Tracy Claeys did not come by a head-coaching position easily, and now that he has one, the Minnesota coach has little job security. So, it is surprising how willing he seems to risk it all.
Claeys threw his support behind his players during their two-day boycott last week that threatened the Golden Gophers’ participation in next Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl game against Washington State.
After the boycott was announced, he tweeted: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights (and) support their efforts to make a better world.”
This was despite the fact that he had told the team their stance could cost him his job during a meeting held by the players, during which they decided to boycott football activities to protest the suspensions or expulsions of 10 teammates.
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“That was the commitment on my part. I knew that was a possibility in happening,” Claeys told WCCO radio. “That’s why that meeting took a long time, to go through the fallouts.”
The boycott ended when the players were made aware of the explicit details of the sexual assault investigation that led to the suspensions and expulsions. Still, Claeys likely did not endear himself much to first-year athletic director Mark Coyle.
There have been rumors around the program that Coyle would like to hire his own football coach, and Claeys has a half-million-dollar buyout that is comically low for a Power Five coach.
Claeys, 47, has been the head coach since last year, when he was named interim coach when Jerry Kill resigned because of health problems. Of the 22 years Claeys spent as an assistant coach, 21 were spent working for Kill, and occasionally filling in when the head coach missed games because of sporadic seizures over the past decade.
During one stretch in 2013, Claeys took the Golden Gophers on a four-game Big Ten Conference winning-streak while Kill took an extended leave of absence to focus on treating his epilepsy.
Prior to this season, he was Minnesota’s defensive coordinator and was nominated for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, in each his final two seasons.
Kill, who this week was named the offensive coordinator at Rutgers, resigned on Oct. 28, 2015, and left no question about who he wanted to replace him. Claeys stepped in as the interim coach, leading the Golden Gophers to a 2-4 record, including a win in the Quick Lane Bowl.
This is Claeys’ first full-time season as head coach, and he has guided Minnesota to a better-than-expected 8-4 record.
It was an easy, amicable transition of power from Kill to Claeys, who had been in Minneapolis since 2011. There was no coaching search, and Claeys negotiated his contract without an agent.
The school gave him a prove-it contract: Three years at $1.3 million per year with a $100,000 raise each year, and a tiny buyout of just $250,000 for each year remaining on the contract. For comparison’s sake, it would cost Arizona State more than $14 million to fire coach Todd Graham.
His on-the-field results have thus far been everything the school and fans could have hoped for — a win in the Holiday Bowl would give Minnesota nine wins for the first time since 2003.
And though his position may still be tenuous, Claeys is willing to risk it on his players’ behalf.
“If you just show support for the players behind closed doors, you’re going to have a group of them that don’t believe you,” he said after a recent practice. “I needed to do that in a public way, and I tried to do it as short as possible. … It was all about me supporting their actions to try to improve the due process. Not just on this campus but other campuses.”