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Updated: October 18th, 2011 2:55pm
Jerry Kill 'absolutely' can turn around Gophers, 'U' president says

Jerry Kill 'absolutely' can turn around Gophers, 'U' president says

by Darren Wolfson
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When Dr. Eric Kaler, the 16th president in University of Minnesota history, strolled into a palatial conference room near his office in Morrill Hall on Monday, he was asked if he needed assistance putting on the microphone.

He responded, "This isn't my first rodeo."

But even with solid credentials, this is something new for Kaler when it comes to overseeing a big-time institution whose lifeblood, in many ways, is athletics.

I found Kaler to be incredibly colorful away from the camera, and passionate, yet at times evasive on it. Our back-and-forth confirmed why he was a unanimous choice to lead the University.

Here's a full transcript of our 25-minute conversation:

What does homecoming week mean to you?

EK: It means a time of great excitement. The students are jazzed up. It's a great part of the college experience, and I'm looking forward to it. (It's) my first one of these at Minnesota in a long time.

It's capped off with the football game on Saturday. It's rare when a home team is almost a 30-point underdog. Why is your football program in the state that it is?

EK: We've had a lot of turnover -- coaching changes, coaches move in and out. It's a rebuilding process. I think we have a great guy now. His team of coaches has been with him for a long time, which I think is very important. He's had great success at Northern and Southern Illinois, and I expect he'll have great success at Minnesota. But it's going to take some time.

You and him have conversed enough, so you're aware of the limitations he's dealing with. What are those?

EK: He and I have had several really good conversations. I'm a big fan of his, and I look forward to his success. But he's inherited a program that is not where it needs to be. He has concerns about academic progress. Obviously, he has issues with the commitment level of some of the student-athletes to the program. It's going to take him a while to turn it around.

Can he turn it around?

EK: Absolutely. Absolutely. Minnesota is a great university. Student-athletes should be proud to be here. They have a great experience. The Twin Cities is a great place for a student to be -- terrific opportunities across the board. We have a great new stadium, which is a wonderful place to play. We have a terrific coaching staff, so he will have success at Minnesota. Absolutely!

It can't be all coaching. We're talking about 20-plus years without a top-3 Big Ten finish, and the 60's since a Rose Bowl appearance. Is the infrastructure in place in this office/the administration as a whole to win at a high level?

EK: I think it is. When you look at our athletic budget, and the football budget, we're in the middle of the Big Ten. I think once we have success we'll get additional philanthropy that will be very important to the program. So, in terms of our investment, I think we're at the right place. Clearly we haven't been able to use that investment to win on the field. I think the heart of that is the coaches and their ability to recruit the type of players that suit their system.

I know you and your wife went to the USC game. What stood out from that trip, and your interaction with the football team as a whole?

EK: It was a great opportunity to see USC, which is obviously a very storied football program. Their athletic director, Pat Haden, is a great individual. They have terrific history both on and off the field, Rhodes Scholars, very successful quarterback. They obviously have a history of winning that we unfortunately don't share, so it was interesting to see a little bit about how they run their program. Also, I traveled to the Purdue game and had the opportunity to talk with some of the folks at Purdue as well. But in terms of my role and the football program, we have an athletic director and a series of coaches, so I'm not down in the weeds with them on how they do their business.

You're certainly the leader, though. What role do you play in the success of the revenue sports and the non-revenue sports?

EK: Well, I think my commitment to college athletics is very strong and I think people know that, and I absolutely want us to be a success, but I want us to be a success on the field and off the field. So, I think from a president's point of view that direction comes from me setting very high expectations for the athletic director, for the coaches, and for our student athletes that they go to class, they make academic progress, they go to practice, and they execute to the best of their abilities on the field and on the court. And if they do that over a period of time we will build discipline and we will have success.

Is everything in place for the football team, basketball team, and even hockey team, your revenue sports to compete at a high level?

EK: Well, let's start with hockey. Hockey competed at a pretty high level this past weekend. I don't dwell in the past, I look to the future. I think the coach and his players are going to have a successful year, so I think with hockey we're in pretty good shape. The indoor practice facility is an element that we need here, I know that is a high priority for Tubby, and I know we're raising some funds for it, we have a site located, and I'm certain then in the passage of time we will be able to get that facility in place. In terms of the football staffing, we've made a long-term commitment to coach Kill, which will I think make him very happy and very comfortable and we're committed to treating the assistant coaches appropriately and positioning them for success. I do think we have put the resources on the table to get us started for success and again as I mentioned earlier, as we get that success, I very much hope that our partners in the private sector will generate philanthropy, invest in the program the way the university has invested in the program.

Just how passionate are you about sports?

EK: I've been called a football fanatic, which is kind of funny because actually baseball is the sport I like the most, but I do like football. I like it because it's an important venue for the public to come to the University and take pride in what we do. I'll tell you a story: we welcomed 5400 freshman to the Twin Cities campus last month, freshman congregation, best freshman qualified class ever, highest ACTs, etc. And as I looked out at them I couldn't help but think how many of those young people had their one-year-old photograph taken wearing a Gopher onesie, I'm pretty sure it was not zero. So, it's an important part of how we intersect with the public. But equally important to me is the experience that the student-athletes have. We have 700+ student athletes across 24 sports. I want every one of them to have a successful academic experience and a successful athletic experience. But their building a foundation for the rest of their lives, as the old phrase goes, they're going to go pro in something else, almost all of them. In getting that foundation as a student athlete is very important to me and I'm very passionate about those programs having that kind of success.

Are there too many sports here at the University?

EK: I think if you look at the numbers actually we're not that far off. I think we have 24 sports. I think Wisconsin has 23 sports. So, if you look across the Big 10, there certainly are big programs like Ohio State with many more sports than what we have and a few with less. That's a conversation that we going to have to have in the context of my overall ambition for the University in the short-term. That really is to look very critically, very unemotionally, at all of the things we do, whether it's our business practices, whether it's our academic programs, whether it's out sports teams. We need to look and decide if this is a program that we can be excellent in maintaining or not. If the answer is no, then we need to step away from doing that but that holds for academic programs, business practices, and athletic teams.

How hard is it to detach yourself emotionally with sports, A) being so emotional, and B) I can tell you that at least one very high-level booster won't donate any more money, or at least that's what he told me during the football coaching search, if Joel Maturi is still aboard as the athletic director?

EK: Well, as you know, Joel generates a lot of passions both very positive ones and people who are less positive, but as you say Joel is a terrific human being. He has done a wonderful job in unifying men's and women's athletic programs together, but he and I will be having some conversations fairly soon about how we want to go forward together. But I have enormous respect for what he has done for the program, but he will freely admit he has not done a particularly good job in hiring football coaches and that is a very visible sport, particularly this time of year that generates a lot of passion. I do think we hired a great football coach now and that program is on the right trajectory. In terms of the passion and how you look at the sports, it also is a business decision at the end of the day and I know the history of proposing to reduce sports here has been that fans or boosters come and save that sport for a certain period of time. That is not going to work going forward. If we aren't able to commit to long-term sources of funding for our sports, whether they be University sports, University funds, as we make these evaluations, or private donors, then we are going to have to step away from doing those sports. But again that is a long and careful evaluation that we have not really seriously begun yet.

Do you agree that they go hand-in-hand, donations and success on the field?

EK: I think it is absolutely clear. If you look across the county whether it's Wisconsin or TCU, when athletic programs are successful, they reflect a variety of good things on their institution. Philanthropy goes up, and not only philanthropy for athletics but philanthropy for other parts of the university increases. The number of applications increase, you have much larger national visibility, so it is a silly thing to think athletics success doesn't reflect well on a university. It absolutely does.

Joel Maturi's contract is up in June. Do you want him to be your athletic director July/August of 2012 etc.?

EK: He and I will have conversations about what he'd like to do, what I'd like to do, and what we think is best for the program. Those are talks we really haven't had a chance to get into.

When do you foresee those talks taking place?

EK: Over the next couple months.

Generally speaking, if he's done, what sort of credentials are you looking for in an athletic director?

EK: If Joel does decide to retire, I will do as thorough a search as I can. I will talk to a lot of people throughout the country about the best candidates. Number one is integrity. I want a person who has a history, a track record of leading athletic departments with great integrity. We are not going to have athletic scandals while I am president. It's totally unacceptable. The athletic director is at the point of the spear on that. Everything else sort of flows out of that. It's my confidence in his or her ability to lead the department; their ability to be an effective business manager; their ability to engage themselves with the Twin Cities and Minnesota sports communities; to bring those sorts of donations back that we talked about earlier.

Do they need to have ties to the "U"? Would you hire internally? Would you hire from outside, but someone who, say, once played football here? Hire an up-and-comer from some other mid-level school?

EK: We'll do a national search. We'll find the best qualified person in the country to come be our athletic director. That includes internal and external candidates. It's a wide-open search.

To make sure I have this right, that's an "if" Joel decides to retire...

EK: That's right. When we search, it'll be a national search.

Is there also a chance you say, ''Joel, after nine-plus years, it's time for a change."

EK: I think I'll just come back to what I said earlier: he and I will have discussions about what he wants to do, and what's best for the program moving forward. Beyond that there isn't much to say.

Jerry Kill's seizure situation. It's under control, right?

EK: That's my understanding. I spent a good amount of time with him (recently). He looked as good as I've ever seen him. His medical condition is under control. It's manageable and it shouldn't affect his ability to coach our football team.

Williams Arena is my favorite place in town when it's rockin', but for recruits, they may not like it. Would a new arena, or a big renovation make sense? Where do you stand on Williams Arena and its short-term future?

EK: I do appreciate it's a rockin' place when the team is doing well. That's an important part of a college experience. But it's too early for me to have looked into any detail for what would be the appropriate future for that facility.

Practice facility -- where are you at? Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising?

EK: Yes.

How much are you paying attention to the hockey program?

EK: I need to go to school on hockey. I'm not real familiar with hockey. I've been to a few games. I can't skate. I need to learn a little bit. It's a great Minnesota tradition. I look forward to becoming a hockey fan.

John Anderson is a Minnesota tradition. You said you're a baseball guy. Where are you guys at on building a new Siebert Field?

EK: That's a fundraising challenge. It's a tough time to raise money. It's a very challenging economic time across the country. That's another subject I really haven't gotten a lot of information on in my first 100 days in office.

Is there anything the football program can do the rest of the year that can make us classify this year as a success?

EK: I'd ask the coach. But I know he wants to use the entire season to look at a variety of players moving forward.

How does your homecoming week play out?

EK: The parade (Friday). The game. I've got some events scheduled. It'll be busy, but it'll be fun.

How do you balance your time between athletics and everything else you have going on?

EK: I do have a University to lead and to run. I am fortunate to have a good organizational structure that makes sense. I am not a micro-manager. It's a big organization, but it does run, and I can give direction when needed, and let managers manage.

How aware are you of what Donna Shalala (chancellor) did at Wisconsin and what Jon Wefald (president) did at Kansas State?

EK: I've looked at both of those models. The activity at Wisconsin began with reducing the number of sports, particularly baseball. Then Barry Alvarez came -- a very effective individual -- and he moved the program forward. It's a model for success. It's not rocket science. It's a matter of unlocking the resources, and then hiring very effective people to manage them.

Is it all financial resources, or are there others I am not thinking of...

EK: The dollars need to be in place to hire the coaches you need. But when you look at Minnesota's overall football budget, we should be competitive in the Big Ten. But then it's a matter of the people you hire.

How often does the football program come up when you're walking around campus or talking with friends and family?

EK: It does. People care about Gophers athletics and Gophers football. People do come to talk to me on a fairly regular basis, absolutely!

What do they say?

EK: Obviously, we are not having a lot of success with the football program. I think everybody who thinks about Gophers athletics thinks about Gophers football. They realize we are in a rebuilding process. We have a coach who I believe will help us rebuild.

We agree that it's a rebuilding process, so that makes it a challenge for the marketing folks. How can they sell this team next year and in 2013?

EK: Gophers fans will come watch their team. You'll see a program that tries hard every Saturday. They will be fun to watch.

You were at the Purdue game. Did they try at the start of that game? They were down 31-0.

EK: You have to ask the football coach that. That's a down in the weeds question I can't answer.

Disappointing though to sit there with Harvey Mackay and Lou Nanne and other influential people?

EK: Well, I think we're a team that's out there trying. That's doing their best. Right now we're not as competitive as we should be. But we are in this for the long-term. We are going to have success.

Kill at Dunker's last week said they need to check on 63 players daily and whether they're going to class. How disappointing is it to hear that?

EK: It's a symptom of a program that needs more discipline and more structure. Coach and his assistants are in the process of bringing that structure. That's what we need to do -- make an impression on these young men. I'm pretty sure you'll see them shaping up and doing a better job.

You are convinced Jerry is the right guy to do that?

EK: I absolutely am.


EK: Great record. Great personal integrity. He's passionate. But mostly I reflect on history. Talk is easy. It's easy to come in, charm, and talk a good game. But look at what he's done at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. He's taken programs that weren't competitive and he's turned them around. He knows how to do that. It's the same game here.

Is it though? Southern Illinois is a division below. Northern Illinois is a non-BCS school.

EK: I think they play by the same rules. I think the game lasts the same time. It's a matter of recruiting athletes that can compete on this level, and then coaching them. I do believe he knows how to do that.

Darren "Doogie" Wolfson is the jack-of-all-trades sports guy for 5 Eyewitness News and a contributor to
Email Darren | @darrenwolfson