FREE SPEECH ZONE | Gophers not so “golden” anymore


In the Sept 27th Star Trib Sports pages, Phil Miller notes that Gopher football coach Tim Brewster is “in a survival mode”.  Miller has the right idea – just the wrong person.  All Brewster has done is taken the largess offered him by a flawed and failing Minnesota Athletic Department. He’s probably the smartest one of all involved, in this sad tale. 

A number of years ago, a friend and I were discussing a mutual acquaintance who had inherited a highly successful insurance company founded by the man’s father.  My friend had worked for this man in a management role, and was not complimentary in his description of the son’s ability and acumen.  “What he did”, my friend stated, “was to manage to turn a gold mine into a silver mine”.  A perfect description of the state of University of Minnesota Athletic Department today.

As a third generation Minnesotan, and loyal alum (Class of 1954), I am old enough and nostalgic enough to recall the magnificent football teams of the past – the glory years of the 20’s (Bronko Nagurski), 30’s (Pug Lund et al), and championship team of 1941 (with the great Bruce Smith).  So the tarnish on the “gold” of the Gophers has caused much dismay, and some considerable ire at the way athletics are now run at our tradition-blessed university.

In short, the current athletic programs at the “U” have underachieved, been overpaid, and have disappointed in a variety of other ways.

In terms of achievement, few U of M athletic teams in any major sport has won any titles in the Big Ten in years. We have not been to a Rose Bowl for almost 50 years. With the exception of track and minor sports; and a recent baseball championship, Minnesota is totally off the radar on major championships in the 2004-9 years.  In 2004-09, we added rowing, wrestling, gym, some track, and diving to our meager medal count.  But in the major sports, Minnesota has disappointed. Even in a state where hockey is king, we failed in recent years. But it is in football, that the ire comes into play.

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In 2006, Athletic director Joel Maturi hired Tim Brewster as head coach (he had never held any head coaching job before). Brewster signed a five-year contract worth $1 million annually: $400,000 in base salary, $400,000 in supplemental salary and $200,000 in deferred compensation that will vest after his contract expires. Additionally, he can earn up to $700,000 in annual bonuses if the Gophers reach several goals. 

Despite the fact that he has a fantastic new stadium with which to recruit; and was hired by Maturi as a successful recruiter, this year’s team with it disgraceful record to date, is now totally Brewster’s creation, along with all the assistant coaches. Of course, recruiting good talent is irrelevant if the coaching skills are not present to exploit that talent.  He has complained that such schools as Ohio State and Michigan have “bigger football budgets”  Well, one thing for sure, the University of South Dakota and Northern Illinois do not have more money in their football programs.

If Brewster’s 4 year record at Minnesota was not enough for the fans, it seems to have been sufficient for Athletic Director Maturi, who gave Brewster a two year extension on his contract fully two years before it expired.  Back to the Miller article, don’t blame Brewster for this situation – he just is taking what is given him. A harder look at the Athletic Department might be more meaningful.

If the $1 million Brewster is paid seems excessive, he is a piker compared to the compensation the Athletic Department has given head basketball coach Tubby Smith. Here is Smith’s compensation: $1,783,150 per year.  Though Smith has good credentials and true experience (unlike Brewster), he is now the highest paid University employee – earning about 3 times the salary of the U’s president. 

Both the football and basketball coaches are reputed to be excellent recruiters, but both have had a series of “character” and academic issues with recruited players, further tarnishing the gold on the Gophers. But having large salaries with dubious results is not straining the University’s Athletic Department’s budget. In 2009-2010, the athletics department will see a $700,000 cut in University funding. Despite the cut, the total budget for the Athletic Department next year is expected to stay similar to the current $70 million.

So, what is this about?  Perhaps it is just crotchety old alum dreaming of the glory days long gone by, for his tradition laden school.  But, I think it is much more than that.  Indeed, something is very wrong in the Athletic Department of the University of Minnesota.  It seems to be underachieving…overpaid…richly budgeted…and badly managed.  It is about rewarding failure with excessive salaries, and contract extensions, while the university suffers through rising tuitions and tight budgets. And finally, maybe it is just a metaphor for so many things that are generally wrong about college sports today, with priorities askew…coaches earning 3 times the salaries of college presidents…compensated mercenaries being recruited as surrogate “representatives” of a state’s population…sports achievement trumping academic success…expensive new publicly-financed stadiums…and the conversion of wholesome amateur competition into a quasi-professional money-laden activity. 

Sorry about trashing our mutual and beloved Alma Mater, Bronko, Pug, and Bruce – the present may be forgettable, but you will never be forgotten.