Mark Coyle’s voice grew firm and his mood changed.
The final question in my 35-minute interview with the Gophers athletic director several weeks ago apparently touched a nerve.
I asked about his unassuming, quiet nature and whether his personality in any way reflected his management style or his willingness to make tough, forceful decisions.
Coyle turned serious.
“If you look at my [record] over the past five years, I will make the tough decision,” he said. “You will not meet a more competitive person, and my demeanor doesn’t come across that way. But I’m extremely competitive. The best word I would use is, it’s addicting when you get to a Final Four. I don’t care what sport it is. That drives me every day. I will give every ounce of energy I have to get this department there.”
Coyle made a tough decision Tuesday in his first landmark move as leader of the Gophers athletic department. He fired football coach Tracy Claeys in a dramatic end to an ugly chapter in the program’s history.
The sexual assault investigation that led to suspensions of 10 players and nearly resulted in a team boycott of the Holiday Bowl ultimately cost Claeys his job. But Coyle’s decision ran deeper than that.
Claeys never was his guy. Never his choice.
Hired seven months ago, Coyle inherited his football coach and spent the season quietly evaluating him, knowing Claeys had only two seasons left on his contract and a small buyout.
An 8-4 record after the regular season basically prevented Coyle from making a coaching change. He was boxed in. Coyle’s measured responses about Claeys’ job performance during our interview — which occurred one day before crisis hit the program — suggested he wasn’t sold on the direction of the program.
Coyle described this season as a “learning experience” for Claeys while giving a lukewarm answer when asked about his statement of support for Claeys immediately after the regular season.
“I support Tracy like I support all of our coaches,” Coyle said that day.
The contents of the 80-page report from the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action coupled with Claeys’ regrettable tweet backing his players’ boycott served as the final tipping point.
Coyle attempted to clarify who knew what in regard to the decision to suspend those 10 players by saying Claeys approved. Coyle dismissed the notion that outside pressure from groups or boosters influenced his decision to fire Claeys, but he likely wouldn’t admit that publicly, if true.
What seems undeniable is that Coyle’s summation of the entire program and his feelings on Claeys as a leader bothered him.
“I think the events over the past few weeks underscored the concerns and some of the things I’ve been seeing in that program,” Coyle said.
Coyle wanted a fresh start, a chance to hire his guy. The second paragraph of his statement announcing the firing revealed his thoughts on the program beyond this scandal.
“I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program,” he said. “We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges.”
Attendance for home games dropped to its lowest level in 14 years. Former AD Norwood Teague’s ill-fated “scholarship seating” price hikes had more to do with dwindling attendance than Claeys’ coaching, but Coyle apparently felt the program is suffering from a crisis of confidence with fans.
Not all fans, though. Anger directed at Coyle and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler is being heard loud and clear. A healthy percentage of people blame Coyle and Kaler for this mess, to say nothing of the outrage expressed by Claeys’ players.
“They have a right to be angry, they have a right to be frustrated,” Coyle said. “I’m hoping that our students understand that that ‘M’ never comes off.”
Coyle stuck to those big-picture themes throughout his evening news conference. He talked about displaying “high character” and “living in truth always.”
“I wanted to make the best long-term decision for the health of our football program, for the health of our department,” Coyle said.
He gets to put his stamp on the athletic department now. We’ll learn more about Coyle’s leadership and ability to attract coaches with this critical hire.
He made a hard decision Tuesday, a very unpopular one with many people. This coaching change will be both expensive and a big part of Coyle’s legacy.
He has stayed mostly in the shadows his first seven months on the job. Firing Claeys and launching a search Tuesday pulled him into the spotlight. Now, it’s Coyle’s neck on the line.