The University of Minnesota, which saw multiple football players suspended this season following a September sexual-assault case, fired its head coach, Tracy Claeys, Tuesday. Claeys had completed his first full season running the team with a Dec. 27 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
“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,” Minnesota’s athletic director, Mark Coyle, said in a statement. “We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges.”
“Moving forward, we need a leader who sets high expectations athletically, academically and socially,” Coyle added.
After Minnesota suspended 10 football players ahead of the team’s bowl game, a move that resulted from a probe into the sexual-assault case by the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, the entire team staged a boycott of all athletic activities. The players backed down a few days later, amid a storm of criticism for supporting teammates who had been involved, in some way, in an episode of alleged sexual violence.
The day the players announced their boycott, Claeys took to Twitter and wrote, “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights and support their effort to make a better world!”
That tweet was cited in a petition at MoveOn.org, one with almost 4,000 signatures, demanding that the coach be fired. “Claeys’s tweet expressing his pride in the team failed to mention or acknowledge the importance of respecting women,” the petition stated. “Further, it did not condemn violence, sexual assault or disrespect of women. We feel this is not at all acceptable.”
Coyle also brought up the tweet in his statement Tuesday. “I accept that Coach Claeys intended it to support the boycotting players,” the AD said. “Understandably others did not see it that way. . . . 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.”
Hennepin (Minn.) County authorities conducted two investigations of the alleged incident and declined to press charges both times. The woman who made the accusations, a game-day employee at the Gophers’ stadium, reached a court settlement with five players in November after testifying about feeling “frozen with fear” while being subjected to “multiple sexual assaults” in an apartment used by one of the players.
Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner, who was not among the players named in the case, called Claeys’s firing “extremely sad.” He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Our players are behind Coach Claeys and the staff 100 percent. . . . 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.”
Minnesota underclassman: “Doesn’t matter who coach is we don’t want to play for administration. Countless people will transfer if possible”
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) January 3, 2017
According to ESPN’s Brett McMurphy, Claeys informed players of his firing by text message, saying, “I wouldn’t change anything in the world. I love and support all of you. Best of luck.” While leaving Minnesota’s campus Tuesday, Claeys responded to questions about his dismissal (via the Twin Cities Pioneer Press) by repeating the phrase, “Enjoy the winter.”
Claeys had been assistant to Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill who took over the program in 2015 when the latter had resign in midseason for health reasons. Claeys went 11-8 with the Gophers, including 9-4 this season, and he had completed the first year of a three-year, $4.5 million contract.