U of M athletic director talks the talk of ‘community engagement’

Time will tell if he also walks the walk

U of M Athletic Director Mark Coyle (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Mark Coyle later this month will celebrate his first-year anniversary as Minnesota athletics director. He was hired last May.

The MSR historically, through sports columns and in its commentary section, has published writers who have called out the University of Minnesota about its culture, especially in athletics, and especially in regard to Black athletes. After he hired new football coach P.J. Fleck in January, Coyle declared a culture change in Gopher football. We recently asked the Gopher AD about this during an interview in his Bierman Building corner office.

“When I hired him, I wanted to shake our tree,” explained Coyle on hiring Fleck. “P.J. has created a sense of urgency. I think that’s a good thing. When there’s a sense of urgency, your focus is that much harder [with] that much more attention on the little things that will make a difference.”

The “little things,” according to Coyle, include establishing a player leadership council on the football team that meets weekly. “The student athletes sit in the first two rows when they go to class. No hats [worn] in class. No hats in the building,” noted the Gopher AD, who added that he likes the initial measures Fleck has installed to help create the culture he is looking for.

But Coyle is in the college athletics administration field that sorely needs diversity — it is largely White and male, according to the recent college sport report card from The Institute on Diversity in Ethics in Sport (TIDES). His administration has only three Blacks in its 17-member senior staff.

“I think college athletics as a whole has to take a look at what we do,” said Coyle on the TIDES report.

Coyle and other staffers will embark later this month on its annual “Gopher Road Trip” that starts May 22 and runs through June 7, making several “stops” throughout Minnesota. Over 6,000 fans have attended these events the last four years, say school officials.

But we asked him about the historically Grand Canyon-like distance between the state’s largest public institution and the Black community, located just a few miles north of campus, with an “invisible wall” that separates the two when it comes to Gopher athletics. There was a Black mentoring program during former Gopher AD Joel Maturi’s tenure to connect Black players with local community members, but it has been dormant in recent years.

“I definitely would be open to learn more about these programs,” admitted Coyle, “anytime we can provide mentors and access to create meaningful relationships with [the community].” He added that the under-construction Athletes Village, when finished in a year or so, will help in this regard.

“I think one of the strengths is we [will] have two floors dedicated to athletic development,” said the AD. Coyle envisions the space regularly used “in engaging the community to be more involved with our student-athletes and vice versa.”

He further stated that his department must improve its community outreach efforts to “bring in different audiences” to campus.

“We ask people to invest in us all the time — buy season tickets, make a [financial] gift to our program, come to our games. But we need to invest back in people. I’m hoping you will see us being more focused in investing in people in our community, to get more involved in our program,” pledged Coyle. “The more interactions we have, the more relationships we can build [that] help all of us.

“Obviously time will tell, and we will be defined by our actions,” he said.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.