“To serve as a window to the University, in an environment of integrity and equity, that enables student-athletes to achieve excellence in their academic and athletic pursuits . . . Become the ‘model’ Division I-A program in the country.”
—From the University of Minnesota athletics mission statement
Hey, Gopher fans, let’s review what Joel Maturi has done over the past nine years, and declare that all the trashing of the University of Minnesota athletic director is, mostly, unfair and misguided.
Hey, Maroon and Gold fans, be careful what you wish for.
It has become sport among some Gopher backers and others in the local news media to continually call Maturi names. I’ve always wondered about this. What crime exactly has this short, skinny, workaholic from the Iron Range, who replies to emails at 5:31 a.m., committed?
It came to a head again Wednesday when columnist Jim Souhan ripped and made fun of the AD in the Star Tribune.
Following a quick search of Star Tribune archives, I discovered it was at least the sixth time that Souhan has labeled Maturi, at best, inept, or called for his job. Souhan is not alone in this, but he has led the opinion charge even though, according to Maturi and others in the university administration, the pundit from the state’s largest newspaper and website has never sat down to interview Maturi or ring him on the phone to discuss issues in the athletic department. Not once.
(Souhan didn’t respond to two emails or return my call to his cell phone.)
The bigger picture
Now, a sports executive being attacked in a major media market is certainly allowed. But what’s fair is fair, and when it comes to measurements on Maturi, a dispassionate citizen and non-fan might look at some other metrics than bowl games.
I asked President Bob Bruininks about this. He’s a huge Gophers fan with a massive stake in how the athletic program performs. He helped hire Maturi and has been — above the madding crowd and media horde — a Maturi backer.
“You might ask me, ‘Why have you stuck with Joel Maturi?’ That’s a legitimate question because he’s had some fair number of negatives,” Bruininks said the other day, beating me to the punch. “Well, he’s had a lot of positives, too.”
After a hunt for the positives, ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
Exhibit 1: Maturi took over a fractured athletic department that was about to merge its separate men’s and women’s departments. There were growing pains, and there remain issues. But most folks say Maturi did a marvelous job of bringing his department together. He has been a dedicated backer of gender equity.
Exhibit 2: When he was hired in 2002, Gophers athletics faced a deficit of more than $30 million and three sports were on the chopping block. What makes Minnesota — and Big Ten sports, in general — so special is its broad-based nature. There is tennis. There is golf. There is women’s hockey. There are 25 teams and 750 athletes. College sports are not only about the stadium fillers. They are about educational opportunities. This is not to sound Pollyannaish. This is to define the real role of college sports.
Last year, Minnesota’s athletic program was ranked 18th in the nation for overall victories in all sports. The year before, 14th. The leader both years? Stanford … is that a football power?
Maturi made some adjustments, raised some cash, was blessed with the birth of the Big Ten Network, and now his program is a $77 million operation, with revenue growth of more than 60 percent since 2002. Also, basic funding from the central administration, which once accounted for more than 14 percent of athletics’ budget, is down to 3 percent and likely to go away. Athletics is close to self-supporting under Maturi.
Inept? I don’t think so.
Exhibit 3: University administrators have received phone calls from rabid boosters complaining that Maturi leaves men’s basketball games at half time to wander over to a women’s hockey game or another simultaneous “minor” sport. The guy loves the “other” sports. For that, he should get a standing ovation, not a slap.
Exhibit 4: Academic performance among athletes is up, as are graduation rates. A report to the Board of Regents showed a 71 percent graduation rate for athletes in 2008-09, highest ever.
Exhibit 5: According to the Office of the General Counsel of the university, there have been no major NCAA violations since 2002. This gives new meaning to “the Minnesota Miracle,” what with all the NCAA carnage of the 1980s and ’90s.
There are those who say big-time college sports are out of control and overemphasized. Count me among them. There are those who say big-time college athletics are all about money. Count me — more or less — among them. And, yet, the only bottom line they examine is the standings.
A moral course
Somehow, despite being immersed in the system for most of his life, Joel Maturi attempts to steer a moral course. I know that’s not what rabid sports fans want, but it should be what a university wants. When, at first, he didn’t fire former men’s basketball coach Dan Monson, it was because he thought Monson followed the rules and taught his players well. “If I fired him then, I would be telling all of my coaches, it’s only about winning. I didn’t want to send that message,” Maturi told me recently. Eventually, Monson had to go.
About the ill-fated hiring of football coach Tim Brewster, Maturi knows now it was a mistake and freely admits to it. But then he wasn’t alone on a bad gridiron decision. Michigan brought in Rich Rodriguez and fired him after three years with a buyout of $2.5 million, almost $1.7 million more than Maturi shelled out for Brewster.
So, on the high-road front, I give Maturi an A, the dean’s list.
On the revenue-producing sports category, I think a B-minus is fair; his hiring of men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith was considered a coup … until this season. Women’s basketball coach Pam Borton has had her ups and downs, and is surely in a critical period of her tenure. Men’s hockey coach Don Lucia seems headed for a contract extension despite recent disappointments. But that B-minus is based, too, on the absence of NCAA scandal and loyalty to his employees. And, as much as this state has an edifice complex, he should get credit for TCF Bank Stadium fundraising and fending off his other coaches’ desperate desires for their own practice palaces and stadiums.
Perhaps Maturi was the perfect “No. 2” guy, as he was at Wisconsin years ago. Perhaps an AD who has passion for a swimmer as much as for a running back is oh-so-20th Century. Perhaps a guy who was once a high school coach, who popped the popcorn and pulled out the bleachers before games, is too pedestrian, too old-school for the digital age of college sports. Too bad if that’s the case.
Maturi himself has a contract extension on his desk. He has decided not to accept it, yet. He wants to wait and see if new President Eric Kaler, in the job in July, wants to retain him. But be careful what you wish for.
There is a trend in big-time sports to hire corporate types. Michigan’s new AD is a former CEO of Domino’s Pizza. Wisconsin’s deputy AD is a lawyer. The former Oregon athletic director was a former CEO of an insurance company.
When the time comes and Kaler and Maturi agree it’s time for Maturi, 65, to retire, expect the next AD to be more button-downed, more glad-handing, less tolerant, less hardworking.
Then, it will be up to the sports pundits to shoot first and ask questions later to that new person for being too stuffy, too programmed, for having too nice of a haircut, and for not understanding that college sports should be fun and not run by boosters and donors.
I can’t wait until everyone remembers Maturi with a fondness for an earlier time when Gophers sports had room for that mission statement, for some integrity and equity, and when winning wasn’t everything. I can’t wait.