The Gophers are in the market for a new head football coach. Despite finishing the season with the most wins in more than a decade, Tracy Claeys is out of a job.
At a news conference Tuesday, University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle said firing Claeys and most of his assistants was a difficult decision.
"I don't take these decisions lightly. I have impacted a lot of people. That's very hard."
Claeys ended his first full season with the team 9-4 — including a victory Dec. 27 in the Holiday Bowl. It was the team's best record since 2003. Claeys took over as the Gophers head coach partway through the 2015 season. He replaced Jerry Kill, who retired over health concerns.
Claeys' trouble with his bosses began last month after the U suspended 10 players, a decision he supported. An investigation by the campus Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office found the men violated school policy during an encounter with a woman in an off-campus apartment. She later reported as many as 10 to 20 football players sexually assaulted her.
After reviewing the case twice, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said there wasn't enough evidence to bring charges. But the university — using different standards — recommended expulsion for five of the players, one-year suspensions for four, and probation for one.
Team leaders called a boycott that could include the Holiday Bowl, saying their teammates were denied due process. Clayes said Dec. 15 on Twitter: "Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!"
Coyle called the tweet "not helpful," but noted it wasn't the sole reason he fired Claeys.
"This isn't about one specific incident. I've been here six months. I've had a chance to look at that program and all of our programs, and I don't think it's fair to say one thing," the athletic director told reporters. "I think some of the events over the past few weeks underscored some of the concerns and some of the things I've been seeing with that program."
Coyle said the U will honor the buyout clause of Claeys' contract and pay him about $500,000.
The players ended their boycott within two days, just after KSTP published a leaked copy of the U's 82-page report on the incident.
When word of Claey's firing came Tuesday, many Gopher players spoke out again, saying the administration succumbed to outside pressure and was destroying a strong football program.
Freshman linebacker Carter Coughlin said he has no regrets about the boycott, adding Claeys was right to stand with his players.
"What people don't understand is that Coach Claeys wasn't in any way supporting sexual assault," Coughlin said. "And that's literally the furthest thing from what we were supporting with our boycott."
Coughlin said that all along, the players only wanted due process.
"Look at what it's done to my teammates' names, who didn't get a chance to fight for themselves, fight for their rights before their names are slandered like this."
Coyle's decision brought immediate praise from victims' rights advocates. Sarah Super, a rape survivor and founder of the group Break the Silence as well as a U alum, calls Claeys' firing a paradigm shift.
"I think that President [Eric] Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle did an excellent job in believing the survivor," Super said. "And the office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action did a very detailed report that was able to hold the perpetrators to some form of accountability for their crime."
Super says she's hopeful the U's move will urge others to confront rape culture.
"We certainly know that it's not enough to simply not commit an act of sexual violence, that real allies are actually counteracting the violence that's going on campuses, in every neighborhood, in every community," Super said.
Super and others who had planned to hold a protest at noon Wednesday to demand Claeys' firing will instead rally in support of university administration.
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