On his second day as Gophers athletic director, Mark Coyle placed J Robinson on administrative leave while the school examined the longtime wrestling coach’s handling of a drug problem inside his program.
On the one-year anniversary of Coyle’s being hired, the university’s Board of Regents held an emergency meeting to discuss leaked confidential information regarding the head athletics fundraiser violating the school’s sexual harassment policy.
The days between those two end points weren’t exactly smooth sailing, either.
Coyle’s first year in charge of Gophers athletics witnessed a staggering amount of crisis management, important decisions and change.
With the exception of Baylor, perhaps no athletic department in the country faced as many challenges and big-ticket items as Coyle’s operation.
In introducing Coyle to the public last May, University President Eric Kaler noted that “Mark’s new job here is a big one, with large challenges to tackle and exciting opportunities to seize.”
The part about his job being challenging is like describing the sun as hot. A quick recap of Year 1:
Coyle fired two coaches, gave contract extensions to three others, became embroiled in a football crisis that brought national embarrassment, hired a new football coach, unveiled a series of initiatives designed to boost sagging attendance, placed his top fundraiser on administrative leave in a sexual harassment, case and watched his department’s physical structure change daily with ongoing construction of the $166 million Athletes Village, which still requires heavy lifting in fundraising.
That says nothing of the day-to-day brushfires that inevitably arise with overseeing 25 sports teams.
Coyle wasn’t doing interviews this week, but his evaluation isn’t required to reasonably assume that his first year proved more eventful than he anticipated. Or wanted.
Coyle worked in the department previously as an associate AD. So he understood that Minnesota is a tough job. But even someone with experience running a large athletic department — such as Coyle — would find all those situations combined to form a daunting agenda.
Not everything caused him sleepless nights. The volleyball and softball teams had marvelous seasons. Men’s basketball did an about-face under Richard Pitino and now has a promising future. New coach P.J. Fleck blew into town like a hurricane and made people take notice of Gophers football with his limitless energy and zest for recruiting. Plenty of reasons exist to feel encouraged.
But a new sexual harassment case this week reaffirmed that Coyle can never feel too comfortable, even if things seem to be moving in a positive direction.
Coyle’s leadership style was revealed in his actions. His personality is unassuming, but he’s shown a willingness to make tough or unpopular decisions. He fired football coach Tracy Claeys after a 9-4 season because Coyle felt the program needed a fresh start.
Coyle signed men’s hockey coach Don Lucia to a two-year contract extension in October after the Gophers failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2015-16.
The most dramatic moment of Coyle’s first year came in December when he suspended 10 football players connected to an alleged sexual assault.
The severity of the allegations — though no one was criminally charged — necessitated action that was bound to offend one side. Coyle angered players and many fans by not waiting for the appeals process to be completed before issuing punishment. That decision gained more scrutiny when five of the players were cleared during the appeals process.
The ripples of that crisis continue. The university recently commissioned a review by two outside attorneys to determine if the school followed proper procedure in handling the case.
Now, there’s another investigation by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which found that associate athletic director Randy Handel violated the school’s sexual harassment policy toward an employee. Handel was placed on paid leave until the case is complete.
On Friday, Kaler gave Coyle high marks for his first year.
“I’m extremely pleased with Mark’s progress,” Kaler said.
The opinion here last May was that Kaler made a smart hire in Coyle. That opinion hasn’t changed, despite some of the turmoil.
Coyle is a good fit for a job that tests a person’s patience. His first year challenged him in ways that were remarkable even by Gopher standards. Less drama in Year 2 would be nice.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org