Tracy Claeys firing leads to bigger question: Why does trouble follow Minnesota?

Minnesota did the right thing in firing Tracy Claeys, who badly miscalculated by supporting his players’ protest, but there’s still one question: Why does stuff like this keep happening with the Gophers?
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Tracy Claeys has been fired, which was a Minnesota decision that required as much thought as ordering the Silver Butter Knife Steak at Murray’s or setting up near the polka stage at the late, great Nye’s Polonaise Room. He was a fledgling head coach with an 11–8 career record who backed players as they threatened a protest in support of other players who were entangled in an exceptionally unsavory sexual assault case. It turned out the protesting players had essentially no idea about the depth of the ugliness underpinning the cause they backed. When the specific allegations and Title IX reports came to light, the Gophers quickly squirreled away. Meanwhile, their head football coach had supported his team almost unequivocally, thumbing his nose at administrators, which meant a well-paid school employee publicly embarrassed the school that paid him well.

Stunning, really, that this plan did not work out so well for Tracy Claeys.

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He ultimately neglected a few finer points: One, the athletic director, Mark Coyle, did not hire Claeys and probably wants to pick the guy who runs an operation worth a lot of money to his department. Two, Claeys’s buyout as Gophers coach was a relatively paltry $500,000. And three, all due respect, but he’s Tracy freaking Claeys and this is a Big Ten football job, and many qualified coaches would crawl through vats of boiling acid to take it.

This is not a result with a lot of loose ends. There is one lingering question, though.

Why does stuff like this keep happening at Minnesota?

It’s a major-conference program, but no one mistakes it for a striving college athletic leviathan that may or may not have to grind the rulebook and ethics into a fine paste to maintain its lofty status. Minnesota athletics is realistically a mid-level business with fair-but-not-outsized expectations, and yet it all too consistently faces extraordinarily high-end humiliations.

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We’re only starting the timeline in 1999, when what was then the biggest academic fraud scandal in NCAA history ripped through the school and just about tore its beloved basketball program to shreds. Particularly notable lowlights since then? An athletic director, Norwood Teague, resigned after two co-workers raised sexual harassment complaints against him, which revolved around text messages Teague said he sent while he was so drunk he couldn’t remember “half of it.” (Teague also sexually harassed a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter who covered the team.) Last March, three men’s basketball players were suspended after sexually explicit videos were published on one of their social media accounts. And now we have a football team rallying to protest the discipline handed out to 10 peers who were allegedly involved, in varying degrees, with a sexual assault in September. The players threatened a bowl boycott, which was the product of their own ignorance and the inability of administrators to get ahead of a potential public relations tire fire, as they did not realize that lies or half-truths might incite emotional, under-informed teenagers and 20-somethings to do something very inadvisable.

Bad things happen at nearly every college. Academic missteps, inappropriate behavior thrust before anyone with an internet connection, bad administrators, mishandling extremely delicate sexual assault cases…sadly, none of this is unique to Minnesota. But all of it has happened at Minnesota, and having been there for a while, it does not seem to be the kind of place where oppressive pressure to succeed explains it all away.

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My first full-time journalism gig was as the Minnesota beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, starting in September 1999, when the wound from the academic fraud scandal was still wide open and oozing. At the risk of being an English major from New Jersey playing armchair sociologist on the basis of six years spent in one state—there’s a big fat qualification for you—here’s one guess as to why trouble keeps finding its way to the East Bank campus: No one there is cynical enough. Or at least no one in charge seems to be cynical enough.

In some senses, that's commendable: Insisting upon the best in others can be a nice, easy way to live. In the realm of college athletics, that sort of blind faith gets you embarrassed over and over. When assessing the possible fallout for the ’99 academic fraud scandal, both before my arrival and after, people who worked in the athletic department or were close to those involved in the crisis would consider the guilty parties and defend them this way: Oh, he would never do that. Well, he would. And he did. And willful ignorance turned your prosperous basketball program inside out.

Applying this theory to the Teague fiasco is trickier, because he had no connections to the state. But it’s not hard to imagine Minnesota decision-makers believing that merely hiring Teague made him one of them, and that by extension he’d never have the capacity to do the distasteful things that—surprise!—he most definitely did. The recent football scandal got out of hand, one can imagine, because school administrators felt they could let the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigation run its course (as it absolutely should) and then make erroneous or elusive statements about the process and how much the football coach knew about the ensuing discipline, all without the team raising a massive stink. You can see the thought bubble somewhere in the Bierman Athletics Complex: Our kids wouldn’t do that. This conveniently and horribly misread the current climate in which college athletes feel more empowered to raise said stinks than ever before. So the school got knocked around for a few days and the coach eventually got fired, when the people in charge likely could have headed off or at least muted a precipitously bad reaction from college kids.

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Minnesota is a city school with real city police around, not some backwoods outpost where everyone is in the bag for the university. So there’s more nearby temptation for athletes and more likelihood that they’ll get held accountable for any misbehavior. Not much anyone at the school can do about this part of the equation, except for trying to recruit as many good eggs as possible and educating them about doing the right thing, while throwing away the eggs that do very wrong things to women or anyone else. This will be a forever challenge, probably.

But going against nature and approaching the business of athletics with a healthy cynicism—so, running a multi-million dollar business like a multi-million dollar business and not like a mom-and-pop store—may help to prevent the next scandal. Or to minimize it. Or to simply manage it better. Everyone and anyone can do terrible things—this should be the home screen graphic installed on every piece of university-issued electronic equipment henceforth.

Coyle isn’t a born-and-raised Minnesotan—he grew up in Iowa—but he worked in the department as an associate athletic director from 2001 to 2005. At his introductory press conference last May, he choked up at the memory of Goldy Gopher visiting his daughter’s birthday party during his first stint with the school. And it’s perfectly fine to be smitten with a giant rodent mascot. For the good of the department Coyle is tasked with running, it’s everyone else he better worry about.