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Tracy Claeys: Gopher scapegoat

Gopher scapegoatUsually leadership at NCAA Institutions like Big Ten schools with 45,000 students comes from university presidents. Not at Minnesota, where President Eric Kaler has done his best recently to bungle the important role of the athletic program.

He places academic achievement as his number-one priority, and in many ways under his watch he has undermined the importance of the athletic program, which drives the revenue streams for university athletics.

It’s been called dysfunctional: The clear incompetence and laxity of administration leadership have pushed the Gophers to the verge of being a national joke. Last week, Head Football Coach Tracey Claeys was fired after becoming the first Gophers football coach to win both of his first back-to-back bowl games.

Claeys took over after previous head coach Jerry Kill resigned because of health concerns during the 2015 season; Claeys was his top assistant. In his first full season, he led the Gophers to a 9-4 season with the second-most wins by a Gopher team since 1905, including the 17-12 win over Washington State in the December 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

When Claeys became head coach, the University did not have a full-time athletic director because Kaler dropped the ball. That was on the heels of longtime respected athletic director Joel Maturi resigning.

Kaler has long been casual in his support of Gophers athletics, and it shows. He has burn scars to prove it. Kaler hired a search committee to find his next AD, which is a sure sign of a president with a lack of commitment to his athletic program and one of the key reasons why the Gophers have not been in the Rose Bowl since 1961.

Norwood Teague was the guy recommended by the committee to the uncommitted Kaler, and he hired him from Virginia Commonwealth. Teague was supposed to elevate the athletic program and was believed to be a great fundraiser.

The first thing Teague did three years ago on arrival was fire as men’s basketball coach the highly respected Tubby Smith, one of the best coaches in college basketball. Smith had won an NCAA Championship at Kentucky before taking the Minnesota job. After six seasons, he was fired.

Three times Smith led the Gophers to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Smith beat UCLA in the NCAA tournament in his final win, and during the year even upset number-one Indiana at Williams Arena for the first time in school history. Never before in 100 years of Gophers basketball had the men’s basketball coach reached the NCAA tournament three times in six years.

Teague proved in short order that he was in over his head. He was fired after it was discovered that he was a campus sexual predator, harassing women administrators and media females with sexual advances. It was one of the most embarrassing and expensive mistakes in school history. The program has become a laughing stock in college athletics thanks to President Kaler.

For two years, the U of M athletic program has been without a full-time AD. Richard Pitino was hired by Teague to replace Smith. After three years and zero NCAA appearances, last year the young Pitino was 8-23, the worst season in school history.

Not until last fall was Mark Coyle hired as full-time athletic director. He is not the best communicator according to some. He did not hire Claeys, and it showed — he recently barbecued him in a news conference and fired him last week after the football team in September had four Black players accused of sexual misconduct with a female student.

Claeys suspended the players for three games because the university has a student code of conduct policy that allows Title IX investigators to launch their own independent investigation even after university and Minneapolis police had conducted an investigation into the alleged assault of the woman using video and audio of the sexual act captured on tape by the players. No charges were filed.

Three weeks ago, 10 Gopher players were suspended by the university after the Title IX report was issued. The football team’s remaining players announced a planned boycott of the Holiday Bowl game, demanding the 10 players be reinstated. Thirty-six hours later, after meeting with Coyle and reading the 82-page Title IX report, the players withdrew their boycott protest.

After his players announced their planned boycott, Claeys tweeted his support of their right to protest, not of the actions of the accused suspended players. The confusion of Claeys’ support angered some. Coyle used the opening to fire Claeys and hire his own guy, P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and a trip to the January 2 Cotton Bowl.

Fleck will make $3.5 million a year over the next five years while the suspended Gopher football players await a hearing on their fate and suspensions. Kaler still has job, and his mistakes are evident. His lack of leadership and poor decision-making are clear and are costing this university a small fortune.

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

Vikings’ playoff hopes gone like a fart in the wind

In covering the NFL and the Vikings all these years since 1978, I feel the disappointment and frustration of Vikings fans. The purple pain cuts so deep because expectations were sky high for this team. Not since 2003 when the Vikings started 6-0 under Mike Tice and also missed the playoffs have the team’s prospects looked so hopeful.

Tice’s Vikings finished 9-7; this year’s team was just 8-8. And this season again, like 2003, fell into the hands of Green Bay. The Packers rallied then as they did this season to win the Division with a 10-6 record.

After mauling the Bears Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium 38-10, the Vikings finished 8-8, losing eight of their last 11 games, just 2-4 in the NFC North and 5-3 at home. Injuries were a big part of the reason why, no doubt. But injuries are like missed free throws — you can’t use them as a scapegoat.

This is professional football. All 32 teams start with $127 million, and you have to build a competitive team.

People pay big money to be entertained. Try asking some of the 66,000 season ticket Vikings fans, many of whom paid thousands more for tickets and seat license fees in 2016 for the Vikings experience at U.S. Bank Stadium than they paid for any season in team history.

It’s over, folks. 5-0 — get over it. Just like that, like a fart in a wind storm, the Vikings finished third in the Division behind 9-7 Detroit and 10-6 Green Bay, who both qualified for the playoffs. Those playoffs start this weekend with the Wild Card games as 9-7 Detroit, the NFC sixth seed, travels to 10-5-1 Seattle to play the NFC West Champion Seahawks.

The Packers (10-6), who rallied after losing four straight games and allowing 30 points in all four losses to win the NFC North and winning six straight games, will host the 11-5 New York Giants on Sunday.

The AFC games are 12-4 Oakland at 9-7 Houston and 10-6 Miami traveling to 11-5 Pittsburgh. The other four playoff teams earned first-round byes as Division champions with the best records in the AFC, 14-2 New England and 12-4 Kansas City, and the NFC teams 13-3 Dallas and 11-5 Atlanta.

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

2016 was the year of the upset

These events in sports were covered by me this year. I was there and saw it with my own eyes.

The Timberwolves finished 29-53, missing the playoffs for the 12th straight season. They fired Sam Mitchell as interim coach even though the team improved from just 16-66 the previous year under the late Flip Saunders.

Golden State at 73-9, an all-time NBA regular-season best record, lost the NBA Finals in seven games to Cleveland.
After initially being up 3-1, LeBron James delivered Cleveland’s first championship of any kind in 52 years with a clutch game-seven performance.

Minnesota let a chance to repeat as WNBA Champions get away in an incredible game five heartbreak at Target Center, losing to Los Angeles when WNBA game officials allowed the Sparks’ late basket to count after a clear .24 second violation. The WNBA blew a great opportunity before 19,000 fans and a worldwide audience due to using minor league officials.

The Gophers football team, after an 8-4 season under first-year Head Coach Tracey Claeys, suspended 10 players for alleged sexual violence. After an investigation, police filed no charges and no one was arrested.

All 10 players suspended by U of M President Eric Kaler were Black. The entire team later announced a planned boycott of the 2016 Holiday Bowl in San Diego, then later changed their minds and dropped the boycott threat.
U.S. Bank Stadium, at a cost of $1.2 billion, opened as planned — the incredible new home of Vikings football. The team charged top dollar for season ticket and suite holders, and a private seat license was required as an investment before buying season tickets.
This was the first time any sports organization in Minnesota ever instituted a controversial seat purchase policy. The agreement promised some chances to enter a lottery for Super Bowl 52 tickets.

The Vikings started the 2016 season 5-0 before losing six offensive starters to season-ending injuries, including Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and Matt Kalil. They traded future first and fourth round Draft choices with Philadelphia for quarterback Sam Bradford.

Head Coach Mike Zimmer battled health issues also, requiring four eye surgeries for a detached retina in his right eye. He had to miss one game and was forced to wear an eye patch when he returned. The 7-8 Vikings lost 38-25 at Green Bay, joining a select group of NFL teams to miss the playoffs after a 5-0 start.

The Twins had their worst season since moving to Minnesota in 1961, going 59-103 dead last in MLB. They fired Terry Ryan as general manager

Gopher men’s basketball, like the Twins, were awful under Richard Pitino in his third season. His team finished 8-22.

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.