Dan Beebe’s last days as Big 12 commissioner in 2011, during a stormy time for NCAA conference realignment, could’ve made him drop off the college sports landscape completely.

A tumultuous exit to one career, though, led to the healing he tries to bring schools in a different role.

Beebe’s risk management consulting group has worked with about 20 schools, including the University of Minnesota, on improving their policies, educating staff and tackling internal issues before they blow up into scandals.

“Anytime you put people together there’s a risk of them mistreating each other,” Beebe said. “You throw in athletics with the power dynamics with coaches, then you really have the potential for more concerns.”

When Texas Tech fired former Gophers women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings last month for alleged mistreatment of athletes, two former Minnesota players told the Star Tribune that they had shared similar stories about Stollings with Beebe’s group.

Beebe met with Gophers players before and after Stollings left Minnesota and said concerns about a toxic environment were raised after her departure. But those weren’t just random conversations. The Star Tribune obtained records showing the University has paid Beebe’s firm $105,000 to work with the entire department since August 2017.

Beebe first eyed the Gophers after a chat with former university President Eric Kaler a few years ago. Eventually, senior associate athletic director Julie Manning sold AD Mark Coyle on inviting Beebe and his partner Mike McCall because of their work with other Power Five schools. Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and LSU are others that use his services.

At Minnesota, Beebe’s group set up about 100 meetings with coaches and administrative staff in the spring of 2017, just to prepare for the first phase of training and interviews with the teams that started that summer.

Manning was instantly impressed with Beebe’s platform for athletes or coaches and staff members to speak candidly about concerns — whether it’s discrimination, sexual harassment, abuse, etc. — without repercussion.

“They needed to have the opportunity for relief if there is something not right going on,” Manning said. “We felt really good about the relationship we had with [the Beebe group], what they brought to our attention and things they asked us to keep an eye on.”

Coyle has praised Beebe’s group publicly for the impact it’s had on the department’s 700-plus athletes and staff members. Beebe speaks glowingly of Coyle, too.

“From where we were when we came in from Mark in the beginning to where it is now, he’s a committed person to have the right culture,” Beebe said. “Or we wouldn’t be there.”

Risky business

Beebe knows better than most the stakes have never been higher in major college sports. In his fourth year as the Big 12’s boss, he was ousted after Colorado and Nebraska bailed on the conference for bigger money. Texas A&M and Missouri eventually left the Big 12, too.

The fallout, though, helped Beebe find what he considers an even higher calling.

He recalled his time as team captain on a Division II football team in California during the late 1970s, when a student trainer alerted him to verbally abusive behavior by an assistant coach.

“And I had no idea where to go or what to do,” Beebe said. “Part of my motivation now is to help people to not be in a similar situation.”

Going into Stollings’ final season as Gophers coach in 2017-18, Beebe entered the picture at Minnesota trying to get a handle on the athletic department as a whole.

The university paid Beebe’s firm $25,000 plus a few thousand dollars in expenses for nine days of independent training throughout the year that ended with a review meeting with Coyle and Manning.

“[With the Gophers], we didn’t learn anything about any concerns until after [Stollings] had left,” Beebe said. “Some of the student-athletes said they almost called us the year before.”

Failing to uncover problems early can cost schools millions of dollars. In 2015, Illinois fired football coach Tim Beckman over allegations of mismanagement of injuries. The Illini later faced lawsuits against coaches in women’s basketball and soccer. In one year, they spent nearly $6 million with legal and consulting fees, buyouts and settlements.

“If we had been there three years earlier and got in front of the football team, we might have been able to get it back on the rails,” Beebe said. “Or get it to where they could deal with it themselves. But instead it festers.”

Progress made

The Gophers with Beebe’s help created the Internal Response Team in 2018. That team is led by compliance director Jeremiah Carter. Having more diversity in the room helped some athletes share their experiences, Beebe said.

“We try to help set up response teams of trusted people that represent the diversity of a department,” Beebe said. “You don’t just want the ivory tower of all white people deciding your fate when you have a concern.”

After athletes or staff are interviewed, Beebe takes their complaints through the proper channels, whether it’s the AD or campus offices that deal with discrimination and harassment cases. The Gophers used this route for the Stollings’ concerns.

Whatever issues people aired came with no head coach or senior administrator present.

“The vast majority of the time where a student-athlete has a challenging issue, they really are coming there talking about it because they want the next athlete who comes in here to have a better experience,” Manning said.

Why do college programs need outside professional help when campuses are already supposed to be set up with their own checks and balances?

“A lot of the focus is on prevention,” said Minneapolis attorney Kathryn Nash, who consulted for the Gophers in 2017 and 2018. “How do you make sure athletes and coaches are aware of resources? How do they spot something before it becomes something more? How do they create a culture of respect within their athletic teams? It starts at the top that it’s an expectation, that this is important.”

Beebe said athletic departments know his firm won’t let them off the hook to plead ignorance or shift liability if problems surface.

His firm (now called Protection for All) charges $30,000 per season now for risk management. He recommended Minnesota continue training in 2020-21, online during the pandemic. Beebe and Manning said they have talked about continuing the training this year in a smaller capacity.

“It’s like a flu shot,” Manning said. “Things don’t just go away. Even if things are starting to be fixed, they just don’t go away.”