Wolfson: Joel Maturi's legacy isn't limited to high-profile failures
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Outgoing Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi still has the same drive and desire he had the day he started. He continues to arrive to his corner office in the Bierman Building by 6 a.m. regularly to get a nice workout in before the daily grind starts.
On a recent morning while on an exercise machine, he was listening to a local radio talk-show and heard something he thought was factually incorrect.
Sure enough, within minutes, he reached out to the right people to confirm his initial belief. That reeks of someone who cares deeply even though he was told his specific services were no longer needed by University of Minnesota president Dr. Eric Kaler.
Make no mistake: if Dr. Kaler told Maturi he wanted him to continue in his current role, Maturi would have done it. Kaler wants to bring in his own guy, which is understandable.
Maturi hasn't always been right. In fact, his track record with high-profile hires suggests otherwise. But his legacy isn't all doom and gloom.
He's beloved by those around him and by certain boosters. While other universities -- Ohio State, Miami (Fla.), Auburn, and Syracuse to name a few -- have gone through scandals, Minnesota hasn't been caught committing any major violations.
I sat down with Maturi for 50 minutes on Wednesday to learn about the new men's basketball ticket policy that will kick in next season, reflect on the last 10 years and get an update on a variety of other Gophers topics.
If the men's basketball team were 9-9 or 10-8 and on the verge of an NCAA Tournament berth, do you think there would be the same backlash as you're getting now with the new Williams Arena ticket policy? It seems like your two-year down cycle is the real issue, not the overall idea of finding a new way to generate revenue.
I don't know if any of us want to pay more. I am not happy when I pay more in taxes, or when I have to purchase some item and pay more, but it's a reality. We're asking our season-ticket purchasers in some instances to pay more, and I say some instances because some people will pay less.
For the first time in the university's history, we will scale the house. To this point, our tickets have been the same. If you're in the last row in the rafters, or you're 10th row midcourt, you've paid the same. We're changing that and we think it's the right thing to do. We've done a lot of homework. Most of our peers scale, and quite frankly, they've had a preferred seating program that we have not had. We announced this publicly several years ago. We actually delayed it a year, partly because of the economy, and partly because we weren't winning as much as we wanted to.
To answer your question, there's been more commenting because we haven't been as successful. I think there's a hesitation by anyone to pay more. There's also a concern about re-seating. Those people have sat in those seats for many years. I've had people tell me they'll pay whatever necessary to keep their seats, and others who have never had to pay anything above the ticket price wondering why we are doing this. We haven't pleased both sides, so maybe in essence we're doing it the right way.
We've got a good system, the Minnesota points system. It reflects loyalty and has implications for those who have given to the University. Instead of raising ticket prices, we've asked for a preferred seating donation, which is 80% tax deductible. I think it's very fair, and I think in the long run, it'll be a good deal for the University of Minnesota.
Was there any hesitation to delay it more with the economy still not great, and the team performing poorly yet again?
There were discussions, but I think it's better for me as the outgoing A.D. to do this vs. the new A.D. coming in and doing it. That factored in. Yell at Joel Maturi, point the finger and write the emails. I understand that. I am here to promise you when people go into Williams Arena next year and see a new scoreboard, and they realize this is the only way to do it ... we're giving back to the fans. There will be some positive things (also at Mariucci Arena) that we couldn't do any other way.
The key point is your peers. Everyone in the Big Ten has a similar ticket program except for Northwestern.
Most charge significantly more than we do, but they've also had more success. As a result, we haven't charged more. We're sensitive to how much we should charge, yet at the same time, generate additional money.
On one hand, we're criticized for not raising more money in Gophers athletics. That our donation level is not what it should be in a large metropolitan area. On the other instance, this is what we're trying to do. Look at Wisconsin, look at Iowa, they get a great majority of their donations through their seating programs. It's not like people are just writing checks. They're writing them for their seat privileges. It's what we're trying to do. We're behind the times, quite honestly. We're trying to catch up in a lot of ways.
Can you describe the points system?
We don't know where anyone will sit. The person with the highest point total is the only person who knows where he or she will sit because they will have the first choice. Every season-ticket holder will have a point total and they'll be ranked, one through the thousands we have.
The points are determined by years of season-ticket purchase. We want to reward loyalty. It's given to contributions to athletics as well as contributions to the University, which are not rated as high. You can get one-time points if you're a graduate of Minnesota. You can get one-time points if you're a letter winner. We also have given points if you're a member of the alumni association. We're trying to be fair.
Everyone, including Joel Maturi, will have a point total. I will choose my tickets, and I did the same in football. I've already purchased four tickets because I knew the day would come when I would leave this position. I'll sit there for the first time next year. ... Some will get to choose on the first day, some on the second day and some on the 33rd day. People will get a period of time to choose their seat selection.
Is another point of contention the nonconference schedule? Enough people are OK with paying top dollar to see Ohio State and Michigan State, but not to see you play the directional school. You need to get a BCS school into Williams in November or December.
Yes. We're working on that. If you look at other schools and their nonconference schedules, they're similar. Our RPI rating is pretty competitive within the Big Ten. The thing about basketball is that some of the schools, while not recognizable to all fans, can be pretty good.
But it is a concern. We have the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and we're working with other conferences to do the same that may be of interest to Gophers fans. We are sensitive to the scheduling. But when you're going after 18, 19 home games, you need to buy people in. BCS-level schools won't do that if you don't return to their place, so it's a balance that we all have.
Joe Esposito (Gophers schedule guru) says it's a challenge to schedule these games because of lots of conflicts. Is that part of the deal?
He is involved with the dates. We have some conflicts with women's basketball tournaments, and they'll tell you they have conflicts. We do have two teams playing in Williams Arena and we have a parking challenge when men's basketball and men's hockey play at the same time. That's why we've had to play hockey games on a Sunday. Basketball has taken a preference. Maybe the schedulers when we're all in the same conference (hockey with basketball) will be a little bit more sensitive.
But TV controls a lot. We get a lot of money from them. The days of 1 o'clock football games and 7 o'clock basketball games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are gone.
Whether it's your inbox or the table that was set up at Williams Arena for the Indiana and Nebraska games, what feedback have you gotten from your basketball ticket holders?
It's a variance. Nobody wants to be displaced. The long-time ticket holder who has paid just the price of the ticket is very frustrated that he or she has to pay additional money to remain in those seats. It's a donation and that's the mentality we need for people to realize. Right now it's for a new scoreboard, potentially a new sound system, ribbon boards, things of this nature. It'll eventually lend itself to scholarships and to endowing what is most important for Gophers athletics against the business reality of today.
What about a practice facility?
We do need a practice facility. We need to get that through other means of donations. The money we'll make through preferred seating isn't enough to do that. Just like we did with TCF Stadium, we need a naming sponsor, a naming donor, people who can give significant gifts, six- and seven-figure gifts. It's a need, not a want. We'll work hard to make it happen in the near future.
Where are you at, and is Tubby Smith involved as much as you would like? John Anderson was able to raise $5.8 million for the new baseball stadium.
It took 15 years to get the baseball stadium, but I know what you're saying. We've only been focused on the basketball facility since TCF was built, so a two- or three-year period. We spent a lot of time with baseball in that transitional time because there was more of a need there than with the basketball facility.
We need a naming donor. People will donate $1,000, $5,000, and God bless them because we need those dollars, but at $1,000 at a time, it's tough to raise $15 million. We need someone to come forward with a $5 million, $7 million, $10 million gift. We need that kind of generation. With TCF Bank Stadium, that gift came first before we went out and got our $25,000 gifts, $10,000 gifts, $1,000 gifts. That's the same process we're using with basketball and we haven't been successful yet. We're still not knocking on doors.
Anderson is a bulldog, but what about Tubby? Is he out and about enough?
Tubby is very good. Remember, John has been here 30-something years and most of the people he's talked to are those he had a relationship with. Tubby is excellent with our donors. He spends time with them and is willing to do what's necessary. We do bring people on some of the trips with us and Tubby comes to dinner when we do -- leaves his team for that.
Tubby was very involved in the facility they have at Kentucky, and if he were not there, it probably might not have happened. The main donor thought the world of Tubby Smith. It is a relationship issue as well as the ability of someone to give. That they have a passion and realize they can make a long-time difference.
There are three tiers for basketball tickets ...
$400, $250, and $100 are the three donations. The center court people (lower deck and first few rows of upper deck) will pay $400 (per seat).
(Editor's note: the rest of this answer was done with a visual, so I will spell out like this: The $250 per seat donation is in the lower level in the corners and a couple sections in the upper level and the $100 per seat donation is behind the basket. In addition, there are a handful of behind-the-basket lower level seats that will not require a donation, and the same is true of many upper level seats. The breakdown, including donations, of the ticket prices per seat for next year will be $54, $46, $38, $33, $28 and $20. Previously, all seats were $33 per game, at least according to Maturi's diagram.)
I can tell you this is very comparable to Nebraska, and we are every bit as successful, and more so than they are. We've done our homework. We're trying to be sensitive to the fans, but also to do what is necessary to generate the revenue we need to move forward with their program.
Why is Wisconsin so successful (14 consecutive NCAA appearances, and coach Bo Ryan, in 11 years, has never finished below fourth place in the Big Ten), and you aren't close to matching them?
It can translate here. It hasn't yet. If you look at their history, and I was there, they didn't go to an NCAA Tournament from 1947 to 1991. They also play in the Kohl Center, so they've made that sort of commitment. They have an excellent coach, excellent tradition, and the same thing has happened in football. I think it has become a priority on campus. It has become a priority with their athletic and academic administration. There's been a major commitment. When you get it goin', you get it goin'. It's not easy to climb that mountain in any sport. Winning creates winning, and unfortunately, losing creates losing. We need to have that breakthrough season, and hopefully, it'll be in the near future.
You say it's a priority there, but isn't it a priority here too? What do you mean by that?
I think there's a culture.
What do you mean by culture? Does that not exist here?
I don't think it does in all instances. I agree with that, yes. It doesn't mean people don't want to win, but I don't think extra attention is paid to athletics -- (I don't mean) illegally.
We have a lot of options here. Whether our donors, our ticket purchasers, the media coverage, whatever it is ... but in Madison, that's all there is. That's just a reality and I think that changes a little bit of the attitude. Their campus reflects that as well.
Does that frustrate you, since you're the one with the bull's-eye on his back?
Yeah. It has been a challenge. We've made strides. We've been fortunate to have the leadership of President (Bob) Bruininks and now President Kaler. It begins with them. Both are committed to athletics being the window to the university. They understand that in a positive vein. It's not uncommon at any institution for athletics to battle academics because there's an envy, there's a misunderstanding as to the role of intercollegiate athletics. Sometimes when something goes wrong as they have at our place, the university gets a black eye that's a reflection on all of us. That doesn't sit well with anybody. We need to turn that into a positive image, which I think we have with the coaches we have in place. We need that breakthrough season. It happened at Wisconsin and it can happen at Minnesota.
Can it happen with Tubby Smith?
Yeah, I think it can happen.
Is he here next year?
I'd be surprised if he is not.
Are you involved at all with the contract extension (for Tubby)?
Tubby has two years left on his contract, and unless he chooses to go someplace else, I don't know why we wouldn't honor that. I think he's an outstanding person, and I think he's proven he's an outstanding coach. As you and I have talked, some things haven't gone well, which I don't mean to use as excuses, but they are realities. Winning is a fine line. We need to find a way to get a jump. We hoped it would happen this year and it didn't.
I can say open and honestly that if Trevor (Mbakwe) didn't get hurt, it may not have been a breakthrough year, but it would've been a better year. We'd probably be on the NCAA bubble. It's one of those things that we are not good enough to have one of those losses and be successful.
If those things don't happen to us next year, whose to say we won't have a very good year?
The comeback can be Purdue overcoming Robbie Hummel's loss last year. They had a marvelous year.
It wasn't marvelous, but it was a good year. We're not there yet. Our losses seem to hurt us a little bit more. We don't have the depth to go to the next level.
But shouldn't Tubby be there five years in?
We've had some people leave. You can mention them. I'd rather not go down that list. There are people who left that I don't blame (on) Tubby Smith. Some had visible negative issues and some had negative issues that I can't share with you. They left for those reasons. I don't think they left because they don't like Tubby Smith. I don't think they left because they were totally unhappy with Minnesota. Those things catch up to you. Some things happen in Minneapolis that wouldn't happen in Iowa City. It's just a different reality of the challenges we have to face.
So, Tubby is back. Can he bring back his entire staff? Can the status quo really be sold to fans? Will you encourage him to find a good offensive assistant?
I've always talked to coaches about staffs, but I've never told coaches that they have to change staffs. That's not a thing an athletic director should do. My job is to challenge coaches to keep a staff, or that they're making a change for the right reason. It would be wrong for me to choose an assistant coach. ... Who's on Tubby's staff is his decision, as well it should be.
The football practice bubble -- any progress?
It's a matter of finances.
Is there room?
You would cover the practice field -- take it up and down. It wouldn't be there permanently. That's the kind of thing you'd do with the bubble. Again, it's one of those needs, things we need to work for. Hopefully, we'll have successs, because people tend to be more generous when you are. At the same time, we need to work hard, and tell them they need to help us get there. Don't wait until we win. Join us now.
So, it's not realistic anytime soon?
Maybe not in the next year, but after that, yes.
Is the outdoor hockey game next year at Soldier Field against Wisconsin official?
I think it is. We talked about an outdoor game here. We should have had it this year because the weather was pretty good.
As most people know, the Notre Dame game (in January) was supposed to be an outdoor game. We decided against it after the Vikings-Bears game at TCF. We had such a terrible winter with so much snow -- the cost to put the rink up is in the several hundreds of thousands of dollars, then snow removal we had to do with the Vikings game was in the several hundreds of thousands of dollars -- I don't care if we don't make any money, but I can't afford to lose any money. In a 50,000-seat stadium, it wasn't prudent of us to do this. But we're still exploring and at some point we'll have an outdoor game.
At one point we partnered with the Wild. We were hoping they would get the Winter Classic here on (Jan.) 1st and we would play the next weekend. In that case, the NHL brings the rink and it doesn't cost us anything. But the Wild aren't getting that game until they get a little bit better. I do think the NHL wants to do (an outdoor game) because of the passion for it here in Minnesota.
You've been in this office a long time. Have you thought about that late June day when you start packing everything and moving out?
I have, with different emotions. I've gone through the cycle. I've believed that I can control my attitude and my effort, and I'm a pretty positive thinker. The time is right. I've had a great journey. I've been blessed. I do wish some things were different. Nobody will argue that. The effort was there. I can dwell on the future and help Gophers athletics raise some money. That will be one of my main priorities for president Kaler and the new athletics director. Also, change the pace a little bit and get into the classroom, which was a passion of mine 25 years ago.
Does it frustrate you, whether it's Kaler, boosters, or fans, constantly saying the athletic department needs this, needs that? In a roundabout way, it's an insult to you, and everything you've done the last 10 years.
Sometimes you succeed. Sometimes you fail. Most people who have sat in the chair or been close to Gophers athletics, and they go back and evaluate the last 10 years, they'll say it's been mostly positive.
It's mostly the people who want us to win every Saturday and every Tuesday and Wednesday and don't want you to raise ticket prices. Those are the ones most vocal and I am respectful of that. Thank God we have those passionate fans.
OK, so we need to raise more money, and yet everyone is against the preferred seating program. Folks, you can't have it both ways. It's that kind of logic. I understand it. I don't get upset about it. I am here to help. If someone can succeed where I didn't, I won't be bitter. I'm a Gopher. My wife and I are staying here.
You have carved out a nice niche in this regard: you are beloved by those closest to you. I have never, even on background, had an associate AD, or coach, say a bad word about you. Just Wednesday I was talking with women's hockey player Emily West. She said the team has talked about sending you off with a national championship. The general public doesn't understand this, though. You take a ton of criticism.
If you're in this chair, you better be ready to take criticism. I won't tell you I like it, but it's a reality. I appreciate the comments of Emily. I'd like to think many of our student-athletes at least respect the effort that all of us have put forth. Everyone is here for the young people they're representing. We're here to make the fan experience even better, and we have improved that. Sometimes the toughest thing to control is winning and losing. We'd like to win more. We're trying.
It's not just the athletes. It's rowing coach Wendy Davis. It's many other coaches. That has to mean something to you.
I'm glad the people I closely work with respect the efforts. If we're judged that way, you have to feel pretty good. Most of my criticism comes from people who have no idea who Joel Maturi is. Have never sat in the chair, and quite frankly, have never sat down and even interviewed me. That doesn't mean there isn't justification for criticism. I'll take that. I can only judge myself on my effort, my homework, the decisions I've made, and I don't apologize for that. I am disappointed in some of the outcomes. I know the time I have put in and where my heart is -- it's with Gophers athletics and it has been for 10 years.
The next person who sits in that chair, more than anything else, better have a great relationship with President Kaler, right?
That is the key to success. I suppose coaches feel like they'll have more success if they have a good relationship with me. ... President Kaler can't be the athletics director so the man or woman in this position needs to have that same understanding and support from president Kaler so they can make decisions without having to go to another level. I'm confident that will happen. President Kaler is involved in the search. He's the ultimate decision-maker. He's passionate about athletics. He'll find someone he has confidence in and a willingness to allow him or her to make decisions.
Even with my staff, I give them the authority to make decisions even if I don't agree. I'll never throw them under the bus. Hopefully, we've communicated enough that they know philosophically how I think. You hire people to make the decisions they're supposed to make.
Do you want the next AD to be an "M" man?
That's not my decision. I don't believe it has to be an "M" man or woman, but if they find someone who is qualified and has that attached to their resume, so be it.
Can John Anderson, who has a lot of support, do your job?
John is a good human being. He's been in athletics his entire life. John has many of the qualities to be a collegiate administrator.
But this is a different animal.
Until you sit in the chair, it's not quite the same. Doesn't mean it can't be learned. No matter who comes into this chair, there are things they have to learn.
How much pride do you take in the fact that there hasn't been a major violation in your tenure?
We've had a few minors.
Nothing like Auburn point-shaving, Syracuse drug testing or Miami football.
I don't throw darts because we could get a call tomorrow and something could be far uglier than any of us want to deal with. We've worked hard at being compliant. I am proud of that. It's not easy. There are things you don't have complete control over (boosters paying athletes). We've worked hard to create the culture where our athletes and donors know what's right and wrong. We just can't afford a black eye like that. Seemingly, that has caught on. We have coaches who understand even if they're fearful they haven't won enough.
My rope is long. I go back to Dan Monson. Part of the reason it took me so long to make the decision (to fire him) is because he didn't cheat. He did care about the academic component and the kids. I remember telling President Bruininks that if I fire Dan early, I am telling every other coach that it's only about winning. He took over a difficult program and did everything right except for win enough. There is that balance in a collegiate department that is tough to measure up to because in the end it is about winning.