University of Minnesota can’t ignore sports when looking for Eric Kaler’s replacement

July 17, 2018 GMT

Earlier this year the Gophers athletic department moved into its new $166 million home. The annual athletic budget stands at $121 million, fueled by a whopping $51 million in Big Ten conference distribution.

This isnt a mom-and-pop operation.

The amount of money flowing through college sports and the pressure on schools to win big in their flagship programs have never been higher. Athletics have long been cast as a window or front porch to a university, but even that description feels inadequate in measuring the true scope.

Amateurism? Yeah, right. Not anymore.

A new University of Minnesota president will leap into that vortex once Eric Kaler leaves office next year. Kalers announcement last week that he will vacate his post in July 2019 brings uncertainty about what that might mean for the future of Gophers athletics.

More specifically, how will the new president view athletics in relation to the overall mission of the university? That should be an important component of the vetting process.

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Obviously, nothing supersedes academics in importance. The Us profile as a top-notch research institution with increased academic standards will always be a driving force.

The visibility of sports on campus though is interwoven with a universitys brand, image and personal connection to alumni, donors and future students. That mandates full commitment and clear vision from the schools No. 1 leader.

The Board [of Regents] hasnt spent much time, if any, talking about these characteristics, but Im willing to go a little bit out on a limb that were going to be looking for a president who brings the same level of engagement, interest and commitment to the athletics world that President Kaler did, Regents Chairman David McMillan said. Academics are going to be No. 1 but a very close second can be the athletics side of the house.

Critics of college sports often rail against erosion of amateurism ideals. Thats understandable. In some ways, big-time Division I football and basketball feel semiprofessional with never-ending escalation of an arms race driving salaries, facilities, TV revenue, scholarship seating fees, etc.

University presidents are tasked with knowing the difference between support and willful ignorance. Every athletic department requires appropriate oversight, whether that involves conduct, spending, academics or rules compliance.

Culture has become a corporate buzzword, but the meaning has merit. Culture starts at the top. Winning cultures dont happen by accident.

The Gophers need football and mens basketball to win more, but the department finally has some positive momentum with Athletes Village, recent coaching hires and a smart leader in athletic director Mark Coyle after the Norwood Teague fiasco.

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Several regents have voiced concerns about the universitys continued practice of subsidizing athletics (projected at $6.8 million this fiscal year). Some Division I athletic departments are self-sufficient, but comparing financial models can be tricky because schools handle accounting practices differently.

Even so, McMillan said the board should ask tough questions to keep close tabs on spending and make sure both the university and athletic department are held accountable.

I think you will continue to see a deepening dialogue with the board around the fiscal side of the house, he said.

A strong athletic program helps the bottom line significantly. In terms of fundraising, winning inspires giving. Everyone loves a winner.

One theory based more on gut than empirical data is that a successful football and/or basketball program increases enrollment numbers by raising a schools profile. Wisconsins brand and reputation certainly benefited from Rose Bowl appearances.

McMillan offered an anecdote in explaining the impact of college sports. His grandfather, Lloyd Mitby, quit school in the eighth grade but attended every Gophers football home game from 1924 through 1988. He parked in the same location and walked the same path to Memorial Stadium every game.

College sports have changed since then. TV revenue has transformed it into an enterprise worth billions. More money brings more pressure to keep pace with rivals.

That might make you hold your nose, but complaining wont change the year to 1980. This is the new reality. Schools either make the commitment or get left behind. The next president in Dinkytown inherits this landscape.

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com