By Rick Moore, Photo courtesy of University Athletics
It took Mark Coyle all of 90 seconds to go off script when he was introduced at a May news conference as the U's new athletics director. Coyle was starting to explain why he chose to come back to Minnesota, where he was an associate athletics director from 2001 to 2005, when he looked over at his family and got emotional.
After a pause, he told the story of his daughter Grace's 3rd birthday party back in 2005. When Goldy Gopher made a guest appearance, she spontaneously broke into "The Minnesota Rouser," stunning everyone and leaving Goldy doubly speechless. It was a moment that permanently etched a maroon "M" into the native Iowan's heart.
"It's one of the memories that we'll always have about Minnesota. And to have the chance to be back here, it's just humbling," he says.
Coyle, who most recently served as director of athletics at Syracuse University, returns to a program that is both successful and enigmatic-flourishing by many measures but beset by a series of challenges. The successes include women's hockey's continued dominance with another national championship; softball's Big Ten tournament title and national ranking; and Minnesota placing 18th in the Learfield Directors' Cup standings, which measures the overall excellence of college athletics programs. In the classroom, Gopher athletes are near the top of their game, with more sports receiving top-10 percent Academic Progress Rates scores than any other public university.
But it's been a challenging 12 months as well, with the departure of former Athletics Director Norwood Teague amid sexual harassment allegations; the sudden retirement of football coach Jerry Kill due to ongoing health concerns; and an abysmal season for Gopher men's basketball.
Coyle knows that action, not words, will improve public perception. "We can talk about it all day-we can say we're going to do this and we're going to do that to get better-but our actions will define us," he says. "Anytime you walk into a program you're going to encounter 'opportunities' that you have to work your way through, and these are some that we have to work our way through."
"I think he's the right person for the job and at this time," says former Athletics Director Joel Maturi, who was Coyle's boss at the U. He says Coyle listens well and gauges what needs to be done. And he has a certain quietness about him that manifests as the opposite of arrogance. :Most important, he has great integrity, honesty, and openness," Maturi adds. "It's what we really need, and it defines what he is."
One thing is certain. The U's cupboard is not empty, and neither is the trophy case. "I think that the success of so many of our programs got lost this past year," says Coyle. "Six conference championships, the national championship in women's hockey, the academic success; I think we had 14 teams with their academic progress rate recognized nationally. We need to do a better job of making people aware of the success we've had."
The challenge is to maintain that overall success while appeasing Gopher alumni and fans who want nothing more-and will settle for nothing less-than a Big Ten title in football, a meaningful banner for men's basketball, and a return to dominance in men's hockey.
Coyle has seen firsthand the fruits of success in his other stops since 2005: in men's basketball at Kentucky, where he was deputy athletics director, and in football at Boise State, which made a name for itself while he was AD. Last year at Syracuse both basketball teams made it to the Final Four. His takeaway from those places? "Everybody is 'all in,' from the alumni to the students to the donors to the fans. Everybody is committed to seeing those programs achieve at a high level."
There's no doubting alumni support and the ability to have success across all sports at the U, he says, "and it's on us to figure out how to put those pieces together to make sure we support [the revenue programs] and challenge them to compete with what our other programs are doing." He's let it be known that he wants the entire athletic program to reflect one basic principle: to be "low-ego and high-output."
Minnesota reminds him of Iowa- he is from Waterloo and his wife Krystan, a physical therapist, is from Council Bluffs- in its Midwest values. They're looking forward to raising their three sports-minded children, Grace, Nicholas, and Benjamin, in a part of the country "where your word means something."
"He's liable to be here for a long, long time," says Maturi. "And Minnesota needs that right now."