When Mike Burns signed a contract extension in 2019, he assumed the document’s language wouldn’t have any major changes. On closer inspection, though, the Gophers men’s gymnastics coach saw something he didn’t expect.
“They said, ‘Oh, by the way, you should be aware of this new language we put in here, about the possibility of the program being cut,’ ” Burns said. “I don’t know if I was shocked, or surprised, or what. Certainly, it was a bit of a foreshadowing of what might come.”
Burns’s three-year extension included a “program elimination” clause, saying his employment would automatically end if the U decided to cut men’s gymnastics. While the school’s recent plan to eliminate three sports caught many by surprise, the U has put the program elimination language into seven head coaches’ contracts since 2019.
Sarah Hopkins (women’s cross-country), Michele Redman (women’s golf), Piper Ritter (softball), Justin Smith (men’s golf), Alicea Strodel (rowing) and Geoff Young (men’s tennis) also have the clause in their contracts. If the U decides to cut the sport — which the contract states the school can do “in its sole discretion” — the contract and the coach’s employment will automatically end 120 days after the decision becomes effective. No buyout will be paid.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle announced last month that men’s track and field, gymnastics and tennis would be eliminated after this season. Coyle cited financial problems, which were heightened by the pandemic, and Title IX compliance issues. The U’s Board of Regents is expected to vote on the cuts at a Friday meeting.
In response to questions about the clauses, Coyle issued a statement through a spokesman saying the language is now a standard part of some contracts.
“Starting in summer 2019, for Olympic sports, our practice has been to include the clause in new contracts and contracts up for renewal,” Coyle’s statement said. “And our intent is to continue this practice.”
If the three sports are discontinued, Burns and Young would end their tenures 120 days after the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. Both of their contracts are scheduled to run through June 9, 2022. Director of track and field Matt Bingle — whose 2018 contract extension does not include the clause — would not be affected, since he is head coach for both the Gophers men’s and women’s teams.
All the coaches who have a program elimination clause signed their contracts in 2019 or ’20. Several Gophers coaches who signed extensions in the same time period do not have the clause, including P.J. Fleck (football), Richard Pitino (men’s basketball), Lindsay Whalen (women’s basketball), Bob Motzko (men’s hockey) and Hugh McCutcheon (volleyball).
In a letter to University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents, attorney Andrew Miltenberg cited the program elimination clauses as evidence the U “appears to have been secretly planning [the sports cuts] since before the COVID-19 pandemic.” Miltenberg, whose firm has been retained by several current and former Gophers athletes, demanded in the Oct. 2 letter that the Regents vote no on the resolution to eliminate the sports.
Miltenberg argues that there is no reason to include the program elimination clause in some contracts, other than “to reflect the University’s unspoken intent to cancel certain teams in the near future.” By not disclosing those plans to athletes, he wrote, the U engaged in “fraudulent and bad-faith conduct.”
If the sports are eliminated, Miltenberg said legal action could be taken.
“I think there is a very real, contractual obligation the Board of Regents has [to the athletes],” Miltenberg said Wednesday. “I think there is a real claim here that can be sued on.”
The Gophers are scheduled to play host to the NCAA men’s gymnastics championships next spring, an event that could signal an end to a program as well as a season. If the cuts are approved, Burns’ 120-day countdown clock will begin ticking April 17.
“The world I live in was changed a little bit with that clause,” he said. “And how convenient that it was in there, right?”