Change is difficult. Change is uncomfortable. Change can be ugly. But sometimes change is necessary. The University of Minnesota and its Athletic Department are currently going through a change. The Star Tribune’s Chip Scoggins wrote a nice article on the philosophical shift taking place within the Athletic Department. Please give it a read if you haven’t.
In my opinion, Minnesota has/had reached a critical juncture when it came to the two main revenue sports, football and men’s basketball. I am/was of the opinion it was time for the school to either push their chips all in and play to win or stick with the status quo and just come out and admit they are content being mediocre. Either way, something had to give. The students, the alumni, the fans and the state of Minnesota have grown tired and restless over the past 50+ years of mediocrity. Surprisingly it appears as if the University have pushed their chips to the middle of the table and said “all in”.
I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of the Joel Maturi philosophy of running an Athletic Department. Despite some drawbacks, there were positives to be found with his style. It is commendable to think every team, from the rowing team to the football team, should be treated equally and fairly. That is an important core belief for how an Athletic Department should be run. However, the reality of the beast in big time college athletics is that it is a cutthroat multi-billion dollar industry. As a result, a P5 Athletic Department cannot be run solely on an altruistic notion of amateur sports. At some point the reality of the “arms race” must be faced and a school either has to choose to join in or fall behind.
Let’s cut to the chase. For the past 50+ years, the University of Minnesota has been playing by different rules than everyone else. They refused to get into the “arms race” in the ‘60’s, they demolished their own stadium to be a third string tenant in a joint stadium, they had a University President in Nils Hasselmo who wanted to shutter football altogether, they hired coaches on the cheap, they refused to get into the “arms race” in the ‘90’s, they recruited on the cheap, they refused to get in the “arms race” in the aughts (I’m sensing a trend here), there appears to be factions within the University who want to see football fail, the BoR/President/AD never seem to be on the same page and that’s just some of the things we know about. Oh and let’s not forget they hired Tim freaking Brewster! There’s a reason the football team hasn’t been able to get over the hump and win a B1G title since 1967.
However, ten years ago the first domino started to fall when the University announced they were returning football to campus by building the $288.5 million TCF Bank Stadium, “The Bank”. This was a monumental first step. But that’s what it was, the first step. It didn’t take long to realize there was still more work that had to be done to level the playing field. Fast forward 6 years, with the tireless work of Jerry Kill, and as troubled as I am to say it, Norwood Teague’s vision, a $190 million Athletes Village is currently under construction. Let this sink in for a minute, the University of Minnesota has spent almost $500 million in capital improvements for football and basketball in the past ten years. Not bad for a school that almost dropped football.
As impressive as that number is, the real change started to take place last week when Athletic Director Mark Coyle fired Head Coach Tracy Claeys. This was an Athletic Director who just told the country “I don’t care if we are Minnesota, 9 wins isn’t good enough”. This was an Athletic Director stepping up and saying “I am sick and tired of being mediocre, I want to win championships”. Personally, I cheered and said it’s about time someone from the University stepped up and said this.
But the truly telling part that said something was different was Mark Coyle not dilly-dallying around by hiring a search firm, only to end up on a TE coach no one had ever heard of before. Mark Coyle targeted in on the hottest up-and-coming name in college football, P.J. Fleck. This was a coach that had a variety of options when choosing his next job and Mark Coyle convinced him to come to Minnesota. Coyle also stepped up financially to pay for a coach of Fleck’s caliber. Let’s be honest, we’re not used to that around here.
With all of that said, there is also another side of the business we are not used to seeing around here, and that is the ugly side of the business. If you are going to push your chips all in there is no going back, which leads me to some of the recent recruiting news. Recruiting is often an ugly, ugly game but it is the lifeblood of a program. The best recruiters get down and dirty. They don’t care about whose toes they step on or whose feelings they may hurt. All they care about is finding the best players for their program.
There has been some criticism thrown Fleck’s way, especially from a curmudgeonly old columnist, that Fleck is being unethical by dropping the players that had committed to the Gophers and to raiding WMU’s recruits. Look I get it, it’s dirty and it’s ugly but that’s the name of the game. I feel bad for those players. I feel bad for WMU. But don’t kid yourself if you don’t think there are current players on the Gopher roster getting calls from other schools right now. Don’t be naive and think Jerry Kill’s anti-U rant last week wasn’t partially self-serving for his new position as Offensive Coordinator at Rutgers. Let’s not pretend like every coach that was just dismissed isn’t going to use everything negative they know about the Gophers against them at their new schools. The issue isn’t that Fleck is a fundamentally horrible guy, it’s that Minnesotans are not used to the ugly side of recruiting. But get used to it friends, we now have a coach in P.J. Fleck who is not afraid to recruit, with all the good and bad that comes with it.
There is a cost to going all in. Some may even argue it is a Faustian type deal. But at end of the day, running a P5 football program is a big-business. With everything that is at stake from a financial aspect, it needs to be run like a big-business. It’s not always going to be pretty. There will be things you will be uncomfortable with. You may want to stick solely to the amateur notion of college sports, but Minnesota is moving forward. I understand there are no guarantees P.J. Fleck will win a B1G title here, but I am elated to finally seeing the U say “Why not Minnesota?”
Ski-U-Mah and Row the Boat!