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Tracy Claeys Had to Go for Mark Coyle to Succeed as AD

Perception is reality — and that is never more true in today’s 24-hour news cycle world of instant news and instant reactions. No one found that out more harshly than Minnesota Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys, who was fired from his job on Tuesday afternoon.

Simply put, Claeys backed himself in to a corner he, nor the athletic department could get out of. It was either Claeys or Coyle winning and the boss was going to win every time.

Sadly, none of this would have happened but for the alleged really stupid decision of 10 football players on Sept. 2. Of course, we’re talking about the alleged sexual assault that took place following a Gophers football game that day, one that up to 10 players were involved in in some way, shape or form according to the alleged victim.

But, the details around the incident are murky at best as the Star-Tribune points out:

Hennepin County has twice reviewed the case and declined to press charges, but an internal investigation by the University’s office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) led Coyle to suspend 10 players from the team indefinitely on Dec. 13.

What happened after that is how we got here today. The team was pissed, boycotted all team activities for two days and threatened to not play in the bowl game either.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed, but it wasn’t a good situation. It was made worse as Claeys came out to publicly back his players in direct confrontation between the team and the administration.

He did it to show support for the group of young men in the room whom he asked to put it all on the line for him every Saturday. Claeys literally did the same thing in his public backing of the players.

According to one report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Claeys told his players exactly what was at stake:

Claeys told WCCO (830-AM) that when players were headed toward a boycott last week, he told them, “There’s a great chance I could lose my job over this.”

If there was any doubt that Claeys decision to publicly back his players against the wishes of his boss and the apparent conversation they had had earlier in the week, then Coyle’s statement today left little doubt.

In part, the statement read:

“On December 13, 2016, Coach Claeys, Deputy Athletics Director John Cunningham and I met to discuss 10 student-athletes.

I informed Coach Claeys of my judgment that athletic suspensions were appropriate. Without any objection, Coach Claeys said he understood that decision to bench student-athletes.

Coach Claeys, Deputy Athletics Director John Cunningham, and I met with the student-athletes to advise them of our decision. Coach Claeys subsequently informed me that he agreed with the suspension decision.

And let me be clear: this was the right thing to do.

Coach Claeys’ Tweet later that week was not helpful. I accept that Coach Claeys intended it to support the boycotting players. Understandably others did not see it that way. I hope you will appreciate I cannot say more about the athletic suspensions in this case.

I will say, as a general matter, athletic suspension decisions – essentially a decision to bench a player – are different from a prosecutor’s decision to charge someone with a crime.

Different standards, different policies.”

Coyle’s statement made it very clear that he expects his coaches to abide by the decisions of the athletic department and other institutions within the University system.

As for the players involved?

Five players — Ray Buford, KiAnte Hardin, Carlton Djam, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson — are facing expulsion hearings, four others — Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr. — are facing one-year suspensions and Antonio Shenault is facing one year of probation on campus.

The decision by Coyle continued to fracture his relationship between the players and the administration, with outgoing senior quarterback Mitch Leidner issuing a blistering statement following the announcement.

“It’s extremely sad. Our players are behind Coach Claeys and the staff 100 percent. It’s a sad day for Minnesota football,” Leidner said. “It’s a scary thing when an administration fires a coach for standing up for his players. It’s going to be very challenging for another coach to want to come into this situation.”

Leidner’s misguided anger aside, Coyle had no choice here. Either he let Claeys slide and set a horrific precedent as to who actually runs the program or he fired Claeys to make it known that no one was above the program and that public spats weren’t going to be tolerated.

Claeys knew exactly what was at stake and he did it anyway. It was a bold move, one that had to be made in his opinion.

Life has consequences for actions, and this is a great example of all sides likely being right in exactly how they reacted. Such is the dilemma of this most difficult situation for everyone.

Everyone comes out a loser thanks to one bad decision after another.

It’s now on Mark Coyle to pick up the pieces and build a football program that he can personally and professionally be proud of once again.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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