Tracy Claeys has a three-year contract and a pittance for a buyout. The university assured itself that protection in making Claeys the head football coach.
If the Gophers flop next season and finish with another 5-7 record or even 6-6 — which would be alarming considering their attractive schedule — the next athletic director might be in the market for a new football coach.
The cost of firing Claeys after next season would be $500,000, which is peanuts in the buyout game. The Gophers paid North Carolina a lot more than that — $800,000 — to cancel two football games.
The point is, Claeys isn’t blessed with ironclad job security and he probably realizes he has only one shot at this gig. If he fails as a head coach here, Claeys likely will spend the rest of his career in a defensive coordinator capacity.
Claeys deserves the freedom to make decisions that he feels will enable him to win in the short term to keep his job. Change can be both necessary and painful.
Claeys fired his offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski on Sunday, one day after the Gophers concluded an unsatisfactory season with a loss to Wisconsin.
Jerry Kill’s staff had been together a long time. Uniquely long in the coaching world. In college football, a coach’s life often follows a nomadic existence, so the continuity of Kill’s staff became both an oddity and a source of pride.
But continuity just for continuity’s sake shouldn’t be a guiding force.
The Gophers finished with a losing record this season. They are 15-25 in the Big Ten since Kill took over. Their offense has ranked in the bottom third of all FBS teams in scoring every season except one under this regime.
Standing pat isn’t always the best option.
Nobody likes seeing good people lose their jobs. Firings are not joyous occasions.
Limegrover and Zebrowski poured their hearts into helping rebuild the program. They approached their jobs the right way, with integrity and class. The personal side of their business really stinks in times like this.
But on-field results warranted a hard examination. Since this coaching staff arrived in 2011, the Gophers’ best finish nationally in scoring offense has been 69th.
They’ve also ranked 111th, 96th, 85th and 104th.
Even though the scoring averages improved gradually until this season, their offense too often resembles dial-up connection in an era of high-tech gadgets.
Scoring in college football is at an all-time high. Fifty-nine teams averaged at least 30 points this season.
Offense has never been easier with various rule changes and the proliferation of creative schemes and ideas.
The Gophers are lagging for a variety of reasons, and their organizational structure with Limegrover serving as both offensive coordinator and offensive line coach never felt sustainable.
That’s two jobs, not one. That’s not to say it can’t work. Other teams have a similar arrangement. But those two jobs are too time-consuming and demanding of attention for one person to give equal emphasis.
Claeys made a decision that he thinks will improve the process and performance. The fact that he fired two assistants rather than shuffle their responsibilities represents a clear signal that wants to emerge from Kill’s shadow and put his own stamp on the program. And that’s his right.
Claeys did leave himself vulnerable to criticism after preaching the importance of continuity in stating his case for the job. He noted the effect that change would have on recruiting and the overall foundation established under Kill.
Asking him why he reversed course certainly is fair and valid, but the continuity angle also deserves context.
At every coaching stop under Kill — Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois — the staff repaired the program and then moved on.
Once they stabilized things and started to win, they turned to the next rebuilding project. There was never any real reason to shake up the staff because those programs didn’t become stagnant or slip backward.
The Gophers took a step backward this season. Blame it on injuries or youth if you want, but the Gophers won two Big Ten games after being projected to compete for the division title.
Time is ticking on Claeys. He doesn’t have five years to figure things out.
If he feels changing coordinators gives him the best chance to succeed, he should get to make that choice. He’s the head coach now. It’s his neck on the line.