The University of Minnesota likely made the most expensive coaching decision in its history when it fired Tracy Claeys on Tuesday, and another multimillion dollar commitment comes next.
Board of Regents Chairman Dean Johnson said Wednesday “now’s probably the time to notch it up” and pay what it takes to land a top coach.
“We have to make a decision: Are we just going to have a midrange football program, or do we make substantial investments to take us to the next level?” Johnson said.
Johnson said in the current marketplace, the caliber of coach the Gophers seek likely will cost “anything from $2 million to $4 million [per year].”
Claeys was one of the lowest-paid coaches in a major conference this season, making $1.4 million. He had two years and $3.1 million remaining on his contract, but the university instead paid him a $500,000 buyout.
But the university also fired most of Claeys’ staff, all except linebackers coach Mike Sherels and safeties coach Dan O’Brien. The salaries for the staff members were guaranteed through next season, so the university could eat an additional $4.5 million fulfilling those 13 contracts.
That’s $5 million committed to this transaction already — Claeys’ buyout plus the staff guarantees — and they will surely match that amount in hiring a new staff. Big Ten peer Purdue in December committed nearly $7 million to a new staff, giving Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm a $3.3 million salary and a $3.5 million budget for hiring his staff, according to the Lafayette Journal & Courier.
Forbes reports the average Big Ten salary last season was $3.52 million.
Two expected targets for Coyle are Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck. The Associated Press reported the U also reached out to Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead but he wanted to remain at PSU.
As of late Wednesday night, Minnesota had yet to make an offer to Fleck, according to a source familiar with his situation. He made $800,000 this season but reportedly has been negotiating a lucrative contract extension throughout his team’s storybook 13-1 season.
Hired by Coyle at Boise State three years ago, Harsin made $1.3 million this season. But to leave for the Big Ten, he’d undoubtedly be seeking a raise.
The potential candidate list doesn’t end there. Coyle and Kaler will have to decide whether to get into a bidding war for the coach they want.
No matter the choice, a record-setting monetary commitment to a coaching transition looms.
“I’m concerned about the financial implications of this decision,” said university Regent Michael Hsu. “I’m waiting for a financial plan that would explain how we would finance the buyout and the new coach’s contract.”
Coyle explained his decision to fire Claeys with university President Eric Kaler and two members of the Regents — Johnson and vice chair David McMillan — in a Tuesday meeting. The full 12-member Board of Regents didn’t vote, but the full board would have to approve the new coach’s contract.
“We’re looking to the leadership of Mark Coyle and his sharp pencil to figure out how in the athletic budget all of this fits together,” Johnson said. “I think early on, there would have to be some borrowing from the University’s general fund.
“But athletics cannot be financially supported from state dollars or tuition. It has to rely on its own advertising, ticket sales, TV rights. I think some of the money — but not all — would come from the new [Big Ten] TV contract that’s being negotiated.”
The university has made expensive coaching transactions in the past, but not quite like this.
Tubby Smith was fired in March 2013 and received a $2.5 million buyout.
The past two regime changes in Gophers football likely cost between $2 million and $4 million. It’s difficult to figure exact full-staff buyout figures, as coaches and assistants can land other jobs quickly, offsetting costs.
Tim Brewster took a $750,000 buyout on his way out of Minnesota, and Jerry Kill cost $1.6 million on Day 1.
The decision to fire Brewster’s predecessor, Glen Mason, on New Year’s Eve 2006 was a high-water mark. Mason left with a $3.6 million package that included a buyout and deferred salary.
Hiring the right coach could invigorate the fan base, and the increased ticket sales could offset the salary cost.
But as Johnson noted, the Gophers’ season-ticket numbers were down about 6,200 this past season, and the decrease in that athletic department revenue will be in the millions.
“With the new Athletes Village coming in line, we’ve got a wonderful new stadium, a great university for student-athletes,” Johnson said. “Now’s probably the time for us to notch it up, and in a few years be talking about that competition with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. That appears to be what the people of Minnesota want.”
The Star Tribune’s John Wareham contributed to this report.