Thursday, January 5, 2017

3 Things about Firing Tracy Claeys and the Minnesota Gopher Football Coaching Search

1. FIRING CLAEYS WAS THE RIGHT DECISION

And clearly one AD Mark Coyle has wanted to make. There were national reports as far back as August that Coyle wanted to select his own coach. This article from SI.com's Pete Thamel looks downright prophetic now:
Look for new athletic director Mark Coyle to execute the same game plan he did in his last year at Syracuse. He'll keep an extremely low profile, quietly observe the football program and then make a change at the end of the year... The bottom line here, however, is that the entire industry expects this job to open and it would be stunning if it didn't. New athletic directors aren't brought in to keep the status quo, and Claeys's contact affirms the perception he's a placeholder.
Emphasis is mine but the point stands: Claeys was never Coyle's guy, and as many have already said, the whole boycott fiasco opened the door for Coyle to make a move. Otherwise, there was zero chance he was firing a coach after a nine win season. Still, firing Claeys was the right decision, and frankly, I can't believe it wasn't made sooner. By all accounts, Claeys agreed with President Kaler and Coyle about the suspension of his 10 players. While I have no idea what exactly was said in that meeting, I have a very hard time believing reasons weren't given to Claeys as to why. Regardless, Claeys then went to his players and went completely against his bosses and his own decision and then supported his players in their boycott. That is insubordination at shocking levels and I can't believe he was even allowed to coach the bowl game.

This is not to say Claeys is a bad person or even a bad coach- the defense he brought here has been the best since the glory years of the 1960's, and his ability- along with Dbacks coach-turned-DC Jay Sawvel- to turn little-known defensive recruits into serious stars was impressive.

The defense can't help but take a step back now, but hopefully the next coach improves the offense and talent level to offset that. Bottom line though is Claeys showed his inexperience with the way he completely mishandled the boycott, and there's not an employer who would stand for that kind of insubordination. That said...

2. BOTH THE COACH AND THE ADMINISTRATION ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE PLAYER BOYCOTT

Things got bad for the university because of the player boycott. The players were frustrated because they were blindsided by the news that 10 teammates were being suspended indefinitely and the administration (and their head coach) gave them no explanation for why. They boycotted because they felt their teammates were being treated unfairly and were not given due process. Once the report leaked out, they backed down and went back to practice, but the stain was left on the program and the university that the entire football team threatened to boycott a bowl game...because their teammates were accused of sexual assault. Regardless of the reason, that's a terrible look for everyone involved.

My gut feeling after this happened was that a veteran coach like Jerry Kill never would have allowed the boycott to happen. And while I've never been a big supporter of either Dan Barreiro or Glen Mason, the former Gopher football coach was on Barreiro's show Tuesday night and confirmed my suspicisions. You can listen to the entire interview here (interview with Mase starts about the 90 minute mark, this comment is about 106:40) but what Mason said is this about he would have handled the boycott situation:
"If Mark Coyle would have told me, 'hey listen based on this investigation we're going to suspend these players', I would say I want to see the investigation, I have to see the investigation, I have to see the facts. I have to know the facts to know where I stand on this whole thing...
...If you think your players are in the right, you have to go to the wall for them. But if they're wrong?...If I would have seen that report that subsequently came out, that information, I would have gone in there and told those players 'You're not boycotting anybody. I'm not going to support it.' ...If I would have read that report there's no way that (I) would have endorsed that boycott and I would have taken control and say to them 'you're not going to dictate to us. I don't care who you are- Wolitarsky or anybody- I've got the facts and you are wrong. And you can choose not to practice, and if you choose not to practice then you're not going to play in the bowl game.'"
Barriero then asks an excellent question, basically that even though it's a Title IX investigation, does that entitle the head football coach to need to see the report? Mason's response:
"If Kaler is privileged to that information, if Coyle is privileged to that information, why wouldn't I (as the head football coach) be? And if they said I didn't have the correct title I would tell them well change my title because I have to see it because this is important."
It's a really good conversation, and while I don't often agree with Mase, I did here. Claeys failed his players by not getting the necessary information and by not being informed himself, which did not allow him to help his players make an informed decision so that the boycott never happens. Title IX or not, privacy laws or not, the head football coach of a B1G institution needed to know what was in the report and Claeys didn't do enough to find out and did nothing to take control and educate his players about what was happening and why. Even if he didn't totally agree with the findings (and I'm not saying the players are guilty. Sawvel and others have stated at least one player wasn't even there), you still need to explain to your players what is happening, why it happened and how the process plays out from here. He let the players be in control and it led to an ugly boycott. Not only that, he went against his bosses in a decision they all agreed to make. Mason wouldn't have allowed that to happen, and I believe neither would have Kill or a more experienced coach.

That said, as Mason also states in the interview, Kaler and Coyle are to blame here too. You cannot expect to give this kind of ruling and suspension and then give ZERO explanation for it to the players and not expect a mutiny. Title IX rules or not, they needed to work together with Claeys to get the team a clear message of what the results of the investigation were, why it's different than a legal proceeding, and what happens from here. Nobody did that.

The players needed an adult in the room and nobody- not Claeys, Coyle or Kaler- stepped up and filled that void. That's a failure of leadership across the board, and the stain of that boycott on the University falls on all of them, not just the football coach. I believe Coyle and Kaler made the right decision in suspending the players based on the report, but they could not have presented that decision in a worse, more damaging way.

3. ROW THE BOAT

I'll be disappointed if Fleck isn't named the new Gophers head coach by the end of the week. Joe Schmit of KSTP confirmed the following yesterday...
Fleck's not only the hottest name available, but the best fit too. And while mouthbreathers who believe Fleck is the next Tim Brewster do not deserve your time or attention...I can't help it. Fleck has a real, actual track record of success as a head coach. He's 30-22 in his four years at WMU, with the conference title this year, two division titles in 2015 and 2016, and was also named MAC Coach of the Year this season and in 2014. Just as importantly, he's recruited well at a place that is difficult to recruit. Despite going 1-11 in 2013 in his first year at WMU he still pulled in the best recruiting class in the MAC. His class in 2015 was ranked 36th in the country (!!!) by 247 sports.

That matters a lot at a place like Minnesota which, in my opinion, is the most difficult P5 school in the country to recruit at since we have so few D1 recruits in-state, and no P5 school is farther away from good recruiting states than we are. Sure, coaching up players once you get them here is vital (as the current staff showed), but why not start with better players and coach them up from there? And that's just it; Fleck not only out-recruited everyone else in his conference (and some in the B1G too), but he got results out of those recruits too: since the 1-11 start in 2013, he had two 8 win seasons in 2014 and 2015 (if you haven't heard, 8 wins seasons at Minnesota are a HUGE deal so) before running the table in the regular season this year. I know Fleck's "Rah rah" style may rub some folks the wrong way, but we need that kind of enthusiasm and positive energy for the program. There's zero guarantees he works out, but he's not just the hottest name, but he has the best qualifications to succeed here of any of the names being thrown out.

That said, if Fleck doesn't end up being the guy, all is not lost. I hope. Pete Carroll was like the 5th choice to be the head coach at USC. Jerry Kill was at least that far down the list at Minnesota, and while his recent comments are boorish and completely and totally self-serving (wait, a coach at another B1G school is trashing the Gophers? What a surprise!), I'm still glad Jerrysota happened and he was the football coach here.

But seriously, just get PJ Fleck signed already so we can start rowing the boat.

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