’s miserable when you do that. I try to do my best every day, and whoever makes those decisions makes those decisions.”
Meanwhile, the Gophers have a game to prepare for again. They’ll fly to San Diego on Friday and face Washington State in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl.
Their practice Sunday was their first since Wednesday, which was followed with a short-yet-heated meeting with Coyle, who suspended 10 players indefinitely last week in the latest fallout from the alleged assault.
Gophers players began their boycott the next day, demanding the suspensions be lifted but stressing that they were most upset with the process. Coyle suspended the 10 players without a hearing.
“I’ve talked to the president about this many times, that somehow we need to take a look at that notification hearing process,” Johnson said. “You know the old adage, ‘You’re innocent until proven guilty?’ I’m not sure that was true in this case. Their pictures are across the wide spectrum, and people just assume they were guilty.”
The Gophers drew national attention to the discussion but generated no concessions from Kaler before ending the boycott Saturday morning. A new storm emerged late that night. Some team members were furious with reports that an 80-page university investigation, which surfaced publicly Friday, had been a “game-changer” for the players in ending their boycott.
A group text went out at 1:45 a.m. Sunday, calling a players-only meeting for noon.
According to sources, some players were convinced the university had planted the notion that the report changed minds, to make it look as if their support had waned for the 10 suspended teammates. A since-deleted tweet from wide receiver Rashad Still said, “Can’t trust our own administration [shaking my head]. Why do this to another human being?”
The angriest players suggested they should immediately reignite the boycott, but a source briefed on the meeting said that talk subsided when the players met.
“We’ll meet each day,” Claeys said. “When you’re dealing with 110 kids, there’s little things here and little things there that come up. So make sure we communicate and get everybody’s focus back on the goal and what we’re trying to do.”
After Sunday’s practice, some players met with Regents Michael Hsu and Darrin Rosha. One goal has been to make sure the public better understands the reasons behind the boycott, something Claeys said the players will announce in the next couple of days.
“We do not support any kind of sexual assault or sexual harassment,” senior Nick Rallis told 830-AM. “We were actually taking a stand against and boycotting how the process was handled.
“Five additional guys were kind of brought into this whole situation [with suspensions], and it wasn’t necessarily explained to us very well. But it was portrayed in the media that they were involved in some kind of sexual assault, and their names were being drug through the mud.”
Sunday night, Minneapolis lawyer Lee Hutton confirmed a KSTP report that he plans to file an injunction on behalf of each suspended player, which would ask a judge to take their appeals out of the university’s legal system and into federal court. The hope is these legal actions would allow the players to return to the team soon, perhaps before the bowl game.
The 10 players were suspended after the university’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action body recommended expulsion for Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson; one-year suspensions from the university for Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr.; and probation for Antonio Shenault.
The Gophers are considering wearing helmet stickers at the Holiday Bowl to raise awareness against sexual violence, according to a source, and they’ve discussed different ways of raising money for sexual violence charities and advocacy groups.
Claeys announced Sunday that he’s donating $50,000 to sexual assault victims.
“You don’t think it bothers me and my family to get messages saying that I support rape?” Claeys said, beginning to choke up. “I would never do that. I’ve got four beautiful nieces and my sister and mom. It was never about that. Fortunately, I’m in a situation where I can reach out and help the people that have been affected by sexual assault. I feel good about doing that.”