Dorr: Gopher athletic director Coyle got the man he wanted but gave a raw deal to Tracy Claeys

I tuned into the press conference Friday afternoon announcing the hiring of the new Minnesota football coach, closed my eyes, and thought I was listening to Lou Holtz (a.k.a. The Music Man or The Pied Piper), Jim Wacker or Tim Brewster.

Those three guys blew into Minnesota as head football coaches and mesmerized Gopher alums and other fans with a continuous stream of words that had little meaning. They all talked a good game but didn’t deliver much – Holtz a little in his short two-year stint, Wacker a little, and Brewster nothing after the first part of his first year.

P.J. (Philip John for the uninitiated) Fleck was introduced and wouldn’t have stopped talking for at least another half hour if someone hadn’t called out that the next question from the media would be the last.

Fleck first called Mark Coyle “a very special athletic director,” thanked everyone at Western Michigan,  and then noted that his team had gone from 1-11 his first year to 13-1 the past season because “they were given a vision.”

In short order he told those assembled that “this (Gopher) program is about serving and giving,” “my entire life has been about running into the fire, not away from the fire,”and “we want this (Minnesota football) to become a national brand.” He also said he eats difficult conversations for breakfast and that’s why he took the Minnesota job. And he reminded everyone that he picked Minnesota, Minnesota didn’t pick him.

(My guess is that the $18 million he will get for five years also entered into the decision.)

The very first thing I noticed when Fleck went to the podium and posed with Coyle, as they held up a Minnesota jersey, was a fake smile that vanished immediately as soon as a picture was snapped. But there were other smiles later as we listened to what might be described as the Second Coming.

Fleck was 30-22 in his four years at Western Michigan, 21-11 in the Mid-American Conference.  He replaces Tracy Claeys who was 9-4 this past season and won a bowl game for the second straight year.

Does that mean that nothing less than 10 wins and a good bowl game are on the horizon for the Gophers in 2017? We’ll know the answer to that question 12 months from now.

Fleck may be able to coach, he will almost certainly sell tickets, and the students are likely to fall under his spell initially. his age of 36 helping in that respect. They say he’s a good recruiter. It may all work out.

But the fact remains that Tracy Claeys got a bad deal from Mark Coyle, the brand new athletic director.

Here’s the lead headline, in huge type, from the Star Tribune sports section of Nov. 29, only 39 days earlier: “Claeys, staff to get new contracts.” The subheads with the story were: “Sources say deals coming after Coyle affirms support for football coach,” and “With 8 wins, no matter how fuzzy, retaining Claeys was only real option” above a column by Chip Scoggins.

Then, of  course, a couple weeks later 10 players were suspended in connection with a September incident, the other players organized a two-day boycott and threatened to boycott the bowl game, and Claeys tweeted his support for the players’ boycott. That tweet (social media could be banned and I wouldn’t care) got Claeys in trouble, although people worked hard to misinterpret the statement.

There’s no way Claeys was condoning what the players had done. And, at that point, the 80-page report we’ve all heard about had not been released that detailed what happened.

Many of you may remember Phillip Nelson, the quarterback from Mankato who was a starter ahead of Mitch Leidner four years ago but transferred to Rutgers after being replaced by Leidner at halftime of a bowl game. Then a year later Nelson got into an altercation in which another person was severely injured and was kicked off the team in Rutgers. He eventually received punishment from the judicial system. (He surfaced at East Carolina University this past year and, despite missing the last two games, threw for 2,621 yards, 16 touchdowns, completed 68 percent of his passes, and had a quarterback rating of 141.5.)

The Rutgers coach couldn’t be with Nelson the night that Nelson got in trouble. He was not fired. Neither could Tracy Claeys be with every player he was coaching, yet he was fired.

Let me be clear: I disagreed with a lot of decisions Claeys made during games. and I criticized him in print, although the job he did to win this season’s bowl game, under the circumstances surrounding it, was outstanding. So I’m not what you would call a Claeys guy. But he got a bad deal.

For athletic director Coyle to question the integrity and class of the program under Claeys and his predecessor Jerry  Kill was ridiculous. But that’s what Coyle did last week in announcing the firing of Claeys.

What the players  in question  allegedly did was reprehensible. But it wasn’t Claeys’ fault.

A letter writer in the Star Tribune last Thursday wrote that perhaps Claeys could have had a team of more mature young men if he didn’t refer to them as kids. The writer wrote that she cringed every time she heard Claeys “use this pre-adult name for these college men.” Talk about a ridiculous charge – college coaches routinely call their players kids. That letter writer was way off base.

The Minneapolis paper published results of a poll it took that showed 62 percent of those responding said the firing was the wrong thing, and 38 percent said it was right.

Another letter writer noted that one of the reasons given for the firing of Claeys was the low attendance in 2016. The letter writer noted that ticket prices had been doubled for holders of season tickets.

Another letter writer, a University of Minnesota emeritus professor, wrote this: “The fault for all of this lies with the (alleged) perpetrators.” That’s so true.

On the same page as the letters was an editorial that contained this sentence: “Even after a 9-4 season, no one can tolerate a coach who appears more interested in buddying up to his players than in upholding the standards that student-athletes are expected to live by.” I thought that editorial statement was way off base.

As I said earlier, Fleck may end up being a good hire. If so, people will soon forget the firing of Claeys and the mess surrounding the football program this past season. If Fleck can do more than just talk a good game, as has been the case with some previous coaches, the unfair deal that Claeys got will be forgotten, But it will still have been unfair.


Jan. 17, 1957 – After posting an upset win over Forest Lake the Tigers stumbled,losing 55-49 to Cambridge. Jerry Kish led with 13 points, Dick Young had 11 and Dennis Thompson 10.

Jan. 18. 1962 – Ogilvie beat Princeton 51-38 as Phil Kobbervig scored 11 and Don Herman 10 . . .  As Princeton prepared to wrestle undefeated Foley, Steve Meixell was unbeaten in six matches and brother Cedric was 5-1.

Jan. 19, 1967 – Princeton trailed Monticello 18-13 in wrestling before Roger Winkelman, Lee Minks, Mike Thompson, Bob Backlund and Pete Swanson won the last five matches for a PHS win . . . Elk River Princeton its first loss of the Rum River schedule, 73-64. Steve Cartwright had 24 points, Tim Enger 13 and Art Skarohlid 11.

Jan. 19, 1972 – Jim Olson broke two school records in a swimming loss to Osseo . . . Princeton lost 60-34 to Spring Lake Park as Tom Holbrook had 17 rebounds, and lost 73-51 to Mora as Tom Rogde scored 15 points.

Jan. 20, 1977 – Milaca put on a stall but Princeton got a 39-33 win as Curt Jenson had 16 points and 9 rebounds . . . Barb Northway made a free throw with five seconds left in overtime for a 49-48 win over Foley. Laurie Peterson had 26 points . . .  Michelle Ziegler won won vault and uneven parallel bars in a gymnastics win over Brooklyn Center.

Jan. 21, 1982 – The girls basketball team beat Mora 62-41 as Barb Blomberg had 23 points and 13 rebounds, and Kelly Talberg scored 20 . . . Brad Bakken got his fifth pin in a row as Princeton beat Pine City 43-15. Dave Barthel, Ron Trunk and Dan Springman also had pins.

Jan. 15, 1987 – Princeton beat Pine City 7-0 in hockey as Todd Seifert and Bob Hurt each scored twice . . . Karry Schimming had 20 points and 11 rebounds in a 57-51 loss to Minnetonka . . . A 24-9 halftime lead turned into a 39-37 nail-biting win for the boys basketball team as Eric Minks (13 rebounds, 11 points) led the way, The Tigers made only 11 of 25 free throws.

Jan. 16, 1992 – The girls basketball team stayed undefeated in conference play with a 59-32 win over Foley as Corrine Lundell (21 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists) and Tanya Dorr (12 points, 6 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 assists) led the way . . . Princeton beat Pine City 37-31 in wrestling for the first dual-meet win since January 1985 (2,553 days). Jeremy Werner got a pin at 189 to clinch the win . . . Mark Anderson scored 30 as Princeton upset defending Rum River champ Cambridge, 68-62.

Jan. 10, 2002 – Phil Meinert won the 140-pound title in a wrestling invitational at Royalton . . . Mark Anderson had two firsts and Charlie Tindell one in a swimming invitational at Chisago Lakes as two PHS relay teams also won.

Jan. 11, 2007 – Duluth East beat the PHS boys basketball team 91-77 to end an eight-game winning streak for the Tigers after wins over Becker and Duluth Denfeld. Princeton was 12 for 28 on three-pointers as five players were in double figures . . . The PHS hockey team (3-9) beat Duluth Central 4-2as Kris Macko scored twice but lost 7-0 to state-ranked Duluth Denfeld who had a 50-16 edge in shots.

Jan. 13, 2011 – The boys basketball team beat Becker 55-53 as Joss Jondahl (21 points) and John Jedneak (17 points, 9 rebounds, 7 blocks) led the way . . . Princeton beat Becker/Big Lake in hockey, 7-2, as Dean Anderson and Chase Lindenfelser each scored twice.