Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said that he knows there are a lot of questions surrounding the contracts of some of his coaches, perhaps most notably men’s hockey coach Don Lucia, but he said for the most part he likes what he has seen from them.
“We’ve got a great group of coaches across the board in all of our sports,” Coyle said. “[Women’s basketball] coach [Marlene] Stollings came back and had a great year this past year.”
Stollings has a contract that runs through the 2020-21 season and the fact that the team has rallied to reach the NCAA tournament should end the discussion about her status.
“Excited for coach Stollings and our women’s basketball team,” Coyle said. “We’re excited about their 22-win season.”
Yes, Stollings and that Gophers squad will get a great test Friday when they face off with Wisconsin-Green Bay in Oregon in the first round.
When it comes to Lucia, his contract is always a hot topic of debate because the Gophers haven’t won a NCAA championship since they went back-to-back in 2002 and 2003, even though they have reached the tournament in five of the past six seasons and reached the Frozen Four in 2012 and 2014.
Lucia still has one more year on his contract, and it’s hard to imagine Coyle would fire him if the team made the tournament Sunday.
Still, the Gophers failed to win the Big Ten for the first time since the conference was created in 2013, and Coyle wouldn’t give a definitive answer on whether or not Lucia would be back.
“With men’s hockey we haven’t shied away from that. We have a hockey program that should be competing for championships each year,” he said. “Obviously we’re ranked 13th in the country [in the PairWise], and we’ll find out March 18th where we’ll play in the NCAA tournament. We’ll continue to evaluate that program like we do all the programs.
“Coach Lucia is in his 19th year and I have a lot of respect for what he has done for our program and how he operates.”
Hoops program hurt
When it comes to head coach Richard Pitino, there’s almost no question he will be back next season after a ton of injuries hurt a team that started 13-3 but finished 2-14 down the stretch.
In Pitino’s case, Coyle said that the Gophers recruiting class for next season, which ranks 36th in the country according to ESPN, along with the return of injured players, should make for a much better squad.
“I think we have a strong recruiting class coming in. It’s hard. People forget we lost Eric Curry at the start of the season to a knee injury. And having Curry back and getting Amir Coffey back — he had successful surgery — so getting Amir back, and Dupree McBrayer, I’ll tell you what he gutted it out all year, he had injuries all year and he competed and played hard,” Coyle said. “If we can get those guys back healthy, get our freshman in here, I’m confident coach Pitino and that staff will be competing for Big Ten Championships like we want to do.”
Fleck, year two
The biggest move of Coyle’s tenure so far was the firing of football coach Tracy Claeys and the hiring of P.J. Fleck. Coyle said that ticket sales are going well for the 2018-2019 season.
“I think people are excited for Year 2 with coach Fleck. He went out and did a phenomenal job with his recruiting class, I believe our recruiting class is ranked first in the Big Ten West, in the Top 30-35 in the country, places we haven’t been for a long time,” Coyle said. “You have to get talented players and you have to coach them and we’re very confident P.J. is doing those two things.”
Coyle said he thinks the biggest thing for Fleck and the university is creating a stable coaching environment with the players, and so far he says that is happening.
“P.J., he came in here and we had had three head coaches in three years, and P.J. came in here, and I give a lot of credit to our football student-athletes, they responded to coach Fleck, they bought in,” Coyle said. “We’ve had our highest academic semesters with coach Fleck here, and I know they’re working awfully hard off the field and working hard on the field. We have no reason to believe we can’t have great success if we continue to build this thing the right way.”
While it might seem that the Gophers’ ability to build their Athletes Village was the culmination of their fundraising efforts, Coyle detailed how that process remains ongoing.
When Coyle was hired, the Gophers administration and boosters pointed out how great he has been at raising money for several schools during his career. That has continued at the U.
“Athletes Village is a big piece of the puzzle for our department,” he said. “We need to look at our gymnastics programs, both [men’s head coach] Mike Burns and [women’s head coach] Jenny Hansen do a phenomenal job with our programs — in fact they both have two freshman on each of their teams that are just outstanding.
“We need to look at our gymnastics programs next, but the most important thing is we just need to continue to build and do things the right way. Our goal is to build a first-class experience for all of our coaches and student-athletes and we won’t rest until we can do that for all 25 programs.”
Towns on fire
The Timberwolves entered one of the toughest stretches of their season without All-Star Jimmy Butler, who still is rehabbing from meniscus surgery, but reports are that Butler is making great progress and will definitely be ready if the team makes the playoffs.
But in his absence a number of players have stepped up, most notably fellow All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns.
In the Wolves’ 116-111 win on the road over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday, Towns finished with 37 points and 10 rebounds, it was his 30th career 30-point game and set a single season high for points.
After the Wolves win over the Warriors on Sunday, when Towns had 31 points and 16 rebounds, he talked about how the team is ready for this challenge.
“You don’t ever want to have pressure turn to stress,” Towns said. “We have to make sure that we keep our composure. With the situation we’re in, it’s a lot of pressure on us but we can’t turn that to stress because that’s when we start becoming undisciplined and start making errors that are just more mental.”
With back-to-back wins over two playoff bound teams the Wolves are still in control of their playoff destiny.