Minnesota fumbles firing of football coach who stood up for players’ due process rights

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Posted: Jan 05, 2017 5:28 PM
Minnesota fumbles firing of football coach who stood up for players’ due process rights
Creative Commons / User TheWolverineMag

UNDUE PROCESS: Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys was fired after defending his players’ rights to due process.

The University of Minnesota has sent a strong message that standing up for due process rights and defending the politically incorrect will not be tolerated.

Minnesota’s Athletic Director Mark Coyle fired head football coach Tracy Claeys on Tuesday, in the wake of Claeys standing up for members of the football team who briefly boycotted practice in response to accusations of sexual assault against 10 players. Those 10 players were suspended in mid-December and their teammates began the boycott just days later, citing a lack of due process in the investigation over accusations.

But two days after senior player Drew Wolitarsky spoke at a press conference about the boycott, the team reversed course and accepted the suspensions. The reversal came after media outlets received documents pertaining to the police investigation into the alleged sexual assault (police twice refused to charge the players) and the school’s own investigation.

Claeys defended his team on Twitter after the boycott was announced, writing: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!” Sources later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he was initially reluctant about supporting the boycott, but came on board after speaking with the players after the press conference.

Claeys’ stance put him at odds with Coyle and university president Eric Kaler, who released a joint statement when the boycott was announced claiming people upset over the suspensions didn’t “have all the facts.”

Coyle, who has been in his position for six months, claimed his decision to fire Claeys was not entirely about the response to the sexual assault allegations.

“I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program,” Coyle said. “We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges.”

Coyle’s assessment of other team problems seems misplaced.

The 2016 team enjoyed Minnesota’s best season since 2003 (Claeys was in his second season as head coach), finishing 9-4. They upset the favored Washington State Cougars in the Holiday Bowl after the boycott ended.

On the downside, while the team posted a winning record in Big Ten play (5-4), the Gophers also had the lowest-ranked recruiting class in the conference.

Coyle also cited declining ticket sales, although that likely had more to do with a sizable increase in ticket prices instituted by former Athletic Director Norwood Teague (who ironically resigned over sexual harassment allegations).

That leaves Claeys’ defense of his player’s boycott as the remaining reason for his firing.

Former coach Jerry kill, who resigned in 2015 over health concerns, heavily criticized the decision to fire Claeys and said he would not be “stepping foot back in the stadium” or the university. He also objected to Coyle’s claim that the football program needed “integrity and class.”

Claeys was given no chance to clean up the team following the sexual assault allegations. Instead, his dismissal leaves the impression that the university will not support those who stand up for due process. Claeys knew his players, he probably believed in them and wasn’t going to throw them under the bus without all the facts just because it would be politically correct to do so.

Had Claeys come out in support of the suspensions – without knowing the facts of the allegations – and assumed his players were rapists, would he still be getting fired? Probably not.

Claeys wasn’t the only coach fired by Coyle, either. Seven of Claeys’ assistant coaches were fired as well. Claeys had a multi-year contract with the school, which included a $500,000 buyout. In total, the school will have to spend up to $5 million fulfilling the contracts of the departing staff, in addition to the costs of searching for and hiring a new head coach and staff.

So if students wonder why their tuition is going up next year …