The Tracy Claeys Era is over at Minnesota, the Gophers firing their head football coach Tuesday.
Claeys and athletics director Mark Coyle met Tuesday to discuss the future of the football program, as Coyle said the two would last week.
Minnesota just wrapped up a nine-win season, the program's first since 2003 and just its eighth ever, with an upset win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
But what happened on the field was less important than what happened off it.
The school suspended 10 players after a university investigation into a September sexual assault. The same incident was the subject of a police investigation in the fall, but that investigation yielded no charges. The university's investigation had different results, and the 10 players were suspended and could be facing expulsions or varying degrees of suspensions.
Thinking their teammates were being subjected to wrongful punishment after the police investigation resulted in no charges, the rest of the team announced a boycott of all team activities, which momentarily jeopardized Minnesota's participation in the Holiday Bowl. But fewer than 48 hours after it started, the boycott ended, the players saying they read the university's investigative report after not doing so before announcing the boycott in the first place.
Claeys factored into all this when he publicly supported the boycotting players on Twitter, supposedly telling them in team meetings that he was risking his job in doing so.
Public opinion did not side with the players or Claeys, and he talked openly about his job status being in question.
Tuesday, that all came to a head, with Coyle making the decision to move on from Claeys, who took over midway through the 2015 season after Jerry Kill's abrupt retirement to better control his epilepsy. Claeys, a longtime Kill assistant elevated from his defensive coordinator job, posted a 2-4 record in his six 2015 games before this season's 9-4 finish.
On the field, the duo of Kill and Claeys led the Gophers to some of the program's winningest seasons, winning at least eight games in three of the last four campaigns.
Coyle released this statement Tuesday night, a lengthy one addressing not only the future of the program but the process behind suspending the 10 players and the effects Claeys' tweet had.
"I made a difficult decision today on behalf of the University of Minnesota. With the support of board of regents’ leadership and president Eric Kaler, I have decided to take the Gophers football team in a different direction with new coaching leadership. 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. We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges.
"This decision is about the future of Minnesota football. Moving forward, we need a leader who sets high expectations athletically, academically, and socially.
"I also want to address the unfortunate blurring of the football suspension decision. On Dec. 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. An athletic suspension decision is also different from a panel decision whether there has been a student conduct code violation. Different standards, different policies.
"For example, we suspend student-athletes for attitude problems. We suspend student-athletes while criminal investigations are ongoing. We suspend student-athletes when university investigators present credible evidence of inappropriate conduct. What happens in a student conduct process is not for me to say. Like the university and all involved, I simply want a just and fair process. That is not determined by who prevails; if justice is done, then the University of Minnesota and the public win, no matter the outcome.
"Again, this has been a difficult decision. I thank coach Claeys and his staff for their years of service. Coaches Dan O’Brien and Mike Sherels have agreed to remain during the coaching transition to ensure that our student-athletes have strong and active leadership in the interim."
As for who could replace Claeys, there are still some high-profile names on the market, chief among them Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck — whose Broncos lost to Minnesota-rival Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl on Monday — and former LSU head coach, who has Big Ten ties as a Michigan alum and former Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller assistant.