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College sports are changing dramatically by the week as Mark Coyle enters his sixth year as Gophers athletics director.

Coyle, 52, has waded into a new era, in which college athletes can make money off their names, images and likenesses. He's running a department that took a huge financial hit during the pandemic, like others across the country.

And last month, news sprang that Texas and Oklahoma were bolting the Big 12 for the SEC, leaving the Big Ten and other conferences wondering what was next.

In a wide-ranging interview Thursday with four members of the Star Tribune sports staff, Coyle gave his thoughts on those developments and other crucial issues facing his department.

From his corner office at the Athletes Village, Coyle said the Gophers athletic department lost $21.5 million last year and will take a loan from the central campus.

He said the football team has sold 6,000 new season tickets and expects to sell out the Sept. 2 opener against Ohio State. And he said the U will encourage masks but won't require proof of vaccination to enter Huntington Bank Stadium — at least not yet.

Here are other highlights from the interview, edited for length.

Q: What does the football season ticket situation look like after not having fans last season at TCF Bank Stadium?

A:First of all, if you go back to the [2019] Penn State game, you go back to the Wisconsin game, you go to the Outback Bowl, you saw the fans and how they showed up and were a part of it, and we have done a lot of external events with fans this summer. The first thing I tell them is how much we miss them. They're such a big part of what we do, day in and day out. … I've been told by our marketing people, I think we have 6,000 new season tickets [24,039 football non-student season tickets]. We've doubled the number of student season tickets [6,592 total]. We anticipate the Ohio State game will sell out here shortly, so obviously there's great excitement.

Q: Will the fans be required to wear masks and be vaccinated to attend football games?

A: In terms of restrictions, obviously [University] President [Joan] Gabel from Day 1 has followed the science. She has followed the Minnesota Department of Health, and our experts on campus. Inside our facilities, we have to wear a mask, so we ask our fans when they are inside our facilities, to have a mask on. When they're out in the bowl, we're going to strongly encourage it, and a lot of our peers are doing that across the country.

At this point, we have not talked about vaccination requirements or proof of negative tests.

I know Oregon/Oregon State … LSU and Tulane have issued some similar things. But we have not had that conversation. That's today, August 25th. That could change in 48 hours, but right now, we're going to strongly encourage our fans to wear a mask.

Q: How confident are you about all Gophers athletes being vaccinated, to abide by Gabel's mandate?

A: Because of medical privacy things and so forth, we can't give specific numbers, but I can tell you, we are in a really, really, good spot. And even before it became a requirement or a mandate from campus, I felt like our student-athletes, our coaches and staff were in a good spot.

A stadium attendant reminded fans to wear their face masks per COVID-19 protocol during the spring game at Huntington Bank Stadium.
A stadium attendant reminded fans to wear their face masks per COVID-19 protocol during the spring game at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Q: What are your thoughts on the recently announced Big Ten/ACC/Pac-12 alliance?

A: If you look at those institutions, we all have a lot in common. … I think we have a lot of similar philosophies in terms of our thought process. And I think given some of the uncertainty that we're all facing in college athletics — from NIL [name, image and likeness] … to Texas-Oklahoma — I think it brings great stability.

… What I love about Minnesota is we're a legacy member of the Big Ten. … So I think it's great for Minnesota, I think it's great for the Pac-12, the ACC to develop these alliances with respect to what we want the future of college athletics to look like. … You've got 41 of the 65 Power Five institutions working together going in the same direction, which I think is very important and will be healthy for college athletics.

Q: Can you give an update on the revenue lost during the pandemic and how the athletic department will make up that loss?

A: When you talk about not having fans last year, it doesn't matter if I'm at [previous career stops of] Syracuse, Boise State, Minnesota or Kentucky. We all have the same revenue streams. … We talked about worst case, $75 million loss. As we worked our way through the year, we updated our projection. We thought it might be between $35-45 million as we started to see some of the media distribution come to us and some of those things. When we got through the year at the end of the year, we think our loan will be about $21.5 million.

… Obviously, we reduced sports [cutting men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's indoor track and field] and that gets a lot of attention. I get that. We also eliminated staff positions, which is not easy and something nobody wants to do. Our campus had a salary reduction program. The athletics department did a second salary reduction program. We had lots of people make lots of sacrifices to get that money down. … And what I don't want to do is have handcuffs on our department as we try to move forward.

Q: How will the $21.5 million loan be paid, over 10 years or something?

A: We haven't worked out the terms yet. We've updated our Board [of Regents] with communication. But we haven't worked out the terms yet. When I talk about the $21.5 million, that's last fiscal year, which ended [June 30]. As we work our way through this year there's still uncertain with this [delta] variant. Will it be impacted? Will it not be impacted? That covers last year. We'll work with the university this year on the terms. We will pay that loan back.

Q: What do you think of the new name, image and likeness rules, and have you partnered with anyone to help athletes build their brands?

A: We're trying to be very aggressive. We think it's awesome with name, image and likeness. We put together an NIL working group that worked all last year. … First off, we started a partnership with Opendorse [a sports technology company] to help our student-athletes with their branding. … We also have a partnership with Team Altemus to provide education to our student-athletes, in terms of when you cut these deals and create these partnerships, to make sure you understand all the unintended consequences with it.

And then finally, we can't be in the position to go out and create these deals for our student-athletes. They've got to reach out to you directly, but obviously if you're a student-athlete here and enter into a partnership, you have to share that agreement with us. … We don't have [NIL laws] here in the state of Minnesota. We've put together a very user friendly policy for our student athletes.

Q: With an uptick in crime near campus, what message do you have for parents and recruits who might be looking at this area?

A: I have talked to parents, and the very first thing I tell them is, 'I'm a parent of a student at the University of Minnesota. Our daughter, Gracie, goes here.' I get their thoughts; I get their questions and their comments. … We've got a great, great partnership with Matt Clark, our chief of police here on campus. Chief Clark has done an awesome job talking to coaches, talking to our student-athletes, educating them on things we can do to make sure we're aware of our surroundings and we're making the right choices.

Crime on campus hasn't changed. It's very similar to what it's been in the past. It's the surrounding area is where we've seen some instances. … [President Gabel] got involved with the Rave Guardian app, which is a safety app that students and coaches can use to help us with those alerts. Our key is that we continue to have constant communication internally and externally, and we make the right choices. We want to make sure we provide a great experience for everybody in and around our campus community.

Q: What will be St. Thomas' impact being a Division I program now?

A: It's exciting for the state of Minnesota. I live less than a mile from that campus in St. Paul. I've got to know [men's hoops coach Johnny Tauer]. I've got to know [football coach Glenn] Caruso really well, and I have a lot of respect for what he's done and Coach Tauer, too. As they ramp up to Division I, it's a big step for anybody. It's a big step for Minnesota.

I'm going to brag for a second; I know that's not very Minnesotan. Our budget is in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten — $123 million, pre-COVID. I'm not sure what St. Thomas' budget is, but they're now Division I. It's not going to be $123 million, right? They're going to have to develop those resources to start to compete in their league and with everybody. … For St. Thomas, I have a lot of respect for [AD Phil Esten] and that program, and I know they'll do great things.

Star Tribune staff members Marcus Fuller, Randy Johnson, Chip Scoggins and Joe Christensen participated in the interview with Mark Coyle.