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Claeys Fired after Bowl Win
December 27, 2016

Former head coach Tracy Claeys of the University of Minnesota football program back on December 27 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego accomplished what another former Gopher coach, Glen Mason, could not do, and that was to beat Mike Leach.

Mason was head coach of the Gophers in the 2006 Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., when his team led Leach’s Texas Tech Red Raiders 38-7 in the third quarter. Minnesota went on to blow the lead and lost 44-41 in overtime. Athletic director Joel Maturi fired Mason on New Year’s Day.

To defeat Leach’s Washington State Cougars 17-12, the Gophers must have conjured up the ghost of Lou Holtz (We know he’s not dead [yet].) Minnesota played in the Holiday Bowl minus 10 suspended players. Despite the impressive bowl victory, current Gopher athletic director Mark Coyle fired Claeys anyway.

But back to Lou Holtz. Prior to the 1978 Orange Bowl, Holtz suspended three players for violating team rules. Two of the players, Don Bobo and Ben Cowlins, had accounted for 80 percent of the Razorback’s points scored in the regular season. Yet Arkansas defeated the No.-2 rated Oklahoma Sooners 31-6. Holtz’s Razorbacks were 24-point underdogs. He later coached at Minnesota.

The 2016 Gophers traveled to San Diego minus 10 players suspended by Coyle for alleged sexual misconduct. The suspended players were Kiante Hardin, Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson, Kobe McCrary, Seth Green, Antoine Winfield, Jr., Mark Williams, and Antonio Shenault. After the Gopher victory over Oregon State in the opening game of the season, all 10 participated in a Dinkytown party that featured alcohol, non-consensual sex with at least one female, and the presence of a 17-year-old recruit.

Following the suspensions, the remaining team members banded together to boycott the Gophers’ bowl appearance, but backed down in the face of a blistering, 80-page report by the University’s office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action of what transpired at the sex party. During the boycott, Claeys responded on Twitter that he had “never been more proud of our kids.” This proved to be his undoing as it was seen as an endorsement of sexual misconduct.

It’s worth noting that, unlike Holtz, who suspended his players on his own, it was Coyle, the athletic director, who suspended the players. In the events leading up to and after the sex party, what did Claeys know and when did he know it? Was he aware of the recruit’s involvement? Did he play an active role in attempts to cover up the incident? Had he seen the 80-page report prior to his tweet?

If for no other reason that a recruit was involved, the NCAA is bound to take interest. The entire incident smacks of lack of institutional control. Was the firing of the coach an attempt to get out ahead of a possible NCAA probe?

In his remarks and subsequent statements, Coyle repeatedly mentioned his expectations for a coach who will lead “athletically, academically, and socially.” This apparently involves social behavior consistent with society’s norms and excludes any sexual misconduct. Was this where Claeys was found lacking?

Prior to kickoff at the Holiday Bowl, oddsmakers had made Washington State a solid 10-point favorite. After all Mike Leach’s Cougars were a pass-happy lot, and some of the most experienced Gopher secondary members had been suspended. It was no surprise when the first WSU drive resulted in a field goal and a 3-0 lead. However, the next four Cougar drives stalled, ending in punts. In between, Emmit Carpenter kicked a 43-yard field goal to tie the score.

A Mitch Leidner fumble set up a 41-yard field goal by WSU’s Erik Powell, and it was 6-3 at the half.

In the press box, local San Diego writers, accustomed to typically inflated Holiday Bowl scores (an example was the 46-45 BYU win over SMU in 1980) were grumbling. “Too few points,” muttered Bryce Miller of the San Diego Union Tribune. “Worst Holiday Bowl ever.”

Minnesota, however, was liking the bowl game fine in the second half after a 10-play, 84-yard drive was topped off with a fluke touchdown pass from Leidner to Shannon Brooks. On third down and eight from the 13-yard line, Leidner threw a pass to no one in the end zone. From out of nowhere, the arm of Cougar defender Marcellus Pippins appeared and deflected the pass into Brooks’ waiting hands. The fourth quarter ended with Minnesota leading by the score of 10 to 6.

“Sure it was lucky,” Leidner said afterward. “Those kind of plays usually go against me.”

The fourth quarter started and continued with a punting dual between Powell and Minnesota’s Ryan Santoso. Then, with only three minutes left in the game, a Falk pass was intercepted by Adekundie Ayinde at the Minnesota 47-yard-line and returned for an apparent touchdown. But hold on! A lengthy replay showed Ayinde stepped out of bounds at the 30.

From there, the Gophers started the drive of the game (and the season). Brooks rushed

For 11 yards. He followed that with a four-yard gain. Rodney Smith replaced Brooks and ran for seven yards to the WSU nine-yard line. Then, with just over two minutes left, Smith rushed for the touchdown, and Minnesota led 17-6.

But hold on. The Cougars had the ball back, and Falk was completing passes of 11, 22, and 29 yards before hitting Kyle Sweet for an eight-yard touchdown pass.

Probably the longest two-point conversion attempt in the history of college football saw numerous offside, false start, and personal foul penalties on both sides before Falk failed to convert.

An onside kick was called for, and Leach had one more chance to best a Minnesota coach. But Rashad Still recovered, and the Gophers ran out the clock. Claeys thus won the battle, but he ultimately lost the war.

Did Leach’s team take Minnesota for granted? “I wondered that,” he told reporters after the game. “I hope not.”

Claeys praised his team’s effort. “With challenges come opportunities. To get ready, we practiced awfully well. We asked our guys to play what they’re good at. We didn’t ask them to do otherwise.”

He lauded his team’s defensive effort. “We forced their quarterback into dumping the ball underneath, then we tackled well in space.”

He praised defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel for coming up with the game plan for stopping Falk and the Cougars.

Unfortunately for Sawvel, he was one of the Gopher assistants fired along with Claeys.

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