Updated: Dec. 16, 5:50 a.m. | Posted: 7:54 p.m.
One by one, the entire Minnesota football roster walked out of the locker room and onto the practice facility turf to face a waiting media gathering.
Wearing their maroon game jerseys with gold numbers, they lined up behind 10 of their teammates who were suspended earlier this week after an internal university investigation into an alleged sexual assault.
Three senior leaders stood in front of the group and delivered a defiant rebuke of the university's policies, saying they would not participate in football activities until the school president and athletic director apologized and revoked the suspensions. If that meant they did not play in the upcoming Holiday Bowl against Washington State, they appeared poised to stand firm.
"All these kids' reputations are destroyed," senior quarterback Mitch Leidner said Thursday. "Their names are destroyed. It's extremely difficult to get back and it's very unfair for them and that's why we're sticking together through this thing."
Two assistant coaches and former Minnesota Vikings star cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose son Antoine Winfield Jr. was one of the players suspended, were there watching while head coach Tracy Claeys tweeted his support. A program that has toiled in the bottom half of the Big Ten for decades was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.
The Gophers voiced their displeasure with a lack of communication from President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle after the decision was made to suspend the players indefinitely. Four of those players were suspended earlier in the season for three games after becoming part of a sexual assault investigation. No arrests were made, no charges were filed and a restraining order put in place by the woman was removed after a settlement on Nov. 2.
But this week the school's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action recommended suspending those four players and six others, saying they violated the school's standards for conduct. Ray Buford Jr., KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson and Carlton Djam were all recommended for expulsion.
Antoine Winfield Jr., Kobe McCrary, Seth Green and Mark Williams were recommended for one-year suspensions, and Antonio Shenault was recommended for probation by the EOAA.
"The actions of president Kaler have breached fiduciary duty not only to the 10 falsely accused, but to all of us," receiver Drew Wolitarsky said.
The players asked the Holiday Bowl committee to remain patient while they worked through the situation, saying they viewed their boycott of football activities as "day-by-day."
The decision does not come without risk for the players, who were asked about the possibility of the school revoking scholarships for their demonstration.
"We're in this together," Wolitarsky said. "What, are they going to pull 120 guys off the team? I mean, they're not going to have a team if that's the case."
The players also demanded a closed door meeting with University Board of Regents members Michael Hsu and Darrin Rosha to discuss how to "make the program great again."
"I have no objection whatsover to speaking with the players," said Rosha, who has previously raised concerns about the U's Title IX investigation process. He says he'll need to speak with board leadership and Michael Hsu first.
"Whether I can respond to their concerns to their satisfaction remains to be seen, but the dialogue is something I'm more than happy to participate in," Rosha said.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. Schools are required, under federal guidelines, to investigate all sexual assaults on campus.
The Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined to press charges related in the incident. However, Title IX investigations have a lower standard of evidence than criminal cases. They also go by the student code of conduct, which has different definitions of consent and sexual assault than criminal law in Minnesota.
U President Eric Kaler along with Athletic Director Coyle issued a statement last night, saying they understand this is a frustrating issue, given that the university cannot share all the facts because of student privacy laws.
Kaler and Coyle issued a joint statement Thursday night saying the school's decision was "based on facts and is reflective of the university's values."
"We understand that a lot of confusion and frustration exists as a result of this week's suspension of ten Gopher football players from all team activities," the statement read. "The reality is that not everyone can have all of the facts, and unfortunately the university cannot share more information due to federal laws regarding student privacy."
The players and Winfield Sr. fumed at the university's adherence to the law preventing them from commenting.
"If the president and athletic director keep their jobs, my son, Antoine Winfield Jr., will not attend the University of Minnesota," Winfield Sr. said.
The players say they were further frustrated by Coyle's unwillingness to explain the university's reasons for the suspensions in a meeting with the team on Wednesday.
"So that led us basically to believe that this is kind of unjust and he has the power to reverse this and he won't," Wolitarsky said.
Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville said they were "monitoring it closely." A request for comment from the Big Ten was not immediately returned.
Washington State sold out its 7,000-ticket allotment in less than two days and has already requested more.
Getting a team to fill the bowl spot on short notice would be difficult, if not impossible. But the next team in line to receive a bid is Northern Illinois, which finished 5-7 but has the highest Academic Progress Rate among teams with that record.
MPR News' Peter Cox contributed to this report.