Some people scurry from big jobs with major challenges. Mark Coyle, the new Gophers athletic director, seems drawn to them like a mosquito to his family’s old porch light in Waterloo, Iowa.
After climbing the college sports ranks with stops at Minnesota and Kentucky, he took his first AD post in 2011 at Boise State, shortly after that school had been smacked with NCAA sanctions.
Syracuse saw how Coyle handled that situation and lured him away last June to help clean up its own mess. This past week, he abruptly left Syracuse for Minnesota, taking over a program that is reeling from the Norwood Teague era.
Coyle said Thursday, his first full day at the Bierman Athletic Building in 11 years, that he hasn’t purposely gone seeking difficult jobs.
“That’s just how it’s played out,” he said. “But I do enjoy coming into situations and trying to help. I’m excited to come here to Minnesota and see what we can do to help make this a better place.”
University President Eric Kaler pulled a stunner this past week when he convinced Coyle, 47, to leave Syracuse less than 11 months into that job. It took a five-year contract with an $850,000 salary. Minnesota paid Syracuse another half-million to cover the buyout in Coyle’s contract.
Kaler invested heavily in Coyle, who has built a reputation not so much as a fixer but as a program stabilizer. He is used to wading into topsy-turvy environments and delivering a dose of confident calm.
“Mark’s such a high-quality, low-ego, humble, hardworking, smart guy,” said Chris Petersen, who coached football for Coyle at Boise State. “He’s really good at his job. He can assess a situation quickly and figure out what needs to be done and then go after it the right way.”
Kaler made it clear he’s counting on Coyle to restore integrity. No one is publicly ranking Coyle’s priorities, but Kaler’s firm, scolding tone at Coyle’s introduction Wednesday while discussing the current state of Gophers athletics provided a not-so-subtle clue.
Teague’s resignation last August after accusations of sexual harassment made the Gophers’ problems before and since seem small, but image repair is only one to-do. When Coyle punches in for the first time later this month, he’ll find a challenge waiting for him in nearly every corner of the athletic department.
Every candidate who applied for the AD job understood the uncertainty Minnesota faces with the future of its three highest-profile coaches.
Richard Pitino (men’s basketball) has had myriad off-court issues, and his Gophers lost a program-record 23 games last season. Don Lucia (men’s hockey) is entering the final year of his contract. And Tracy Claeys (football), who has a minimal buyout, must prove himself after taking over as Jerry Kill’s replacement last year.
“I think I’m patient,” Coyle said. “No matter what coach you’re looking at, or what program you’re looking at, I think it’s important that you understand everything around that program.”
Coyle was the deputy AD at Kentucky before taking over at Boise State. The biggest question he faced when he got to Boise was, “How long can you keep Coach Pete?”
Petersen was one of the most coveted coaches in the country. His Broncos had gone 38-2 the previous three seasons. Petersen stayed two more seasons, saying Coyle was a big part of the reason, before taking the Washington job.
“Mark’s got great humility, and I think where it shows is in crisis, when things aren’t going well, or in big-time coaching searches,” said Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart. “When Chris Petersen left Boise, I watched Mark conduct his search, and it was steady.
“It wasn’t about what’s best for Mark Coyle. It was about what’s best for Boise State football.”
Coyle hired Bryan Harsin, a former Boise State assistant who’d become the head coach at Arkansas State. Harsin guided Boise State back to the Fiesta Bowl his first season.
When Coyle arrived at Syracuse, the long-suffering Orange football program was coming off a 3-9 season. The futility continued, so Coyle fired Scott Shafer before the regular-season finale. This time, Coyle hired Dino Babers, who was coming off a MAC championship at Bowling Green.
“Scott Shafer is a tremendous person,” Coyle said. “He worked incredibly hard and gave Syracuse everything he had. Unfortunately, we were just missing something. The pieces weren’t there. We had to make a difficult decision. I think Dino will do great things at Syracuse.”
A money man?
Construction began this spring on the Gophers’ $166 million Athletes Village, which is scheduled to open in January 2018. So far, the school has raised about $80 million of that, and donations have been sparse since Teague resigned last August.
The former Gophers marketing director helped raise more than $140 million at Kentucky. And it didn’t take him long to make a difference at his next stop.
“Boise’s a fairly small town, so you kind of think you know everybody, and know the people who can help your program,” Petersen said. “But within a short amount of time, Mark already had these new connections — people that I didn’t know were interested in helping. That was probably the first thing to grab my attention.”
Coyle credits Barnhart, the Kentucky AD, for teaching him the art of fundraising. Other Barnhart pupils who’ve gone on to become ADs include Rob Mullens (Oregon), Greg Byrne (Arizona) and Scott Stricklin (Mississippi State).
“Mitch taught me the importance of developing relationships,” Coyle said. “I really enjoy meeting people. I enjoy hearing how they’ve become successful personally and professionally. I have a great deal of admiration for people who realize the importance of college athletics.”
Part of Coyle’s duties as deputy AD at Kentucky involved overseeing the powerhouse basketball program. Barnhart was struck by how quickly Coyle forged close relationships with Tubby Smith, John Calipari and their staffs.
At Boise State, men’s basketball was one of Coyle’s biggest success stories. He kept coach Leon Rice, who led the Broncos to two NCAA tournament appearances and a Mountain West title in 2015.
When Syracuse hired Coyle, Calipari reportedly said coach Jim Boeheim “is going to be very happy that [Coyle’s] the AD, and the rest of the coaches will be ecstatic.”
Coyle spent one season at Syracuse and both teams — men’s and women’s — reached the Final Four. When the news broke Wednesday that Coyle was leaving for Minnesota, Boeheim told Syracuse.com: “I really liked Mark Coyle. I thought he was really good. Thought he had a good grip on everything in a relatively short period of time. It’s shocking.”
Fresh from all that hoops success, Coyle returns to a Minnesota program resembling a deflated ball. If the historically bad season didn’t leave a scar, two players in two years being arrested for assaults and three player suspensions from a sex video incident sure did. Pitino and Coyle met Thursday for the first time. The Gophers might need a men’s basketball makeover, and Coyle certainly has seen what works elsewhere.
More pressure for football?
Coyle and Claeys don’t know each other well, but they have a mutual connection in former Gophers AD Joel Maturi. Coyle views Maturi as a mentor from his previous stint at Minnesota, from 2001-2005 in a marketing role. Maturi is the one who hired Kill, Claeys and the bulk of this football staff.
Besides earning two degrees at Drake — a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in teaching — Coyle played wide receiver for the Bulldogs. Maturi can see why he’s been able to connect so well with coaches over the years.
“I love his quiet drive,” Maturi said. “Some people think he’s too nice, but underneath all of that, there’s a drive. There’s a real fierce competitiveness to succeed and to have the people who work for him succeed.”
Coyle was celebrating a Fiesta Bowl victory less than two years ago. Between Kentucky basketball, Boise State football and Syracuse hoops, he has reveled in deep NCAA success in the past decade. Coyle wants to be patient, but another 5-7 regular season from this program would test that.
If there’s one hole on Coyle’s résumé, relative to Minnesota, this might be it. Kentucky, Boise State and Syracuse don’t have Division I men’s hockey programs.
The Gophers have a passionate fan base, and there has been some displeasure with Lucia, even though he delivered NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003 and returned to the championship game in 2014. Coyle worked at Minnesota when Lucia secured those two national championships.
“I remember going to Mariucci Arena for hockey games; I love being around that atmosphere,” Coyle said. “Gracie [his daughter] was a month old, maybe, when Minnesota played at the  Frozen Four. I love that passion.”
Lucia has said he wants to keep coaching and expects to have contract extension talks soon. Deciding the future of a national champion coach who has spent time on the hot seat could be one of Coyle’s first tests. Welcome to the fire.
Keeping strengths strong
It’s been a frustrating school year for the Gophers in their revenue sports, along with women’s basketball, which missed the NCAA tournament.
But Brad Frost’s Gophers have won four of the past five NCAA titles in women’s hockey. Hugh McCutcheon’s volleyball team reached last year’s Final Four. John Anderson’s baseball program is fighting for a Big Ten title, and Jess Allister’s softball team has potential to make another deep NCAA run this spring. Coyle can also find best-in-class athletes in gymnastics, track and in the aquatics center.
He’ll be graded on his success with managing the money sports, but Coyle can’t lose sight of continuing to support this success.
If “The Stablizer” does it again in Minnesota, the Gophers will have to hope he’s done making sudden exits. While Coyle has been well received by Gophers fans, he left some angry people behind in Syracuse. Coyle insists his family couldn’t resist the pull of home.
“I watched him on TV, and I know it’s genuine,” said Barnhart, who still talks to Coyle by phone multiple times each week. “It doesn’t happen too often where an institution gets a person that wants so desperately to come back to his home, or to a place he calls home.”
Coyle’s past two departures — at Boise State and Syracuse — both came without warning. He wasn’t known publicly as a candidate at either of his next two jobs.
If he succeeds at Minnesota, other schools could come calling. But Barnhart is confident his good friend is home for good.
“I would say it’s probably a destination place for him to want to stay,” Barnhart said, “and spend a long period of time in his life.”