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Minnesota fires football coach Claeys

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys (middle, right) gets a hug from defensive lineman Yoshoub Timms (52) after a 17-12 win over the Washington State Cougars at Qualcomm Stadium. Claeys was fired on Tuesday. (Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS — After being fired Tuesday as the University of Minnesota’s head football coach, Tracy Claeys walked into the cold.

“Enjoy the winter,” Claeys said as he exited the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex into a biting wind chill about 4 p.m. He repeated that phrase multiple times in requests for comment before he drove off in his black Chevy Tahoe.

Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle had laid off Claeys after a 9-4 season was marred by a school investigation into an alleged sexual assault that left 10 players suspended for the 17-12 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27. In the run-up to the bowl game in mid-December, Gophers players held a two-day boycott over their view of a lack of due process relating to the suspensions — which were made by Coyle and then publicly resisted by Claeys in an infamous tweet.

Coyle said that the program needs “strong leadership” and that the decision to make a change was not about one incident. “I think the events over the past few weeks underscored the concerns and some of the things I’ve been seeing in that program,” he said.

Coyle said Claeys took the news as a “professional. He was disappointed, but he understood.”

Claeys will receive a $500,000 buyout, which is in accordance with the terms of his contract. The athletics department will pay roughly $5 million total, including compensation due to 13 assistant coaches and support staff, according to a U spokesman. Assistant coaches Dan O’Brien and Mike Sherels agreed to remain during the transition into a “national” coaching search.

“I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program,” Coyle said in a statement. “We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges. This decision is about the future of Minnesota football. Moving forward, we need a leader who sets high expectations athletically, academically, and socially.”

Claeys said Sunday on WCCO-AM that the problematic instances were “very minimal” as he cited the strong academic record of the football program and the best on-field record since he came to Minnesota as an assistant to Jerry Kill before the 2011 season.

Claeys’ job, which he inherited from Kill midway through the 2015 season, was on thin ice amid the fallout on the 10 suspensions and startling boycott that ended without those players being reinstated for the Holiday Bowl. Claeys said he told his players before the boycott decision was made that his support of their protest could result in a “great chance” he would lose his job.

After the news broke Tuesday afternoon and Claeys was leaving his office, Coyle sent a text message to current Gophers players about a half-hour after the fact.

“As many of you have heard, I have decided to make a change in the leadership of our football program,” Coyle’s text message read, according to a player who shared it with the Pioneer Press. “I apologize that I was not able to be the first to communicate this decision. We are conducting a national search for the new coach. We will do our best to keep you updated and informed throughout the process.”

Players took to Twitter to voice their shock and displeasure with the firing; Coyle said he understands their reaction.

“I get they’re upset,” Coyle said. “I get they’re frustrated. I understand that. It’s our job to find a leader who will take this program forward and unite all of them in one direction, one goal.”

Claeys succeeded Kill in October 2015 when Kill stepped down for health reasons. Claeys had been Kill’s assistant at many schools over 21 years. The two came to Minnesota in December 2010, with Claeys as the defensive coordinator.

A lot of the criticism toward Claeys stems from a tweet he sent when the boycott was started Dec. 15. He wrote: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”

Coyle responded to Claeys’ tweet in part of his statement: “Coach Claeys’ Tweet later that week was not helpful. I accept that Coach Claeys intended it to support the boycotting players. Understandably others did not see it that way. I hope you will appreciate I cannot say more about the athletic suspensions in this case.”

A petition calling for Claeys to be fired was started Dec. 22 and had about 3,400 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. An associated rally calling for Claeys’ firing is scheduled for noon Wednesday; it remained on despite the change, a spokesman said.

Former Gophers coach and current Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason criticized many aspects of the situation. Claeys, a native Kansan, had been a student assistant under Mason when Mason was head coach at Kansas.

“The way this whole thing was handled by Minnesota was very poor,” Mason said on TV on Tuesday afternoon. “You can point a finger at Tracy Claeys, but you can point a finger at a lot of other people. I think it’s a classic example on how not to handle a situation.”

The decision to suspend the 10 players came after the university’s office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) recommended five players face expulsion, four players for one-year school suspension and one for probation. Those players are set for a hearing and appeals process later this month.

Coyle’s statement included a point of contention: Whose decision was it to suspend the players? University President Eric Kaler’s statement to donors on Dec. 14 said it was Claeys’ decision, with Coyle included. Coyle said later on Dec. 14 that it was his decision, with consultation with Claeys.

Coyle added Tuesday, “Without any objection, Coach Claeys said he understood that decision to bench student-athletes.”

According to attorney Lee Hutton, who is representing the suspended players, Claeys did not agree with the decision to suspend the players.

Coyle said he’s frustrated along with fans. He cited the team’s blown halftime leads and included the program’s eight targeting penalties as part of the “overall evaluation of the program.”

“But if I could show you all the emails I got after the  Wisconsin game,” Coyle said of the Gophers’ 31-17 loss to the Badgers.

“That’s the great thing about our fans, you hear from them. Moving forward, there’s no reason we can’t compete at a high level academically, athletically and socially, through all 25 programs, through all 700 student-athletes.”

Coyle said the decision came with the support of Kaler and Board of Regents Chair Dean Johnson. Coyle said everyone needs to turn the page to the future.

“I think we all need to take a deep breath,” Coyle said. “We’ll go out, we’ll find a great football coach for the University of Minnesota. We’ll have a chance to move forward in a positive direction.”

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