MINNESOTA — First-year University of Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle fired football coach Tracy Claeys and most of the team’s assistants Tuesday while calling for a cultural overhaul in Gophers’ sports.
Coyle gave a blistering assessment of the football program, which has been engulfed in turmoil for three weeks, and declared Tuesday night a need for more “integrity and class” across athletics.
Gophers football has been roiling since Dec. 13, when Coyle suspended 10 players in connection with an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault. The players responded with a two day boycott, and Claeys publicly supported their stance, pitting him against the administration.
The Gophers ended their boycott and upset Washington State in the Holiday Bowl last week, finishing 9-4 in their best season since 2003. But a week later, Coyle made the decision to fire Claeys while eyeing sweeping change.
The Minnesota Star-Tribune visited Claeys’ hometown of Clay Center over the summer to profile the Minnesota coach ahead of his first full year as head coach.
Amid his off season preparation, Claeys returned to the place where he grew up as a quiet, industrious kid from a family that worked tirelessly to survive financially.
In Clay Center in July, the coach hosted a barbecue and showed visitors around the tight-knit farming community. When the tour ended, he was standing in the shaded square outside the Clay County courthouse. One of the town’s 4,200 residents spotted him from across the courtyard.
“I’d walk as far as it took to say hi to this guy,” Mary Jo Bull said, coming over for a hug. “It’s just such a neat feeling to see you on the sideline and know that, hey, ‘This kid’s from Clay Center.’ ” Claeys, 48, smiled and put his hands on his hips.
“Well, I appreciate that,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy coming back. Good people.” Minnesota fans knew him as the longtime Jerry Kill assistant who got thrust into head coaching duty when Kill resigned for health reasons in 2015.
Back in his Minneapolis office, Claeys has a framed photo of himself with Kill perched over his shoulder. They spent 21 years together and still talk by phone each week. Kill was working as an associate AD at Kansas State but took an assistant coaching job at Rutgers last month.
Claeys had a three year contract that pays $1.4 million in 2016 but contained a small buyout — just $250,000 per season. Coaching football is an all-consuming job for Claeys, who has stayed single, while his siblings have married and given him four nieces. Claeys tries to return home once or twice a year, staying in his parents’ basement. They have a two-story house in a comfortable neighborhood, not extravagant but clearly an upgrade for the family from its years in rental properties.
For perspective, Claeys’ mother, Ione Walker, showed a photo of the small, dilapidated farmhouse where she and seven siblings were raised.
“Listen, we were poor,” she said. “I got married when I was 16. I was pregnant and dropped out of school. My dad would roll over in his grave if he thought a dropout could have a kid who was on TV, as the head coach.”
She was divorced with three kids by age 21. In stepped Bob Walker, who’s been married to her now for 43 years. Claeys has no relationship with his birth father.
This made it all the more harrowing in 1974, when tragedy struck. Bob was a fuel delivery driver, and his tanker exploded, engulfing him in flames.
Burns covered 78 percent of his body. Infection claimed most of his left ear. The family feared for his life. After two months in a Kansas City burn unit, he finally made it home.
With three growing kids — Todd (6), Tracy (5) and Teresa (2) — Ione was getting $120 per month in child support, and Bob received $56 per week in worker’s comp. For a while, the family needed food stamps.
“It wasn’t a matter of pride,” Claeys said. “It was truly a security net, what it was meant for.”
Once Bob’s wounds healed, he and Ione managed the Idle Hour bar for about 18 months. They also ran the local bowling alley for several years. Claeys helped with the labor — sweeping floors, grooming pool tables, oiling bowling lanes — and worked on farms to earn extra cash.
“I’m not saying we didn’t have a lot, but we worked for what the hell we got,” Bob said. “I used to work two and three jobs. I don’t think they ever went to bed hungry.”
The ’74 explosion left Bob scarred but didn’t change his sense of humor. Silver-haired and wearing a gold Minnesota shirt, he described the joy he gets watching the Gophers on TV from his basement.
The neighborhood knew if Minnesota won. Bob celebrated every victory by setting off his car alarm. Claeys owned Coach’s Grill & Pub in town for a couple of years, with his sister, Teresa, running the place. But the restaurant business has its hassles, and Claeys closed it in 2015. For his next venture, he purchased a 70-acre pasture near brother Todd’s house, with 15 pairs of black angus cattle — calves and their mothers — and a 2-year-old bull. Todd tends the cattle before and after work as a mechanics supervisor at the Fort Riley Army base.
After surveying his pasture, Claeys turned the SUV toward home and explained what first drew him to sports. It wasn’t just the fun. It was the sense of equality.
“You had to get along, and everybody relied on each other,” Claeys said. “It didn’t matter how much damn money you made. They’d wear the [Air] Jordans, and we wore the Pro Wings from Payless. When you got out on the football field, none of that mattered anymore.”
At Clay Center High School, Claeys was class president and posted the third-highest GPA in the Class of ’87. He valued his education but threw himself into sports — football, basketball and baseball — even though he never considered himself a great athlete.
Claeys wore No. 70 and played offensive and defensive line. His family gave him a frame with his old jersey, and he used it to help recruit freshman Sam Schlueter last year.
“He likes the No. 70, and I told him I wanted him to wear it,” Claeys said. “I wasn’t worth a darn, so I want to see somebody who’s good wear that number.”
Claeys has saved other mementos in a blue wooden trunk. There’s a newspaper clipping noting his nomination for Clay Center’s “King of WinterSports.”There’sa T-shirt signifying his first coaching triumph — a youth baseball state title.
There is also a blue Kansas foam finger and ticket stubs from the Jayhawks’ 1988 NCAA championship run. That was Claeys’ freshman year.
He went to Kansas with a Pell Grant and applied to be a grunt on the football training staff.
“I learned to tape ankles, do little things like that, but for the most part I was a glorified water boy,” Claeys said.
He had no interest in athletic training. He just wanted to study the coaches, including Glen Mason, who took over at Kansas in 1988.
After four years, Claeys’ Pell Grant expired, and he had yet to graduate. So he returned home for a year and hit the reset button. Clay Center’s varsity coach, Larry Wiemers, hired Claeys as an assistant. The job paid $1.
The team framed the dollar bill with the inscription: “Coach Tracy Claeys, congratulations on your first coaching dollar.”
Claeys finished his mathematics education degree at Kansas State, commuting the 45 minutes to become the first in his family to graduate. Then, Claeys made a career-defining decision.
He’d been hired as an algebra teacher and assistant coach at Santa Fe Trail High School, for $22,000 a year, more than his parents made combined. But after one season, Claeys left for a job at Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State that paid $3,000.
Ione thought her son had lost his mind. Bob swears she didn’t speak to Claeys for six weeks.
But the move became a pay cut that paid off. The head coach at Saginaw: Jerry Kill.
Kill and Claeys would rebuild Saginaw’s program, and then do the same at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois before coming to Minnesota.
Claeys went 11-8 as Gophers head coach, including 2-0 in bowl games. “I guess my first reaction is total shock,” Kill said of Claeys’ firing. “I think they’re making a huge mistake. I know what kind of person Tracy is, and what kind of people the assistant coaches are, and their families, and they’re giving up a lot.”