By Charles Hallman
When Joel Maturi steps down next month to become a special assistant to the school president, he will leave a collegiate athletic environment that is markedly different than it was a decade ago when he was hired as the University of Minnesota’s first athletic director of the newly merged men’s and women’s athletic departments. In an exclusive one-on-one interview with the MSR, Maturi recently talked about the changes he has seen and other topics.
The latest NCAA data says that nearly 60 percent of a Division I school’s annual athletic budget is for football, and just under 20 percent for men’s basketball. This is no different at Minnesota, whose $78 million athletic budget is largely devoted to Gopher football and men’s basketball.
“Football and basketball are big business,” Maturi said. “We’re more like the pros than not.”
Of college football’s evolution during his career at the U of M, Maturi continued, “It’s tremendously different in the media [coverage], in the perception with the fans, and certainly different with the salaries, expenditures, the travel, recruiting, and the multi-million dollars that you spend on all those [things] because that’s where the money is.”
When he arrived in 2002, there were cries to eliminate some sports, but Maturi refused to heed those requests. Today, Minnesota supports a total of 25 sports — no program was cut during his tenure.
Of this achievement, Maturi said, “It’s consistent to who I am, and my philosophy of amateur sports. It is the reason why we play college sports.”
However, he doesn’t ignore what many say today about college athletics: With huge salaries for head coaches and some conferences expanding while others are imploding, it appears that the economics of college sport has spiraled out of control. Can the U of M keep pace with today’s college sport landscape?
“I have concerns where this will all lead,” Maturi admitted. “If it were not for the Big Ten Network, the television contracts, and the football revenue, I don’t know where we would be.”
Now, since its on-campus football stadium opened in 2009, Minnesota is using preferred seat licensing, a revenue-generating method already used at other campuses around the country for hockey and men’s basketball. “How much can you keep charging people? In my estimation, we are charging them too much now,” said Maturi.
He said the practice of paying visiting non-conference teams guarantee money is challenging as well. “We only have a 50,000-seat football stadium. We don’t generate nearly the amount of money that the larger football stadiums (at Michigan and Ohio State, for example) do.
“Michigan can pay you a million dollars and still make a lot of money. I can’t pay anybody a million dollars and make money.
“Fortunately, in basketball we are on the higher end, because we have a 14,000-seat facility and a pretty good season-ticket base. We generate X amount of money for each home game in football and basketball — we know that going into a season,” explained Maturi.
The retiring Gopher AD also discussed the following topics with us:
On paying college athletes: Maturi doesn’t see how this plan, which was proposed last year but later tabled, can be fairly implemented. “Whether it’s a stipend or not, the only people making much money are the football and basketball players and men’s hockey. But the track, tennis and the golf athletes aren’t generating any money. I would much rather see us spend money on programs than give kids money. [However], I am not opposed to giving those in need more.”
Dealing with criticism: “Whenever you are in a position of authority, you are not going to please everybody. Almost every decision you make, somebody likes it and somebody don’t. What hurt me the most was the criticism from former athletes [who] questioned where my heart was… That seemed to me pretty unfair and unwarranted.”
Local media criticism: “The people most critical of me in 10 years have never, ever, ever, ever stepped into that chair [in his office]. I never, ever had a personal interview with the writers most critical of me… They don’t know Joel Maturi.”
Diversity in his department: “We’ve done a good job with our internship program, and we’ve had people of color to give them some understanding of jobs within collegiate athletics, and we’ve hired a couple of them. I think that’s what needs to be done. We need to do more of it, especially at an academic institution — we need to be conscious of that.
“I think [Associate AD] Leo [Lewis] has done a wonderful job. I think we’ve done a good job with the cultural diversity task force with [Special Events Coordinator] Linda Roberts and [Life Skills Director] Peyton Owens and others…baby steps, but steps. We’re holding our own. It’s not what the numbers should be, but I do think we are going in the right direction,” Maturi said.
“I worked as hard as I can, and I try to make the right decisions for the kids and the program, and I can honestly tell you I [will] leave this office feeling that way,” he said. “Lots of disappointments, and I wished I had some do-overs, but I have no alibis or no regrets.
“I think I’ve been pretty open and honest,” concluded Maturi. “I’ll be in the stands next year.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org