In defense of Joel Maturi: The Gophers’ athletic director has been a success

“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.)

Joel Maturi
Joel Maturi

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.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/17/2011 - 09:17 am.

    Thanks Jay!!

    I never thought I would use the words “fair and balanced” concerning a MinnPost article. I appreciate your treatment of Mr. Maturi.

  2. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/17/2011 - 09:58 am.

    Stanford certainly hasn’t been a perennial football power, but they’ve gone to a BCS bowl game twice in the 13 years the system has been in existence (same as Auburn, Iowa, Penn State, and Nebraska).

    The Maturi issue is coming to a head right now because the bad things are happening simultaneously. Brewster was a bad hire. Maturi then promised a “Tubby Smith” hire for football, but ended up with Jerry Kill (not that Kill is a bad coach. In fact, I think he stands a good chance of returning the program to the Mason level).

    Tubby’s team utterly collapsed, and is seemingly plagued every year with players who can’t get eligible or who leave the program for various reasons. For Pam Borton, the trend line has been consistenly downward since the Whalen-McCarville era.

    Men’s hockey has underachieved for a few years now. One might say the same thing for the women’s program, too. Wisconsin might very well win the women’s hockey national championship (fourth in six years) with a roster featuring many Minnesotans.

  3. Submitted by christopher mitchell on 03/17/2011 - 10:08 am.

    Here here! Well said.

    I’m at a lot of Gopher non-revenue sports events and I’ve always appreciated how frequently Maturi stops by and takes an interest.

    Souhan’s job is to care about the big name sports and this is a tough year for them so I understand his frustration. Fortunately, others take a wider view.

  4. Submitted by rick mcnamara on 03/17/2011 - 11:45 am.

    //jay’s been reading murray sperber and richard lapchick perhaps? gopher wrestling and baseball coaches might see things differently. but the article makes soe good points

  5. Submitted by Jeff Hamilton on 03/17/2011 - 12:31 pm.

    Haha! Souhan gets roasted by a Weiner!

  6. Submitted by Jeff Hamilton on 03/17/2011 - 12:43 pm.

    That being the case, what positive change has Maturi brought to the athletic program?

  7. Submitted by Everett Flynn on 03/17/2011 - 01:35 pm.

    Thanks for this article! What a wonderful and comprehensive assessment of Joel Maturi. You are right to suggest that what we have now as AD is precisely what every Division I athletics program should aspire to have.

  8. Submitted by Fred Raumer on 03/17/2011 - 06:02 pm.

    Well said!

    I could not agree with you more that a man with such high moral integrity is the right man for the difficult job of AD at the University of Minnesota. Joel Maturi is that man! He has done for the U and the State of Minnesota than most, if not all, of AD’s of recent years.

    He not only deserves an extension, but our thanks and respect for a job well done.

  9. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/18/2011 - 09:40 am.

    I believe that the most important point of Jay’s article is Exhibit 4, stating that academic performance and graduation rates among athletes are moving upward. Very few athletes will perform at a professional level, and it is important that they earn degrees after their athletic careers have ended.

    It is very difficult to take Jim Souhan’s points (rants) on any matters seriously. He has the mistaken belief that by tearing others down, including other writers such as Sid Hartman, he builds himself up.

  10. Submitted by Dave Wright on 03/18/2011 - 11:09 am.

    Well said, Jay, but I am afraid to say that isn’t why the majority of the folks who contribute to Gopher athletics do so. They simply want to win. And, if that means the occasional misstep (like, say, happened with Ohio State’s fb team), so be it.

    I suspect most fans would say, “Look, I don’t care how it happens. Just don’t lose to Northwestern again, okay?”

    Think TCF Bank gave a gazillion dollars to the U for naming rights so they can trump GPAs? Think again.

    This concept is fine for Stanford (which, by the way, IS a football power) and the Ivy League schools. But Tubby Smith isn’t getting paid millions to graduate kids. He’s getting paid big money to get people into the stands. This happens when the team is fun to watch and wins a lot of games. That didn’t happen this year.

    I’m a D-III guy and I view the Gopher stuff from afar with some amusement. You slog along with pigs long enough and you will get muddy. But that’s life in the Big Ten. To the best I can tell, Minnesota doesn’t want to be Northwestern — happy to win any game they can.

    I agree most of Souhan’s piece was harsh and unfair. But Division I (at least at the Gophers’ level) is simply about economics and marketing these days. It seems to me that, outside of the occasional ethical violation, is only thing that should be used to judge this program.

    There are, indeed, programs at the D-I level where winning isn’t everything. I may be wrong but I just don’t think the majority of the folks who sit in the stands at football, basketball and hockey games here want the U of Minnesota to be one of those schools.

  11. Submitted by David Zeller on 03/18/2011 - 04:42 pm.

    I appreciate the thoughtful statements Jay, however I will argue that Joel Maturi has been an abject failure as an AD.

    You mention the non-revenue sports as a an exhibit. However I would argue that it is a requirement of the state U to provide these sports, not a benefit. Also Maturi’s been buoyed by the Big Ten Network deal, all of the Big 10 schools have. Without it I would posit that we wouldn’t be working under the same budgetary measures.

    I’m a D3 and a D1 kid, I wrestled at a D3 school and finished my diploma at the U. I care about what the school is doing and want to give them money.

    However I refuse to donate as long as Mr. Maturi continues to destroy the U’s reputation and accept excuses from his coaches.

  12. Submitted by Sally Westby on 03/19/2011 - 12:20 pm.

    Jay – thanks for a terrific article about Joel Maturi. You hit the nail on the head. He has done a wonderful job as AD and should be commended not excoriated.

  13. Submitted by Jon Lund on 03/21/2011 - 08:53 pm.

    Yes…as a tax payer and a parent of high school and college athletes, I appreciate Maturi’s suppor for the University of Minnesota’s mission to offer a variety of athletic participation opportunities and its attempts to support student athlete academic responsibility (I used to tutor McHale and half of the Gopher football team at General College back in the day).

    It’s not a perfect situation, but it’s clean and seems to be paying for itself and I take that compared to – let’s say the current Ohio State football program.

    Souhan has become a local media shill and that’s just fine – he just needs to write and talk a lot and sell soap. He gets a bit overexposed and overextended. Many times he runs out of things to say and he probably can’t imagine picking up a phone or responding to another e-mail or interviewing someone. Jay should understand that sometimes reporting is like winning, it’s not always easy.

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