MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — At the end of an hours-long meeting with Minnesota President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle, university Board of Regents Chairman Dean Johnson excused himself from the room for a drink of water and a head-clearing walk down the hall.
Coyle was recommending to a group of board members and the school’s general counsel that football coach Tracy Claeys be fired after the program became embroiled in a standoff over the school’s suspension of 10 players in connection with a sexual assault investigation.
“With a pit in my stomach and a tear in my eye, I got up and walked down the hall for a while to think about it,” Johnson told The Associated Press on Wednesday, one day after Claeys was fired . “When you hire your administration, you give them that authority. That’s what they wanted to do and that’s what the decision was.”
Coyle’s decision earned praise from some at the university who saw it as a sign the administration was standing up for victims of sexual assault. It also drew criticism from players, donors and former coach Jerry Kill, still a wildly popular figure among sports backers in the area, and has put an athletic director who was hired just six months ago right in the pressure cooker as he looks for a replacement.
“When you’re dealing with somebody that you like in a program that has shown some improvement, you want to say, ‘Are we sure we’re doing the right thing?'” Johnson said, referring to Claeys. “Which I did. But if you go against the people you’ve hired, they lose confidence in you as well.”
While Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and former LSU coach Les Miles have been among the many names mentioned for the job, at least one has already rebuffed the Golden Gophers. Minnesota reached out to representatives for Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, but was told that he was not interested in the position, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Wednesday night. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because Minnesota was not publicly commenting on its search.
Moorhead is a former head coach at Fordham who just finished his first season as offensive coordinator at Penn State, where he helped the Nittany Lions go 11-3 and reach the Rose Bowl.
Johnson called Claeys, who led the Gophers to 9-4 record in his only full season as coach, “an upstanding man, an honorable person” and said “from a human standpoint, it doesn’t feel very good.”
But Coyle pushed for the move after the team threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl when the university suspended 10 players for their alleged involvement in a case where a woman said multiple players pressured her into having sex. Hennepin County authorities twice declined to press charges citing a lack of evidence, but the school has a lower standard of proof and decided to suspend the players.
Claeys publicly backed the players’ stand, putting him at odds with Kaler and Coyle. And Coyle said on Tuesday that he made the move “to find a coach that shares that commitment to excellence academically, athletically and socially.”
Johnson said Coyle cited the program’s poor performance in recruiting rankings and a dwindling season-ticket base as two primary reasons to fire Claeys, though the ticket issue was also due in part to former athletic director Norwood Teague’s decision to drastically increase ticket prices for the 2016 season.
Current players and alumni as notable as former All-American safety Tyrone Carter assailed the decision. And Kill, who was forced to retire in 2015 due to health reasons and handed the job to longtime assistant Claeys, told 1500 ESPN radio that he was furious with Coyle’s assertion that program was in need of “integrity and class.”
“I won’t be stepping foot back in the stadium,” Kill said. “And I won’t be stepping back into the university.”
Coyle said he was aware of some of the hard feelings that his decision has brought on, and he was determined to find a new coach that can help heal the wounds that were opened.
“I get they’re upset. I get they’re frustrated. I understand that,” Coyle said. “It’s our job to find a leader who will take this program forward and unite all of them in one direction, one goal.”
There was also a rally on campus on Wednesday that was initially called earlier in the week to demand the firing of Claeys. But the Star Tribune reported that 75 people turned out to celebrate the decision.
“Minnesotans love their college football team and they want them to win,” Johnson said. “And that’s fine. But we also expect a high standard of conduct from our student-athletes and all of our students.”
Johnson was asked if he left the meeting with Coyle believing that firing Claeys was the right move.
“More so than not,” he said. “I had questions. I had thoughts and feelings about it. If you’re asking me if it was 100 percent one way or another, the answer is no.”
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