Coyle, U of M coaches see bright future

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Tim Shea of Rochester talks with University of Minnesota men's basketball coach Richard Pitino at Somerby Golf Club in Byron on Wednesday. This was the eighth and final stop on the annual Gopher Road Trip, which this year included new Athletic Director Mark Coyle, football coach Tracy Claeys, hockey coach Don Lucia, Pitino and numerous other coaches in the U of M athletic program. More than 200 people attended the free event.

Last August, University of Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal. Since then, the Gophers men's basketball team has posted its worst-ever record in a season that culminated with three players being suspended.

Now, the university is investigating the possible involvement of Gophers wrestlers in the illegal buying and selling of prescription drugs.

None of that seemed to matter on Wednesday, as more than 200 enthusiastic Gophers fans showed up at Somerby Golf Club in Byron for a chance to meet men's basketball coach Richard Pitino, football coach Tracy Claeys, men's hockey coach Don Lucia, women's basketball coach Marlene Stallings and just about every other coach in the Gophers athletic program.

But the headliner for the 2016 Gopher Road Trip was Athletic Director Mark Coyle, who arrived in Minnesota just in time to board the bus for a four-day, eight-city barnstorming tour that ended Wednesday in Byron.

To him, the timing was perfect.


"The first thing I have to do is listen," Coyle said during a press conference before the main program. "We don't have all the answers. I want to hear from fans and get feedback, suggestions and comments on what we can do better to make it a better experience for them. I purposely got here as quickly as I could so I could do the statewide tour, to meet people and develop relationships."

Tim Shea of Rochester, who is a member of the committee that organized Wednesday's event in Byron, said he thinks Coyle is the right guy for a tough job. "I think there's great interest here in our new athletic director," Shea said. "My first impression is that Mark Coyle is a terrific guy, a great family man, and I think he's going to be a perfect fit for the University."

Trials by fire

This won't be the first time Coyle has had to clean up a mess. He took over the Boise State athletic department when the previous athletic director was fired after widespread rules violations occurred under his watch. Four years later, with Boise State back on track, Coyle went to Syracuse, taking the reins of an athletic program that was in utter disarray.

Less than a year later, when Coyle left New York to take the job at the U, media in Syracuse said the Orange had "arguably its greatest athletic year ever" under Coyle's watch.

On Wednesday, Coyle said he will draw on those experiences as he tries to take the U of M to new heights.

"Winning the Fiesta Bowl with Boise State, and then going to the Final Four with coach John Calipari my last year in Kentucky, and then this year with Syracuse, going to the Final Four with not only the men's basketball team but the women's team, too -- those are experiences that I can bring here," he said.

"The one common denominator is that it's hard work. I remind people that the other schools want to win just as badly as you do."


Great expectations

It should be an interesting year for the two highest-profile teams at the U, football and men's basketball -- and for very different reasons.

Claeys, in his first full season as head football coach, said Wednesday that this year's recruiting class is the biggest, most athletic group to arrive at the U since his own arrival in 2011. "I'll be disappointed if we get to the end of November and we're not in the conversation to play in the Big 10 championship game," he said, then offered one caveat.

"We have to stay healthy, especially up front," he said. "If we get injuries in the offensive line, we'd get awfully young there in a hurry, and it's hard to play in the Big 10 as a young offensive lineman."

On paper, the window of opportunity is wide open for the Gophers, as Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are absent from the football schedule. Claeys, however, was quick to point out that five of the Gophers nine Big 10 games are on the road. "It's hard to win on the road in the Big 10, I don't care where you go," he said.

Feeling considerably more pressure for the upcoming season is Richard Pitino, whose squad has nowhere to go but up after last year's season-long disaster. Expectations are high for this year's team, with a recruiting class that's considered to be among the top 20 in the country -- a class that includes Michael Hurt, who on Saturday becomes a John Marshall graduate.

"I've always thought that my fourth year would be our best team," Pitino said. "I think we'll have our most talented team, and definitely our most experienced team. We were really young last year, but as tough of a season as it was, a lot of guys got onto the court, and that's the best way to learn."

Pitino said Hurt will be a valuable asset for a team that has lacked length and shooting ability in its backcourt. "It was difficult to run our offense last year because we were not a good shooting team," he said.


"I'm excited about Michael Hurt. He's a gym rat, he's great in the classroom, and he'll represent this university in the right way. He's talented, and he's 6-5, maybe 6-6. We've got to get bigger and longer at the guard position."

Last year's Gophers struggled mightily at home, and Pitino said that in order to be relevant in the conference (and to qualify for the NCAA tournament), his team must play much better at Williams Arena.

"You have to protect your home court, and we obviously were unable to do that last year," he said. "The atmosphere here has always been really good, and when we win, it's great."

University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle addresses the media Thursday at Somerby Golf Club in Byron.

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