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Updated: February 8th, 2012 9:04am
Wolfson: Gophers 'absolutely' can compete in football, 'U' prez says

Wolfson: Gophers 'absolutely' can compete in football, 'U' prez says

by Doogie

During the Gophers men's basketball game against Illinois last month, Dr. Eric Kaler, the "U" president, said he nearly lost his voice from cheering so much.

Kaler isn't a barker at the referees like Timberwolves and Lynx fanatic Jesse Ventura, but he is passionate.

"I love sports," he said in a 35-minute sitdown interview on Monday morning in a third-floor Morrill Hall conference room.

A variety of topics were covered, including his search for a new athletics director -- which is expected to include his friend, Stony Brook AD Jim Fiore -- basketball coach Tubby Smith's contractual status, the future of non-revenue sports and his decision to keep outgoing AD Joel Maturi around for a year at a salary in the $350,000 range.

Since the last time we sat down 3½ months ago, what do you now know about your athletic department that you didn't know then?

Well, it has been a steady learning process. I've gotten to know many of the coaches better, plus I've been able to go to a number of events, which I enjoy tremendously. I've gotten to know a few of the athletes, so a steady progress.

What are some of those specific events, and what stood out about those?

I absolutely loved our wrestling match versus Wisconsin when we nearly shut them out. Women's volleyball has huge energy, and basketball and hockey are strong right now. I've had lots of good experiences.

Last time we talked, you said you didn't know much about hockey. You do now?

Don't ask me any questions, but I think I have an understanding of the rules.

That program seems to be on the uptick after three non-NCAA years. They should be in the conversation for a national championship.

Yeah, the Frozen Four would be a great place to be. You're right: the program is on an upswing. Coach (Don Lucia), of course, had some health issues that have cleared up. I've enjoyed watching them. I think they will go far in the tournament.

What's your biggest challenge in regards to Gophers sports?

It's a combination of two things. One is managing expectations. We have a lot of passionate Gophers fans that want us to do well -- on the field, and many understand student-athletes have to do well in the other areas as well. But they do want to see performance on the field. We will take some time to get where we need to be. I think Jerry Kill is exactly the right guy for our football program. We'll move that forward. He's also done a great job off the field -- the team's GPA made a big jump. We're headed in the right direction. But it's managing those expectations.

The other one is managing the revenue. We have a challenge at maintaining our athletics budget at the level of our competitors in the Big Ten do. We do that as we're in the midrange for budgets. But we need to continue to grow that, which involves donations and ticket sales. As you know, the state of Minnesota is not able to contribute very much at all to our athletics budgets. They're linked. As we do better, you'll see ticket sales grow and philanthropy grow.

But can you compete with Ohio State and Michigan?

Absolutely. We get the same number of football scholarships. We have a beautiful stadium. The Twin Cities is a great place to live. It's easier to recruit athletes to the Twin Cities than some of the small towns where our competitors play. So, yes, we can compete. It's a matter of getting the right coaches, players, the right program and place, and giving them time to gel. I think we can do that here.

You went to a lot of football games. How would you classify the fan experience at TCF Bank Stadium? Is it a good fan experience?

I do think it is a good experience. I enjoy the opportunity to go down on the field, work the student end zone -- lots of energy there. The sight lines are great. The seating is very good. It's a good fan experience. I would like it to be a good fan experience for more fans, particularly our students. We're talking through some ways to make it more exciting for our students.

What are some of those ways?

We can do something on ticket price and we can build before-and after-game experiences to make it more of an event.

Who do you talk to in that regard? You and Jerry? Others?

It's a little bit of the athletic department and little bit of the student life development (department), Jerry Rinehart and others in student life about building that experience for what our young people want to do.

Last time we talked, Jerry Kill had not signed his contract. He did days later, and it was for two more years and more money than he originally agreed to. Does he just have a great agent?

We went through the season without a contract, so it was a matter of when do you start counting those years. It actually did go up by a year, and I did give him a $100,000 bump (per year), which puts him in line with the other coaches in the Big Ten. But he is still at the low end for sure.

My message in signing a longer-term deal is that I am committed to his success here and I will give him time to grow his program. I don't want him to be under the clock right now. Now, of course, three or four years down the road I expect to see some results. He and I have discussed that.

Overall budget, they're middle of the Big Ten? I know they're fifth in recruiting budget. They recently added a third full-time strength, which now makes them just the fifth Big Ten school with at least three such coaches. Any other examples where fans can say they see a noticeable commitment to the football program?

The coaches are a big part of that. I know the athletic director is working with Coach Kill to align some space in Bierman to give them more room to do what they do. We've been able to work with some donors on transportation for recruiting (private jet access). There is progress being made.

I was told you went to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

I did go to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. I think it'll be a lot more fun when I go again and bring my football team.

It hasn't happened in my lifetime. How far away is the program? Will it happen in my lifetime?

I do think this football program can be bowl-eligible and major bowl-eligible going forward. I have lots of people who ask me to make a prediction when we'll go to Pasadena. I won't do that, but I do think the football program will get there. You just feel it when you talk to the coaches. They absolutely know what they're doing, and when they get a chance to recruit players into their system, it will get better. No doubt about it.

When you're out-and-about, is the football team what you hear about the most?

It is the most in terms of being 51 percent, but I hear about a lot of the other sports. I hear about the non-revenue sports and the values they bring to the institution and to the athletes. I also hear about gender-equity and the importance of women's sports, which I completely share.

Do you hear the other side with people suggesting that there are too many sports?

You get some of that, then folks who think we don't need gender equity, which is an unfortunate conversation because we are absolutely committed to that. There is some push on non-revenue sports, but if you cut a non-revenue sport, at the end of the day, you don't save that much money. So, is it better to maintain that opportunity for young people and be able to grow some support for fans in terms of philanthropy? I think so. That's the direction I'd like to go. But I'd also like to see the backers of those non-revenue sports come forward a little more aggressively and help us fund them.

Last time we talked, you said you would take a long, hard look at non-revenue sports. So, has that look taken place?

That's part of the conversation we'll have with the new athletic director. But as I've looked at it, from a pure economic point of view, each individual sport is not costing us a lot of money. So, you'd have to look at a wholesale restructuring. There are a lot of people who value those sports. I value those sports just like the student-athletes in them. Reducing those non-revenue sports is getting hard to do. The full benefit I would need to be convinced of.

How important is this athletic director hire?

I think my provost hire, the academic healthcare center leadership (hire) will be very important for the future of the university. But in terms of visibility and publicity, obviously, the athletic director is a very important role for the university, so I'll get some pressure and evaluations on how he or she does.

Has that process begun?

Not really. I've had some preliminary talks with some folks who I want to be a part of the search. That's ongoing. We should be able to move that process forward, outline a time scale and begin to reach out to the community in the next few weeks.

But ultimately you have final say?

It is my decision as are all of the senior leadership positions here at the university.

Any chance the hire happens in mid-March/early April, or are we looking at that July 1 date?

It would be extremely unlikely. I can't tell you a condition where we would make hire that quickly. These searches I'm told are five weeks, seven weeks kind of searches. I would expect we would be able to have the new AD identified sometime in May. But don't come back to me in May and ask me if that isn't true.

I think Jim Fiore, Stony Brook's AD, will be your next AD. Am I onto something or nuts?

Jim is a great friend of mine. I enjoyed working with him at Stony Brook. If he wants to be a part of the search conversation, I absolutely welcome that. I have not made him a job offer.

Safe to say he's in the mix?

He is an athletic director that I know. I like him and he's done a great job at Stony Brook. If he wants to be a part of the conversation, I'd be happy to have him.

How important is it for your hire to have previous AD experience, or at least associate AD experience?

I think at least associate AD experience at a program comparable to Minnesota is really pretty important. Some places look at different models. Some bring in a business guy, which can be a good decision. The business aspect is important. I'll consider all options, but I will lean towards someone with that AD experience. But a candidate from a different sector could come in, knock our socks off, and be a great AD.

OK to say the hire comes from outside the university, or do you have strong internal candidates?

We are doing a nationwide search, so the nation includes the University of Minnesota. We'll welcome applications and considerations from anybody who's qualified.

The Michigan model is probably not the way to go?

There are examples of a business guy coming in and done well. I'm open to that. I'm not real confident that's the way we'll ultimately go. But it could happen.

Do you have to at least make the phone call to Tony Dungy?

I will be in touch with Tony Dungy. Absolutely.

For advice, or do you say to him if he wants the job, it's a no-brainer?

I will ask Tony to be a part of the search process. I hope he agrees.

Lou Nanne wants Glen Mason. Did Glen burn too many bridges here, or can he be a candidate?

I don't know Glen at all. If he wants to be a part of the process, I am happy to consider him. I haven't devoted a lot of thought to any candidate, Jim Fiore or Glen Mason.

How involved will Maturi be in helping out the new AD?

That will be an important part of his role for the year. I had great help from (former university president) Bob Bruininks when I took over this role. Joel will play that role for the new AD, particularly if that person comes from outside Minnesota.

Joel's principle job will be fundraising and donor development. He'll be very successful at that.

You've received some backlash for him maintaining a high salary. But because of those duties, are you thinking the backlash isn't necessary? You have to be thinking that you know what you're doing. It's not he'll sit around and do nothing. Is that what you would say to the general public?

I do know what I'm doing in this regard. Let me talk about the salary. Joel, as athletic director, will receive total compensation this year in the low $500,000s - salary, retirement, bonuses for performance, car allowance, all of those things add up. I'll probably get backlash for that, but that's below-average for an athletic director in the Big Ten. We are in a marketplace and that's the pay for that job. I'm retaining him at his base salary, so his salary next year will be 30 to 35 percent lower than it is this year. That's a good haircut. I expect he'll return many, many times that salary to the university in fundraising and donations that he generates. I'm absolutely certain of it. I wouldn't have made the decision to retain him if I didn't have a job for him. He works 100 percent of the time. He'll work on donor relations, helping the new AD, teaching a couple classes - students will benefit with their interaction with him. It's a full-time job that he'll be doing at 70 percent of his salary for this year.

The backlash has been interesting.

I'm a little disappointed in the backlash. In some sense, it's a perfect storm: an athletics issue, a university salary, and Joel Maturi. Those three things tend to attract great interest. I'm just a little disappointed in some of the negative reaction that I've gotten. Joel is a good and decent man. This is an important job. It will return value to the university. It's the right thing to do. I don't regret the decision. I'd make it again right now.

Why is Maturi so polarizing?

I wish I knew. Even those who don't like what he has done professionally say he's a good and decent human being. The athletic department top to bottom adores him. He's very well-respected by his colleagues, and that's an important thing. I judge a man by how people who deal with him every day react, and people judge Joel very highly. Joel is willing to admit he made some unfortunate coaching hires, particularly in football. He takes full responsibility for that. That those decisions generate such negativity is a little disappointing. It talks about the dominant role sports has in some people's lives that is out of balance.

So, the new AD comes in. Is there any concern that some coaches will go around him or her, and go right to Maturi to voice dislikes, etc.?

It's a bright line. Joel understands that. The new AD understands that. When the new AD comes, the athletic department will report to him or her. Joel will know that. He will not be physically in the Bierman Building. I don't see that being a problem.

Do you have a general idea of how much money he has raised in the last 10 years?

It's a lot. When you consider TCF Bank Stadium -- it's hard to single out just one person with that -- and the money for the baseball field, he's been pretty effective. We need to do much more. We are not where we need to be in the Big Ten. Joel will start digging into that and it'll be an important priority for the new athletic director.

Where do you need to be? How far away are you?

I don't have a dollar number. But I know we're in the bottom. That has to change. I would like a situation, for example, where our scholarships are fully endowed. That would be an enormous relief for us. We also need some capitol investment. We need a practice facility for Tubby (Smith, the men's basketball coach). Eventually, we need to do something with the infrastructure in and around Williams Arena. So, there are some big capitol needs sitting there in front of us.

Would it make sense to just do a new arena and forget the practice facility? Maturi told me last week that a new arena was "definitely necessary." It's a hot-button issue.

It is. There are lots of options. The new AD will need to revisit the capitol plan and sort out the timing for these new facilities as well as the need for state dollars and the targets for philanthropy. I have to tell you though with the Vikings stadium, the state's appetite for supporting new athletic facilities is probably pretty small. I don't know that we'll get that moving this week.

So, is a practice facility realistic in the next few years?

I don't know. The plans to do it are there. We need some donors to step forward. If we're successful in doing that, I think putting it in is very realistic. I know that Tubby thinks he needs it to compete in the Big Ten and with recruiting, and I respect that. He needs to have the tools available to recruit to be successful. I frequently say if we're in the Big Ten, we need to be competitive in the Big Ten. I'm not interested in having teams that don't perform academically or athletically.

He's right. Just about every Big Ten school has a practice facility. We're talking $20 million-plus. I can't imagine you're anywhere near that number.

It is an arms race in sports, particularly in men's basketball and football. It's a facilities arm race. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out nationally. I think the presidents will need to get in front of, sort of, dampening the expectations of both coaches and fans for what we're going to provide for our revenue sports.

I saw you at the Gophers-Illinois hoops game. Looked like you were having a good time.

I had a great time. I was a little hoarse the next morning, but that was a heck of a game. Our guys are playing really well right now - a really good game versus Nebraska. A big game versus Wisconsin (on Thursday night), and I'll be there yelling.

Have you received negative feedback on the ticket program being implemented starting next season at Williams Arena?

Some people are certainly unhappy. But this is a plan that is in place at every other Big Ten venue. We are behind the times. We have modified it. We have made it more accessible than many of our peers. You talk about revenue and the need for infrastructure, this is a way to generate it. Obviously, some people who have been in seats for a long time and now their points don't let them retain those seats are not happy. I understand that. I really do. I wish we had a better way, but we have to invest in our facilities and that's exactly where those donations are going to go - scoreboards and those types of amenities at Williams and Mariucci.

Tubby Smith says he thinks a contract extension will happen after the season. Do you agree?

What I've told Coach, as a matter of policy, I will not talk about contract extensions while we're in season. Coach and players need to be focused. I think coaches respect that. Clearly, I want the next athletic director to be involved in any decision for Tubby. That doesn't mean we wouldn't consider an extension before the new AD arrives. But that person needs to be aware of and buy in to an extension because it'll be his or her responsibility to manage it. Tubby has been good for Minnesota basketball. He has a tough seven games ahead of him. I look forward to a fun finish.

Flip Saunders wants to coach the Gophers one day. He's 57 years old. What's your reaction when I say there's a strong pocket of fans that want him as the coach?

I have not given a bit of consideration to who the next basketball coach will be. I can't make a comment on that.

Have you talked to Flip?

No. I have never met him.

He's at enough events. You could lean on him for a nice donation for the practice facility.

I'd enjoy meeting him. He's a very colorful guy.

You're a baseball guy. We're breaking ground relatively soon on a new Siebert Field assuming the Board of Regents says yes?

The funding stream is in place to support that ($5.8 million raised privately). It is financially viable for us to proceed, so we will recommend to the Board to approve that capitol project. I expect the Board to agree.

They've done an unreal job of raising money. I know John Anderson did a ton along with Maturi.

Five-point-eight million dollars, which is a big lift. John has been for a long, long time. He's generated an unbelievable sense of loyalty among the former players. I frequently run into people who say how helpful he was when they were young. We'll have a new facility if the Board approves us.

Health-wise with your three main coaches -- Kill, Smith and Lucia -- are you comfortable with where they are at?

I'm very comfortable with all three of those coaches. All three of those programs are in good shape. Health is health. I spoke to Jerry recently and he is in great shape. He's eager to go, his motor is running. With the proper care, he'll be perfectly fine.

Will Jerry have a say in whom the next AD is?

I plan on meeting with all of the coaches as this process goes forward. I haven't fully settled on their role outside of listening to what they would like to see in the next AD.

But clearly there has to be a good relationship with your signature sports.

The coaches will be in the conversation - they'll tell me the attributes they are looking for.

How passionate are you about sports?

I love sports. Sports are great for a university. It's great to build school spirit. It's great for the community to get behind the mission of the institution. The core of what we do is built on academic excellence, education, research, and outreach. It just so happens that sports are a visible part of the university. I am absolutely dedicated to the academic mission. That's why we're here.

Are you having fun?

I am having fun. I greatly enjoy my job. People have been very warm and welcoming. Frankly, the backlash on Maturi has made it that much more disappointing. By and large, I do enjoy my job a great deal. The state needs to support this institution a little bit better than it has in the past. My job is to tell that story.

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