Mark Coyle conducts business like many people these days. At home, on his computer and phone, in sweatpants. Yes, he’s opted for casual attire, too.
His job title is athletic director, except for the time being there are no Gophers athletics taking place. Directing athletics right now must feel like giving directions without Google Maps.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the world into crisis, and Coyle is trying to manage his slice of that uncertainty within a landscape that shifts by the minute.
“There’s so much that we don’t know,” he said by phone this past week. “That’s the hard part. Just trying to manage the stuff we don’t know.”
One thing he’s certain of: Whenever life returns to some semblance of normalcy, college athletics won’t operate like its former self.
Coyle oversees a department with 25 sports, 275 full-time employees, 675 athletes and a $122 million budget. The Gophers are tied for the fourth-most sports among Big Ten schools with the seventh-largest budget.
The department is in smart, capable hands with Coyle’s leadership, but these are unprecedented circumstances. No one has experience in dealing with these challenges. There is no script for how to navigate financial implications that every sports organization will encounter.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it’s going to look very different when we come out of this,” Coyle said. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like. But the financial impact on all of us is going to be felt and how we do things is going to look different.”
Coyle can’t give specifics because it’s too early in the process and this pandemic doesn’t have a known expiration date. That uncertainty makes it impossible for Coyle to predict with clarity the full financial blow to his department and solve tough unknowns or fears that people might have. Those difficult conversations will take place eventually.
What seems obvious, though, is that potential lost revenue from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament distribution, tickets sales, sponsorships and other revenue streams will have substantial impact on his department.
For now, everything is shut down. Spring sports were canceled. Athletes Village is empty as employees are encouraged to work remotely. Fewer than 30 athletes remain on campus after university President Joan Gabel moved classes online.
Coyle starts each day at his St. Paul home with a 5:30 a.m. run with his wife, Krystan, before joining a conference call with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren and the league’s athletic directors. The group receives updates and discusses how to proceed on different matters. After that, Coyle holds an hourlong conference call with his senior staff to keep everyone informed on unfolding events. His No. 1 priority right now is the safety of athletes, coaches and staff.
“It’s amazing how quickly this escalated,” he said. “It feels like each day something new comes out and you’re trying to make real-time decisions with information you don’t always have.”
Running his department from home has afforded him more family time than usual. Coyle, his wife and their three children, Grace, Nicholas and Benji, take a family walk every day around lunchtime and again after dinner with their dog, Maggie. Movies have replaced sports on TV at night. The family’s favorites for recommendation: “Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Top Gun” and “Ghostbusters.”
Coyle has had initial discussions with his leadership team about ramifications if this pandemic lasts months and spills into fall, thus affecting football. Gophers ticket renewals are open for football, volleyball and men’s hockey, and Coyle noted that the department has sold season tickets during the coronavirus outbreak.
But everything is so up in the air. The thought of fans cramming into a football stadium is hard to envision under current conditions. Football remains a cash cow for every major college athletic department, so any lengthy disruption to next season would have severe consequences.
This is not meant to fan flames of hysteria, but rather to acknowledge the uncertain nature of self-quarantine.
“It’s hard to know [because] you just don’t know how long this is going to last,” Coyle said. “Time will tell with how long we go through this process. … I just hope our Gophers fans know how much we miss them.”