For some regent members, Fleck coaching costs cause unease

Both the buyout of former Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys’ contract and the hiring contract of new head coach P.J. Fleck have left U regents wondering how they’ll cover the costs.

The University's Board of Regents talk at a meeting on June 10, 2016.

Zach Bielinski

The University’s Board of Regents talk at a meeting on June 10, 2016.

Kevin Beckman

In the next five years, new Gophers football head coach P.J. Fleck could rake in $18 million, generating concern among some University of Minnesota regents.

The compensation — making Fleck the highest paid state employee — makes a few on the Board of Regents uneasy.

But even some regents comfortable with the cost complain the level of authority the board has over employment contracts is unclear.

At the same time, the football team’s sexual assault scandal that led to Fleck’s hiring could overshadow the school’s lobbying efforts this legislative session as it pushes for over $390 million from the state for infrastructure projects and University initiatives.

Fleck’s proposed 5-year, $18 million contract — the largest in Gophers sports history — will be reviewed and voted on by regents at the board’s next meeting on Feb. 10. Administrators’ choice to name Fleck head coach sparked conversations over whether the board should vote on the appointment and not just the contract.

While the authority to approve coaching contracts was removed from Board policy in 1995, the current policy states regents have the authority to approve any commercial transaction, including employment contracts of great public interest or valued over $2 million. More recently, regents have discussed whether the board should have more control over large coaching contracts.

Regent Darrin Rosha said he wants more clarity in the board’s policies regarding which positions need board approval.

“If the administration is honest in reading the regents’ policy, it clearly states that these types of contracts are already subject to regent review and approval,” he said.

The firing of former head coach Tracy Claeys and subsequent hiring of Fleck didn’t require a sign-off from regents, said board Chair Dean Johnson.

An attempt to clarify which positions require regent approval will be addressed at the February meeting, he said.

The board will also discuss whether to do away with the requirement to approve contracts valued at the $2 million threshold, Johnson said.

Regent Michael Hsu proposed a memorandum last spring that would give regents authority over large employment contracts, including those of major sports coaches like Fleck. While the proposal was tabled, Hsu said he expects Fleck’s hiring will spark reexamination of the policy.

Rosha said it shouldn’t be the board’s responsibility to find and choose athletic coaches, but sees a need for board approval if their contracts are as large as Fleck’s.

“The board is the public’s last opportunity to review and ensure that not only the selection, but the compensation … is consistent with our expectations as an institution and as a state,” he said.

Hsu said he asked the University for a detailed financial plan to show how the athletics department will cover the costs for Fleck’s contract.

“Right now, no one’s said anything about how we’re going to pay for it,” he said. “We, as regents, have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that we understand what we’re approving, and we should be approving large contracts.”

Hsu said assistant coaches’ contracts should also require board approval, given some will carry lofty price tags.

“I would like to see a budget to show how this is all going to be paid for before we approve it,” he said.

While Johnson said Fleck’s proposed contract is expensive, that doesn’t mean Fleck — who Johnson expects could lead the Gophers football team to more wins — isn’t worth it.

“Some would argue it’s ludicrous, some would argue ‘let’s be competitive,’” he said. “I do know many people who want a very competitive winning football team, and we’ll just have to see.”

Rosha said regents should also scrutinize how administrators reacted after learning of the sexual assault allegations and find out why scandals are a recurring issue for the athletics department.

“It’s the regents’ job to continuously exercise oversight of the administration,” he said. “It certainly warrants the board taking the time to understand how things were handled.”

Scandal could impact state allocation

Minnesota legislators have also expressed concerns that the hefty price tag on both Claeys’ $500,000 buyout and Fleck’s contract might impact the way the state allocates funds for the University this session.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona and member of the House higher education committee said the controversy surrounding allegations of sexual assault by football team members may distract from the University’s funding requests.

“The University has an unfortunate challenge for having a scandal almost every legislative session … Then the scandal becomes the issue and deflects or obscures the University requests to the Legislature,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of discussion, but unfortunately it’s going to be on this, and it won’t be on the primary budget requests of the University,” he said.

At a press conference outlining the school’s legislative priorities last week, University President Eric Kaler reassured legislators that tax dollars won’t go to coaching buyouts or contracts.

But House higher education committee chair Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said while the football team’s scandal may not weigh heavily on the minds of all committee members, the money spent on the coaching transition will be something University lobbyists must address.

“I think it’s probably in the back of certain people’s minds that are on the committee,” he said. “In some ways, answering some questions as to the size of the contracts both in the firing and hiring [will] be the main question members will want to hear an answer for.”

Johnson said he hopes the culture in Gophers athletics will change.

“My new year’s resolution is simple,” he said. “Get the University of Minnesota Department of Athletics off the front page of papers and off TV screens unless we’ve won a championship.”

Fleck, the new $18 million coach, has said he’ll do just that.