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Claeys, Coyle, and the Minnesota coaching change from a fan’s point of view

Thinking through everything we think we know.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle announced his decision to fire Tracy Claeys. Coyle elaborated on the reasons for his decision in a press conference heavy on platitudes and light on actual information.

Since then, there’s been plenty of speculation on why, how, and most importantly, what’s next, much of which is captured in our storystream HERE.

I don’t have any answers to these specific questions. I will say that some things stood out for me, particularly in view of Coyle’s statements in his press conference.

Institutions should care about more than just football

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fan of Gopher sports because I am an alum of the University of Minnesota. Ultimately, the reputation of the school and the notion that it stands for more than just success on the field is important to me, and I imagine to most of you as well.

There’s little point to rehashing the events of the past few weeks. In a nutshell, this is a case where a university—as mandated by federal law and by its own policies—recommended students for expulsion/suspension because those students acted in violation of the university’s code of conduct.

To me, the controversy here relates to two issues: the students were athletes and therefore, suspended from athletic competition, and there is some doubt whether their conduct was illegal.

I think these two issues are irrelevant. The athletes are also students and subject to the university’s general policies. Indeed, had 10 non-athletes students been suspended or expelled from Minnesota under identical circumstances and following a Title IX complaint, the noise created by this situation would be at church mouse levels.

The legality of the conduct is of no consequence. A university can—and arguably should—punish individuals and/or programs for engaging in behavior that institutions find repugnant. The case of Amanda Tatro is instructive here. Tatro was disciplined by Minnesota for a remark she made on Facebook. Tatro leaned on her free speech rights, but the Supreme Court of Minnesota held that discipline was appropriate because she’d violated the academic guidelines of the program she was enrolled in.

Make no mistakes #1: no one individual or program is bigger than the institution itself, and when you go up against the institution, you lose.

Coaches should care about more than just football

Football coaches are hired to coach football, but they are generally responsible for more than just X’s and O’s. They are teachers, mentors, and significantly, they’re also acting as parents. College football players are mostly adults, but they also have little life experience or wisdom, and they get up to the same ridiculous nonsense as most college students.

Claeys himself stressed this point when addressing the press after the team withdrew its boycott of the Holiday Bowl. He felt a parental responsibility to support his players in their pursuit of due process, even though he later admitted neither he nor his players understood the university’s procedures.

Much has been made of Claeys as a player’s coach, and his players genuinely like him and continue to be upset about his dismissal. It’s not hard to see why. Claeys is the parent who lets his kids eat ice cream for dinner every night.

As a de facto parent, Claeys could have used the player suspensions as a teaching moment, a chance to counsel his players on the virtues of patience, on the advantages of considered action over blind reaction. Instead, he enabled the boycott and let his kids throw the football equivalent of a temper tantrum in the name of supportive parenting.

This is a failure of leadership, and it cost Claeys his job. He is, by all accounts, a good person and a decent defensive coordinator, if not necessarily head coach material. But I’m finding it hard to disagree with Coyle’s decision here.

Maybe a single instance of failed leadership isn’t such a bad thing in a vacuum, but I think it’s also a clear example of why Claeys’ coaching philosophy doesn’t always translate.

I still don’t know the exact timeline of events here, and this is nothing but raw conjecture on my part, but I think Claeys and Coyle have been at loggerheads for some time, and Claeys, banking on the support of his team and maybe of friends in high places, took a gamble and threw Coyle under the bus.

In other words, he ran a high-risk play with the game on the line, and he lost. We’ve seen this movie before.

Make no mistake #2: unless we’re talking about Nick Saban or maybe Bill Snyder, no one coach or program is bigger than the athletic department, so when you go up against the athletic department, you lose.

Sometimes it really is just about football

At his press conference, Coyle noted that his decision was not motivated specifically by Claeys’ support of the boycott, but by “concerns I have with the program.” He cited the importance of success in athletics and his desire to be competitive in the Big Ten.

We don’t have to read between the lines too much to know that Coyle was underwhelmed by the on-field product. He noted the Gophers had given up several half-time leads, and although he liked the bowl win, it obviously didn’t provide enough counterweight to tip the scales in Claeys’ favor.

Claeys had several factors working against him. He’d inherited the entire team from Jerry Kill and was viewed as a sixth-year coach instead of a first-year coach with no prior head-coaching experience. The team didn’t perform to expectation against a relatively soft schedule. Attendance is down 16% since 2015, and recruiting is nothing to write home about.

Given the opportunity to put his own stamp on the program, and armed with a relatively new stadium and a new facilities project, Coyle saw an opening and took it. The suspensions and the boycott just gave him the spin he needed to rationalize a decision that was almost certainly driven by football considerations from the start.

Make no mistake #3: a new AD usually means a new coach, and when you don’t win the games that fans really care about, you lose.

This is not Coyle’s first rodeo

Fortunately, I think we can trust Coyle--who says words like “transparency” and “truth” like he means them—to make a decent hiring decision. He brought Bryan Harsin to Boise State and Dino Babers to Syracuse, and while the jury is still out on Babers, Harsin appears to be a solid hire.

Coyle has a reputation as a guy who fixes things. He went to Boise State after the school was sanctioned by the NCAA, and he went to Syracuse ostensibly to fix football. Given the Norwood Teague situation, the wrestling team fiasco, and now the situation with Title IX and the football team, Coyle may well be in the right place at the right time.

There’s plenty of rumor and very little facts surrounding the coaching search as of this moment, but I feel confident that Coyle will hire a person who, if nothing else, will at least toe the athletic department’s line while getting the Minnesota community excited about football again. For now, that might be more important than winning nine games.