The entrance to the Bierman Athletic Building is boarded up. The lobby has become a construction zone filled with scaffolding, caution tape and blue tarps.
Gophers athletics is experiencing a significant makeover, both in appearance and perception. Construction on their future home — the $166 million Athletes Village — serves as a tangible symbol of a shift in philosophy that is altering a narrative about how sports are viewed on campus.
The university’s commitment to athletics should no longer be used as a punch line.
In the past 13 months, the school has started construction on a $190 million sports facilities project, hired a new athletic director and new football coach to the most lucrative contracts for those positions in school history and rewarded volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon with an extension that paid him about $450,000 this year.
Those big-ticket decisions demonstrate an understanding that college sports have become cutthroat competitive and expensive, and that failure to jump into the fray will only widen the gap.
Longtime critics of the school’s lukewarm commitment to athletics, myself included, can’t deny what is taking place right now.
Athletic director Mark Coyle has discussed the need to change the culture after high-profile incidents — and he’s right about that. Change is already happening in their willingness to embrace the arms race.
University President Eric Kaler allowed Coyle to fire football coach Tracy Claeys and absorb a $5 million buyout for his coaching staff before committing $18 million to hire P.J. Fleck.
Fleck will average $3.6 million annually, which is slightly above the Big Ten average. Claeys earned $1.4 million per season.
Coyle identified his top target, sold his boss on his vision and the school signed off on a lucrative contract offer. That’s how it should work.
Coyle had to explain his strategy in a meeting with Kaler and Board of Regents Chairman Dean Johnson and vice chair David McMillan. But the plan wasn’t nixed at the highest level over money or any other holdup.
Commitment isn’t just about finances. It’s about vision and synergy between administration, regents and athletics to make sure goals align. By hiring Fleck, school leaders demonstrated a belief that their football program had hit a ceiling.
Seven months ago, the school lured Coyle from Syracuse with an $850,000 annual salary, with potential for an additional $150,000 annually in incentives. That’s more than double the initial salary paid to former AD Norwood Teague.
Some undoubtedly view these expenditures as financial insanity. In a perfect world, there would be more cost control, but that 1980 model doesn’t work. Schools that want to compete in Power 5 conferences can’t have it both ways. Operating on the cheap is a lonely island.
Division I college sports — notably football and men’s basketball — aren’t just a window to a university. They serve as the front porch, a tone-setter.
The Gophers football team still eats meals in a lobby and the ceiling at the practice facility has holes. The basketball team converted a spare gym into a quasi-practice facility after waiting forever for a new one to supplement Williams Arena.
Where’s the commitment? many of us have screamed, after watching rivals dive into an arms race that has made college sports resemble a semi-pro operation.
Public institutions no doubt require fiscal oversight. No entity on campus should be able to run amok unchecked. (Reprimanding the men’s basketball coach for not filling up the gas tank in a rental car seems a bit nitpicky, though.)
An overly simplistic “college sports are out of control” gripe ignores reality and basic understanding of what a successful athletic department means to the broader university community.
Skyrocketing TV contracts have changed the landscape in a dramatic way. Salaries, facilities, support staffs, budgets … every facet is being supersized.
Money alone doesn’t guarantees success, of course. Many factors determine whether a program wins at a high level. Think of it as a pie chart, if you will. The Gophers pie chart looks different than it did a year ago.
These are interesting times for their athletic department. They now have the youngest Power 5 football coach and men’s basketball coach.
Richard Pitino’s team is 15-2 and moved into the top 25 on Monday. Fleck’s fireball personality has people talking about Gophers football. Gophers women’s sports are successful. Athletes Village is scheduled to open in January 2018.
Let’s see what they do with momentum for a change.