Talk quickly pivoted from football to player suspensions Wednesday, when Gophers coach Tracy Claeys addressed the media at a prearranged Holiday Bowl news conference in San Diego.
One day after the university indefinitely suspended 10 players from all team activities, Claeys insisted this won’t be a distraction for the team’s Dec. 27 game against Washington State.
“Last I checked, it only takes 11 on each side of the ball, and two for special teams,” Claeys said. “So we’ve got enough left to do that, and we’ll get them prepared to go, and our kids will play hard.”
But the news that five of the suspended players are facing expulsion — KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson and Carlton Djam — had spread through the team by the end of Wednesday’s practice.
Those are the punishments the university’s office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) is recommending after concluding its own investigation into an alleged sexual assault on Sept. 2.
Four other players — Antoine Winfield Jr., Seth Green, Mark Williams and Kobe McCrary — are facing potential one-year suspensions from school, and the EOAA also recommended probation for a 10th player, Antonio Shenault. The attorney for all 10 players, Lee Hutton, said he is working on their appeals.
In a letter to donors, University President Eric Kaler said the suspensions will force the players to miss the Holiday Bowl. Kaler added: “The need to take actions like this is incredibly disappointing.”
After Wednesday’s practice, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle addressed the team and the players headed to the locker room, with department officials keeping all of them off limits to the media.
Coyle read some prepared remarks to a throng of reporters, citing privacy laws “that prevent me from talking about specific students or situations.” He said his goal is to achieve at the “highest levels academically, athletically and socially.”
“As we work toward that goal, our department will never lose sight of our responsibility to uphold the university’s values and to provide a great experience for all university students,” Coyle said. “When we make decisions, including difficult decisions like I made in consultation with Coach Claeys recently, it will always be with those values in mind.”
Coyle took four questions but repeatedly cited privacy laws and then ended the session less than two minutes after it began.
Then it was Jay Sawvel’s turn, and the fiery defensive coordinator wound up giving an impassioned defense of the program.
“We are a resilient group,” Sawvel said. “Look, we went through [former coach Jerry Kill’s retirement], we went through restraining orders, we’re fine. We’ll bounce back. We’re under attack. We’ll be fine.”
Asked what he meant by “under attack,” Sawvel referenced previous fallout from the alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault.
“I just think it’s more of the fact that we’ve been through tidal wave after tidal wave of the season,” Sawvel said. “You go through a suspension [three games apiece for Hardin, Buford, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson], restraining order, you get players back and the next thing you know you are losing 10 of them.”
Sawvel said he learned the 10 players had been suspended Tuesday at 4:30 p.m., calling it a surprise.
Asked about the program’s culture, Sawvel said, “Our team GPA is over 3.0. Our Academic Progress Rate is in the top five in the country. …The culture of the program is fine. We had four [recruits] commit in the last few days — they’ve been around our players the whole time — had a guy commit last night.
“I don’t think you’re doing those things if your culture is broken.”
Sawvel said “the takeaway” in all this is, “Surround yourself with good people. Always be aware of the situations that you’re in.”
He added: “There’s no cultural thing that’s broken in the program. Because I know one of the [suspended players] that I talked to last night was not there [where the Sept. 2 incident happened]. He’s been in the program for a while, and I trust him. He wasn’t even there. Let’s leave it at that.”