The latest Gophers athletic scandal is starting to make waves at the State Capitol, where some say it could affect funding for the University of Minnesota as well as the choice of the newest members for the Board of Regents.
On Tuesday, the university fired Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys just as lawmakers were returning to St. Paul for the new session. And officials say the debate has just begun over the university’s handling of the case, which started with an alleged sexual assault in September involving multiple Gophers football players.
“This is, for some of us, the almost-every-session University of Minnesota scandal,” said state Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, the DFL leader on the House Higher Education Committee.
The case pits supporters of the football team against those who felt Claeys improperly defended players accused of taking part in a gang rape. The students were not charged with any crime, but 10 players were suspended from the team in December after a university investigation of the incident.
As the public debate rages on, Pelowski said he’s heard grumbling at the Legislature about the estimated $5 million that it will cost the U to buy out the contracts of Claeys and most of his coaching staff. “There’s big numbers in play when you fire a coach and hire another,” Pelowski said.
That could be a key topic, he noted, when the U submits its formal request to the Legislature this session for an extra $147 million. “If you can pay for people who aren’t coaching,” said Pelowski, “why do you need money from us?”
Dean Johnson, a former state legislator who now chairs the Board of Regents, acknowledged that’s a challenge the university will have to face.
“Any time you have a blemish or a misstep, which has happened at the University of Minnesota, that needs to be cleared up,” he said. “Those questions need to be addressed. This is not going to go away.”
At the same time, he said, “We hope that we will have a compelling argument, and we won’t be penalized for what is happening.”
University President Eric Kaler declined to be interviewed Thursday, but he issued a statement noting that the athletic budget draws “only slightly from state funds” and relies mainly on ticket sales and other revenue. He added that, under state law, state funds cannot and will not be used “to fund termination payments to coaches.”
Rep. Bud Nornes, a Republican from Fergus Falls who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, seemed sympathetic to the U’s dilemma. “I’m looking at the big picture; I still have high regard for this university,” he said. While the alleged sexual assault and its aftermath “have not been a very good thing,” he said, “I wouldn’t say for that reason we’re going to hold back revenue or do something spiteful. We expect them to get it resolved and to do it the best way they can, and then move on.”
Meanwhile, the turmoil swirling around Gophers football was one of the main topics among the 17 candidates vying this week for four openings on the Board of Regents. During the first two days of scheduled interviews, each candidate was asked about the crisis, said Dan Wolter, vice chair of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, which screens candidates for the Legislature.
“No question that it’s something that is on people’s minds,” he said, adding that there is no consensus on whether the U did the right thing. “We’ve gotten a diversity of perspectives, no question about it.” The council is expected to wrap up the interviews Friday, and to forward its recommendations to the Legislature for a vote.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384