Thousands of friends, fans urge U of M to fire football coach

Joe Nathan

Center for School Change

More than 2,500 alumni, students, educators, parents and other concerned people from 42 states have signed an online petition, as of Dec. 28, urging the University of Minnesota to fire its head football coach, Tracy Claeys.

While many people are pleased that the University of Minnesota won the Holiday Bowl game, it’s clear from powerful, passionate comments on the petition that the university has suffered badly from the actions of some of its players and its coach.

On Dec. 28, staff at the university’s athletic department did something foolish when Nancy Bitenc, a parent who helped write the petition, and her 9-year-old son tried to deliver the petition to the department office, as previously agreed to. As I watched, two university officials threatened to have her and her son arrested if they tried to deliver the petition to the athletic office – though just 15 minutes earlier, one of the officials had said this would be OK. Despite threatening arrest on trespass charges, University of Minnesota Associate Director of Communications Dan Reisig ultimately accepted the petition.

Shocked by threats in a public, university building from Reisig and Sam Nolden, another athletic department staff member, Bitenc and her son then delivered a copy of the petition to President Eric Kaler’s office. Chief of Staff Amy Phenix accepted it and apologized that they had been threatened with arrest.

Removing Claeys is only a first step. Many rightly urge an extensive review of and changes in the men’s football program.

In a column written just before Christmas, I urged that Claeys be fired and that the university do a review of its football program. After the column appeared, some parents talked with me and decided to start a petition.

Bitenc explained to me: “I’m doing this for my 9-year-old, who loves to play hockey. I’m doing this because I want coaches and players to be models for others.”

Bitenc noted that one of her concerns involves the recruiting process, which by contract Claeys directs. In a discussion with me, Bitenc asked: “Why was an underage football recruit brought to ‘have sex’ with a young woman who had been drinking heavily? Why hadn’t the coach made clear that this is completely unacceptable?”

Then there’s the issue of the tweet from Coach Claeys as the team was boycotting practice and threatening to boycott the game. For Bitenc, and many who signed the petition, Claeys gave players and the broader community the wrong message. As Bitenc explained: “His tweets should have made clear how disgusted he was by some team members’ actions. He should have defended women. He failed as a leader.”

Thousands of people across the country agree. John Merrow, formerly education correspondent for the “PBS News Hour,” wrote on the petition that Claeys “will be terminated if the ‘U’ cares about integrity and its own reputation.”

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle should consider not just the university’s reputation, but also the impact of their decisions on fundraising.

A person from Omaha who identified himself as a 2009 graduate of the university wrote on his petition entry: “(I’m) now in a position to donate more significant assets to the programs and charities that I believe in. As a lifelong and diehard Minnesota supporter that now has a daughter, I’m sickened by the stance that Claeys took to ‘support his players.’ … If things do not change, our annual gift will go to my wife’s alma mater (in Nebraska) and I’ll encourage my fellow alumni to reconsider their donations as well.”

Many other university alumni and parents, rural, suburban and urban, who signed the petition made similar comments.

A suburban Twin Cities woman wrote: “My family provides significant financial support for the university. I could not find this incident more deplorable and sincerely hope the university will take the only reasonable stance here and terminate this coach.”

But the team won its bowl game. Shouldn’t we be pleased and retain the coach?

Another person who signed the petition, who identified herself as a medical doctor and a graduate of the university’s medical school, spoke for many: “What happens on the field with the coach is no longer relevant. There is a ‘loss of confidence’ in his leadership, and he must go. … The president and the AD (athletic director) also have demonstrated poor leadership.” She urged “an examination of where leadership failed at every level with corrective actions to effect change regarding sexual assault and athletic teams.”

The petition, which continues to gain signatures, is available here http://bit.ly/2hMeunX.

Athletic Director Coyle, President Kaler and university regents should read the comments on this petition. Then they should do the right thing, for the university, current and future students, faculty and Minnesota taxpayers: Fire Claeys and do exactly what the doctor, quoted above, recommended.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]