The Case Against Mark Coyle

The University of Minnesota Athletic Director Needs to Go and the Board of Regents Needs to Reject His Athletics Department Bailout

I.

The University of Minnesota is now receiving national exposure, and not in a good way, for its dysfunctional Athletics Department. This past Sunday 60 Minutes, did a report on the Minnesota’s decision to cut men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s indoor track and field in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report did a good job explaining the issue and focused mostly on the negative impact on players and their coaches. Additionally, the American public learned what most people in Minnesota who have been following the issue already knew—the decision to cut these sports made absolutely no sense. It saved almost no money when you consider that Athletics is facing a minimum $75 million deficit and it solved a Title IX gender balance “problem” that seems as if it were purposefully created by the department itself. As I argued on my newsletter at the time of the decision, I think it was made largely to look like they were “doing something” to cut costs while praying that the pandemic would come to an end.

To make matters worse, Athletics Director Mark Coyle declined to appear on the 60 Minutes report to defend his decision to cut the sports—instead sending a letter which in no way rebutted the central claims of the report. Now, on the heels of this decision to not appear on the program, Coyle is set to ask the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents (its governing body) for approval of a plan to borrow a “significant amount” of money to plug its massive deficit brought about by the pandemic. This bailout loan, which if you read between the lines in this report, will be a minimum of $70 million provided by the university to its own Athletics Department. The Regents meeting is set for this Thursday at 9:30 a.m. giving the public roughly three days to digest the news of the Athletics Department Bailout. To make matters worse, the meeting is to be held virtually giving the public an even harder opportunity to have input into the decision. Hopefully, this is just the start of a debate about the bailout as opposed to approval.

However, the public—and particularly those at the University of Minnesota and Minnesotan taxpayers—need to start working this week to have input into this disastrous bailout plan. It is the latest terrible decision made by Mark Coyle who has proven himself unfit for any leadership position at the University of Minnesota. We need to work to make sure that the Board of Regents rejects the AD bailout plan and that Mark Coyle and his entire senior management team at the University of Minnesota are fired and replaced with better fiscal stewards and human beings who have actual compassion for student-athletes.

The case against Mark Coyle and his senior management team is long and only culminates with this disastrous bailout. The story of the cutting of the three men’s sports is by far the best known aspect of Coyle’s disastrous tenure as AD but there are many other reasons Coyle and his team need to go beyond this thoughtless decision.

II.

Obviously, most central to the concerns of this newsletter have been Coyle’s inaction on reigning in a toxic workplace environment on Minnesota’s football team which has led to player abuse and a high rate of turnover for both coaches and players. This should be added to the toxic workplace environment that Coyle knew about, and did nothing to contain, when Marlene Stollings coached women’s basketball at Minnesota. Stollings was later fired for her toxic behavior when she became the head coach at Texas Tech.

This history should obviously be added to the case against Coyle but I don’t want readers to think that that player mistreatment on the football team is solely a historical issue. Rather, it is an ongoing concern. This is where I thought the 60 Minutes report was weakest. If you only knew what was in that report, you’d assume that football players had it easy and that they were among the most privileged student-athletes on campus. The football team is described as the “core business” that is “protected” for its ability to generate TV revenues. The team is described as being the beneficiary of the “facilities arms race” where they get access to a “palatial locker room.” They are given the most roster spots (115) and scholarships (85) and so they must have it good.

However, this framing obscures more than it reveals—both in normal times and, especially, during the pandemic. Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see that players are far from the privileged students that they’re often thought to be. During normal times, given that players aren’t paid wages from the massive revenues they generate to run athletics departments across the land, they are primarily “paid” in two ways. First, if they are on scholarship, they get that education. Secondly, all football student-athletes are paid in the fuzzier realm of “the experience” of being an athlete on campus.

As for the education, during normal times, it is increasingly becoming more and more obvious that it isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Football players at some schools have even taken to suing their institutions for receiving an “education in name only.” At Minnesota under Mark Coyle, as I’ve discussed before, there is massive pressure among Athletics administrators and football coaches and staff to limit the choice of majors football student-athletes to ones deemed “easy.” The headlines, cash bonuses and guaranteed player eligibility received by coaches and administrators for the resulting GPAs are simply too good to pass up. In addition to this lack of a full educational opportunity, I think the “experience” of being a football student-athlete during normal times is lacking as well given that every hour of every day seems as if it is scheduled by the coaching staff.

During pandemic times, as with all other cultural and societal problems, these dynamics are all amplified even further. With all classes now moved online, the education that students are receiving is drastically subpar from a normal year. In other words, the educational “payment” that football student-athletes are receiving is now worth much less. This is the reason that many students are engaging in a class-action lawsuit for tuition refunds for classes that went online in the spring semester. An online education anywhere, but especially at a place like Minnesota that is not used to offering it, is vastly inferior to an in-person education.

However, it is in the realm of “experience” that football student-athletes have really suffered and Mark Coyle is directly responsible for much of that suffering. There seems to be an absolute zeal on Coyle’s part to get money-making student-athletes back into competition as the only way to plug his budgetary hole. This means that the student-athletes themselves suffer in the “experience” payment compared to a normal year. Instead of game day crowds, parties and fun, the reports I’m hearing are nothing but grinding out online classes, practices, tutoring and games. This is reaching the height of absurdity this week when the football team, despite coming out of the nation’s largest college football COVID-19 outbreak; despite staring down final exams; despite dealing with rampant mental health issues on the team; and despite not having practiced in two weeks seems intent on playing Nebraska on Saturday.

III.

There are other ways to fill Coyle’s budgetary hole besides putting a depleted football team back on the field or forcing the women’s basketball team to play with seven starters, but Coyle seems unwilling to explore them. This is because, since becoming the AD in 2016, he has been the worst fiscal steward imaginable. He has done nothing but spend and not prepare for an emergency. So now faced with a financial catastrophe, he has no idea what to do other than to ask for a giant bailout to get him through the pandemic so he can keep spending on the other side.

Mark Coyle’s record as a fiscal steward speaks for itself and should be enough to get him and his whole senior management team fired. Coyle’s arrival in 2016 coincided with a windfall in money from television rights. Coyle spent nearly every last cent of this money despite the fact that his department had millions in already existing debt obligations to the university that it used to finance new facilities. None of the increased revenue was used to save for a rainy day or to more aggressively pay down the department’s debt obligations.

So what was all the new revenue used for? Football and central athletic administration growth account for much of the spending. As to the former, it seems as if football has a nearly unlimited budget. Last year alone, the program somehow managed to spend $40 million. This year, with P.J. Fleck’s raise to $4.6 million a year, one imagines this figure will climb even higher. I pulled publically available salary reports for football-related staffing and the figure totaled just over $11 million a year. In central athletics administration, the number of overall positions, and the pay of those positions, has expanded immensely since Coyle’s arrival. I now count 22 individuals who are classified as some type of “athletic director.” Overall in Athletics, there are now 122 individuals making over $60,000 a year for a total of nearly $24 million. All of these pay figures do not include bonuses which for coaches and top administrators can be immense.

I chose the $60,000 figure because this was the baseline number above which university employees had to take some measure of pay reduction during the pandemic. The degree of the cut escalated as you went up the pay scale. It topped out at 10 percent for the highest earners like Fleck and Coyle. However, this honestly seems like a drop in the bucket given that athletics has such little revenue coming in at this point. Additionally, from March through June, there were no student-athletes on campus at all, and certainly no sporting events, yet I saw no reports that any athletics employees were fully furloughed and/or laid off as I did at other institutions. When restaurant workers, retail workers and millions of others went on unemployment during the pandemic when there was no work, why was the same thing not done to some extent in Athletics at Minnesota? Instead, Mark Coyle deficit spent and now he wants a bailout to make sure him and his friends are just fine financially while the rest of the world suffers. We should say no.

IV.

At the Board of Regents meeting to cut the men’s sports at Minnesota, several regents expressed exasperation at Mark Coyle for not seeming to have any plan at all to balance his budget. In particular, Regent Sviggum declared that Coyle can’t “balance his budget on hopes and dreams.” Yet this is precisely what Mark Coyle is trying to do with the AD Bailout. He’s asking the university to give him at least $70 million (and probably more) on top of the debt his department already owes the university.

This has to stop now. Regents need to reject the bailout and force Coyle to come up with a real plan for cutting costs. If he won’t do it, as he has shown he cannot, we should find an Athletic Director who will. The university, its students and their families should not foot the bill for Coyle’s free-spending ways and for his disastrous tenure as Athletic Director.

Please write and call the regents today. At this link, you can find their profiles and contact information. Make sure they have all of this information so they know why they should reject Mark Coyle’s Bailout and bring in a new team to manage university athletics. For student-athletes on campus who are reading this, it is particularly important that you contact the regents and/or consider opting out of your sport for this season to force the hard budgetary decisions back onto the Athletics Department. Don’t be used as pawns to plug Coyle’s budgetary hole when you have the right, according to the NCAA itself, to opt out this season without losing your scholarship. You have a lot of power if you choose to use it.


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