Mark Coyle's most prominent coaching hires have ranged from logical to impressive.
The Gophers athletic director hired P.J. Fleck when Fleck was considered the best young football coaching candidate in the country.
He hired Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota's greatest winner, to coach basketball.
When Don Lucia retired, Coyle's job was made easy. The two best candidates in the country were a short drive away — Scott Sandelin at Minnesota Duluth and Bob Motzko at St. Cloud State. Given the University of Minnesota's preference to not raid schools within its system, Motzko was the clear choice, and he has proved his worth this season.
Now for the most difficult and telling test of Coyle's tenure to date. After working at Kentucky and Syracuse, his strength should be in men's basketball. He needs to hire a coach who will be a distinct upgrade from the fired Richard Pitino. And he knows this might be his last chance in the foreseeable future to hire a coach of color.
A recent Star Tribune report detailed that Minnesota has not hired a person of color as a head coach in 14 years. And that Minnesota is the only Big Ten school that does not have a person of color as a university president, athletic director or head coach. All 11 head coaches Coyle has hired are white.
Coyle theoretically could hire a white coach for the men's basketball job and wait for the next coaching opening to diversify his staff. But by then, after missing this visible opportunity, his and the athletic department's reputation might be sealed.
There are plenty of good reasons for hiring a coach of color this time around. Before we get into the details, let's start with this one: It's the right thing to do.
And if you think hiring a person of color would leave the Gophers with some kind of competitive disadvantage, you're not paying attention.
There are two Black men's basketball head coaches in the Big Ten: Michigan's Juwan Howard and newly hired Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry. Howard took the job two years ago, with no head coaching experience. He went 19-12 his first season. This year, in his second season, he won the Big Ten regular season title and produced a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament while navigating the country's toughest men's basketball conference.
Don't think of hiring a coach of color as a burden. Everyone, especially Coyle, should look at it as an opportunity.
The entire analytics movement in sports is about acquiring undervalued assets. Given the hiring habits of most NCAA schools, what category is more dramatically undervalued than coaches of color?
Coyle could persuade himself with history as well. The Gophers have won 14 NCAA tournament games (including the vacated victories of the 1990s and 1972). White coaches produced three of those 14. Black coaches — Clem Haskins and Tubby Smith — produced 11. Smith was fired by the vile Norwood Teague shortly after producing one of the Gophers' two NCAA tournament victories of the past 24 years.
Coyle could also consider the benefits of recruiting and making new connections. Let's say Coyle hired a good white candidate, such as Brian Dutcher or Eric Musselman. Would Dutcher or Musselman have a recruiting advantage over other Big Ten coaches? Let's say Coyle hired a good candidate of color, such as Cleveland State's Dennis Gates or Eastern Washington's Shantay Legans. Might that coach have a recruiting advantage over most of the other Big Ten coaches? Minnesota could benefit from a coach with better connections to prep and AAU ranks. Give a coach of color a chance to make those inroads.
Sadly, there is a grander reason for hiring a coach of color.
A recent spate of attacks on Asian Americans follows five years of an American administration encouraging racism. The domestic terrorists who attacked our nation's Capitol and threatened our leaders screamed racist epithets at Black cops as they were killing and wounding other cops.
If Minnesota's most prominent academic institution isn't going to combat institutional racism in its most visible programs, why should we support it with dollars or pompons? If the University of Minnesota can't walk the walk, why should we listen when it talks?
As he prepares to make perhaps his most important hire, Coyle should ask himself two questions:
If not now, when?
If not here, where?