MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A day after his name was added to the list of former Gopher football coaches, Tracy Claeys sat down with WCCO.
Claeys lost his job after what he views as a successful season — one marred by a controversy that he says he handled as well as he could.
“Obviously it was based on the boycott and all those decisions at the end, and I’m OK with that,” he said. “You know, it’s their right to pick their football coach, but at the same time I do think I did what was right and supported the players, and would do the same thing again.”
Claeys may accept his firing, but he says he’s upset with how it was explained by his former boss. He sat down with WCCO’s Mike Max for an exclusive, candid conversation about what happened.
Claeys had decided not to talk about his firing yesterday, until he heard Mark Coyle’s press conference last night.
“This isn’t about one specific incident,” Coyle said. “I’ve been here six months, and I’ve had a chance to look at that program and all of our programs, and I don’t think it’s fair to say one thing. I think the events over the past few weeks underscored some of the things I’ve been seeing with that program.”
According to Claeys, after the Northwestern win in the final home game, Coyle told him he would be back.
“I wouldn’t change anything that I did,” he said. “It’s hard, but you win nine ball games and that part of it takes care of it. After the Northwestern before, in that time, you’re told you’re doing a good job and handled everything professionally up to that point and you’re going to be back next year.”
Then, 10 players were suspended from the team after a University of Minnesota investigation into allegations of sexual assault. The rest of the players believed their teammates were denied due process after the allegations emerged. A few days later, after the university’s full report on the investigation leaked, they decided to end the boycott.
Claeys believes it was his tweet supporting his players boycott of the game:
“Do you wish you’d have done something differently?” Mike Max asked Claeys.
“The tweet, if I worded it differently,” Claeys said. “But you’re talking about a small-town guy from Kansas, and family, and it’s hard for me to believe anybody took that as being pro-rape, pro-sexual assault. I’d never be that way.”
Then there is murky water: Did he support Coyle’s decision to suspend ten players, as Coyle asserts, or did he side 100 percent with his team? The answer seems somewhere in the middle. While many on the team felt at least four deserved suspension, Claeys and the team believed that several suspended did not.
“At that time I told him, ‘If you read the report, and just read the report, I understand why they would suspend those kids,” Claeys said. “But at the same time, it’s just not that report. There’s a lot of things in there. You know, how six other kids got… That’s just going to have to be explained.”
Claeys said he wanted to stand with his players.
“You recruit those kids there, and you’re a parent to them. You tell them that, and you’ll act in their best interest. It’s a fine line. You balance it back and forth,” he said. “But I don’t think I did anything that was disrespectful straight to the university or my bosses. I supported those kids at the same time — I do think I handled the situation. There’s no game plan for something like that.”
A win over Washington state and Hennepin County announcing they would again not pursue charges mixed with some encouragement from high-ranking Univeristy of Minnesota people left him optimistic.
“When charges weren’t brought and you guys won the bowl game — those two things happened within a few days — did you think that you had your job secured?” Mike Max asked Claeys.
“I did,” Claeys said. “There were people who reached out to me, and I think their support was grossly exaggerated.”
Since his departure, players have been unified in their support of him.
“My main thing is I don’t want them blaming themselves, or that they’re the reason I got fired, because of sticking up for them,” Claeys said. “I’m a big boy and I’ll be alright.”
What he won’t apologize for is his program, his culture, his team and his tenure.
“It’s a hell of a lot better now than when we got here, and I just wish the best for the kids,” Claeys said. “Definitely miss them, and definitely going around seeing the fans.”
He also has a message for whoever the next head coach is at the University of Minnesota.
“Whoever the next person is better have a pretty iron clad contract, if you’re gonna be based on emails from fans and winning nine games isn’t good enough,” he said.
The player sex investigation that played a big part in Claeys’ firing started the night after the first game of this season. A University of Minnesota student reported being sexually assaulted at a party by multiple football players. Prosecutors twice decided no criminal charges were warranted, but a total of 10 players, allegedly there that night, were suspended by the school.
University leaders can’t talk about specifics of the case, but have said repeatedly there’s a very different standard for discipline between the university and a court of law.