The Gophers’ best victory of the 2016 regular season was a 29-12 thumping of Northwestern on Nov. 19 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Wildcats were a competitive Big Ten team, and at kickoff there still was a chance the Gophers could be playing in the conference title game.
In a way, that solid effort vs. Northwestern could have been the beginning of the end for Tracy Claeys as the leader of the football program.
Yes, it was cold, but the turnout of fans was horrendous. Most estimates put the crowd at 25,000, which would mean a half-full smallish stadium for a worthy opponent.
There had been other signs during the 7-3 start to the season that the mini-revival of interest in Gophers football with Jerry Kill had waned, but seeing the complete absence of enthusiasm for Northwestern had to put a fright into the new athletic director, Mark Coyle.
I would bet every moment of intuition experienced while covering sports forever that Coyle opened his dialogue after that game with university president Eric Kaler on what to do about Claeys.
It would have taken place in the hope Claeys could win at Wisconsin and start to gain a Kill-style connection with the public.
As is their custom, the Gophers played tough in Madison, before fading to a 13th straight loss to the Badgers.
This left local football fans yawning at an 8-4 first season for Claeys. They went back to making excuses for Mike Zimmer and the disaster the Vikings had become over the final 70 percent of his third season.
If the same troubles had befallen a group of Gophers coached by the popular Kill – the suspension of 10 players for an alleged sexual assault, the leak of the very slanted EOAA report that led to the suspensions, the “boycott’’ by players that was actually a protest – there would have been no drama about a coaching change.
You can say that there wouldn’t have been a players protest under Kill, but you’re just guessing.
It is known that a year earlier, Kill had been outraged at an inflammatory e-mail sent by Kimberly Hewitt, the EOAA director, accusing the football team of sexual misconduct based on no evidence.
I’m guessing that Kill, too, would have defended the right of the players for more fairness initially from the EOAA. What Kill wouldn’t have done was send a Tweet of support as poorly phrased as Claeys.
Tracy is a bright man, but clearly he was not able to prove that in 140 characters.
Still, I don’t think his handling of the players protest and the Tweet are what got Claeys fired. If all of that had happened with Kill, and then his remaining players put their guts on the field as Claeys’ lads did in upsetting Washington State, Country Jer would have received post-game hugs from Kaler and Coyle.
After Claeys' big victory, Coyle remained reticent, and Kaler looked as if his family’s new puppy had been run over and smashed into the asphalt by a garbage truck.
Two days earlier, on Christmas, I had written a mini-column for the Sunday Strib offering the suggestion that Claeys could be gone, and if so, Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck would be the replacement.
That was intuition at the time.
When I saw a couple of shots of Kaler on the sideline in San Diego, it became more than that. I saw a university president who was suffering at the sight of his football team winning a game.
Coyle and Kaler already had decided to fire Claeys well before the Holiday Bowl. And they already had assurances that Fleck, the crazed young man they perceived as a needed salesman, would be available at the right price.
Remember, you can get these assurances by contacting an agent, and then the AD and the new coach can both say they “didn’t really start talking about the job until a couple of days ago’’ without being full-blown liars.
Coyle didn’t wait a week after the Holiday Bowl to fire Claeys because he wanted to digest the season. Coyle didn’t wait a week because he was going on a holiday vacation with family.
Coyle waited a week, until this Tuesday, to fire Claeys for one reason: Fleck was coaching Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl vs. Wisconsin.
Coyle and Kaler had known since the middle of December that Fleck was their guy, but they had to wait for him to be done with his resume-building season at Western Michigan.
The trip to Minnesota might have been desperation by Les to get back into coaching, and it might have been Kaler and Coyle putting pressure on Fleck and his agent to come down from a $20-plus million asking price, but this is certain:
Coyle wasn’t going to hire a football coach like Miles. He’s had enough issues with looking like a lap dog for Kaler, and he wasn’t going to turn the athletic department completely over to a football coach of Miles’ stature.
Enjoy the bluster, Gophers zealots. Sometimes it can work at a higher level than the MAC.