Following a ser…

by Todd Zolecki

Following a series of off-field problems involving its student-athletes within the past year, the Gophers men’s athletics department plans to implement a program which would more thoroughly assess the character of its incoming student-athletes.
The idea calls for Rufus Simmons, the student-athlete development director, to conduct independent evaluations, separate from those made by the Gophers’ coaching staffs.
Details aren’t in writing yet, but men’s associate athletics director Jeff Schemmel said the department wants it to be finalized by the Nov. 13 early signing period for incoming recruits.
“The basic idea behind it is to know, as fully and as comprehensively, who we’re bringing in to our program,” Simmons said.
The administration feels this can help determine who it should and should not bring to Minnesota. Coaches might have received biased information from recruits’ coaches, counselors and parents, making it difficult to appraise the person’s true character.
“One of the more difficult things in the recruiting process is how to assess character of young people,” said Dr. McKinley Boston, vice president for Student Development and Athletics.
“And most of the time individuals who would be recommending players to you are people who are advocates of them. So they’re not going to necessarily share any skeletons with you. So one of the things we’ve been kicking around was: Is there any way to try and do a better job with the character assessment?”
Still, Schemmel isn’t entirely convinced this can alleviate the department’s disciplinary problems. He believes the coaches do a thorough job appraising persona but added that he wants to make sure the department is doing all it can.
Most of the department’s problems have come from the Gophers football team. Perhaps the most publicized case involved running back Rafael Cooper, who was dismissed from the team May 1 after several incidents.
Problems with Cooper, among others, spurred talks this summer about a new policy.
“The only way you can be more careful is to gain more information on the people you’re recruiting,” said Gophers men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart during the summer. “We have to look for more information and dig deeper.”
The new evaluation process will include all men’s sports, not just the football team, Schemmel said.
He doesn’t believe the athletics department’s image has been tainted by the publicized problems with the football team.
“I don’t think it’s reflective of the job we’ve done,” Schemmel said. “I don’t think it’s reflective of (Coach) Jim Wacker. I don’t think it’s reflective of his staff. I do think it is unfortunate. And I think it was the exceptional blip on the screen.”
Boston agreed with Schemmel. He said about 98 percent of the student-athletes do exactly what they are supposed to do. Unfortunately, he said, high-profile athletes, such as those on the football team, are treated differently than other students.
He said any number of students at the University are involved in altercations, but because they aren’t of any public interest they aren’t brought to people’s attention.
“So basically what you have is an unfair situation,” Boston said. “But I’ve told our athletes that. They’re going to be treated differently than the average student. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad for them.”
Schemmel isn’t aware of any Big Ten school or any other school that performs its own independent evaluations.
“I think we want to make sure that we do check on character, we do check on the citizenship of those that we bring in here,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean we won’t take at-risk kids. We might. We might take somebody and say we can make a difference with this kid. But I think we have to go in knowing everything, making sure we have all the facts.”
Schemmel doesn’t think it will hurt recruiting, or scare recruits from thinking about Minnesota.
“Only for someone that has something to hide,” he said. “Actually I think it will be a positive. We can sell the fact that we are very much interested in the personal life, not just their athletic ability.”