MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Moments after Joel Maturi announced his retirement as athletic director at Minnesota, a group of reporters gathered around Golden Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson to get his reaction.
The outspoken Robinson spent the next 25 minutes passionately arguing that Maturi’s oft-criticized philosophy — a broad-based athletic program that caters not only to the cash cows of football and men’s basketball but also to track and field, tennis, golf and other “non-revenue” sports — is the right one.
He hit the same points over and over. Money doesn’t necessarily equate to success. Leadership is the biggest key. Being strong in smaller sports doesn’t mean the big boys have to suffer.
It was as if he was trying to convince anyone who was listening. He had better hope new Minnesota President Eric Kaler was.
Maturi’s departure is creating a lot of nervousness around the university, and not just from the non-revenue programs who benefited from his support. Kaler has said there will be no contract extensions for coaches until a new athletic director is hired and does his or her own evaluations on the program, including men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith.
During 10 years on the job, Maturi helped save the men’s and women’s golf teams and the men’s gymnastics squad in an era where many programs are cutting sports to devote more resources to the moneymakers of football and basketball.
Maturi will retire at the end of the year, and now everyone is waiting and watching to see what kind of priorities his replacement will bring to the table.
“There’s a question, what’s going to happen?” said Robinson, who has led the wrestlers to three national titles. “It’s always a scary deal and you wonder who is going to listen to who.”
Kaler was asked whether a commitment to a broad-based program that includes 25 varsity sports will be a determining factor in the hiring process. Some Gophers backers are pushing him to hire a person who will focus more on the marquee programs of football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey.
“I do share a commitment to a broad range of sports,” Kaler said. “We just need to look at the financial viability of doing that and I’m sure that will be an important element that the new athletic director will (address).”
Robinson scoffs at the money concerns. He looks at an athletic department that has weathered a recession and seen revenues dry up because of the lack of success on the football field and basketball court in recent years and is convinced that money isn’t the issue.
“For the last 10 years, we haven’t won in football and not necessarily in basketball so our revenues have been down,” Robinson said. “But we’ve still been around and we’ve gone through a recession. So why do we need to cut any sports? We don’t. Putting money into things is not the answer.”
It’s all about leadership, according to Robinson. And one of Maturi’s biggest blunders was hiring Tim Brewster as football coach, a disastrous move that squelched any momentum created from the opening of TCF Bank Stadium. Critics also say he stuck with Dan Monson too long as coach of the men’s basketball team, two decisions that kept the university from generating the kind of revenues that Iowa, Wisconsin and other programs generate.
Smith has helped build the hoops team back to respectability, but the progress has plateaued over the last two seasons. He has two years left on his contract, but remains confident he will receive an extension when Kaler hires a new athletic director.
“I expect to be back here,” Smith said. “Dr. Kaler … this next hire that he makes will be important for everyone. Not just myself, but all the coaches and our athletes and the community.”
In the wake of the academic fraud scandal that buried the men’s basketball program, Maturi helped raise the academic profile of the athletic department to the point where 23 of the 25 programs had cumulative grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher. He also supervised very competitive programs in wrestling, golf, track and field, baseball, softball and volleyball while building the first new football stadium in the Big Ten in more than 50 years.
Robinson thinks some of those achievements have been overshadowed by the struggles of the football team. Now Kaler has hired a firm to assist a nationwide search, which makes Robinson even more nervous.
“If you just want to do what everybody else does, then go on a national search, find a guy who is going to dump a ton of money into the revenue-producing sports,” he said. “There’s a hundred of those people. It’s no problem finding somebody like that.
“But to find somebody who can keep a broad-based program, keep all the Olympic sports going, still be in the top 10 or top 20, that takes somebody a lot more difficult to find.”
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