Athletics director says Wacker won’t be fired

Jeff Sherry

Anyone clamoring for the University to fire Gophers football coach Jim Wacker before the end of the season can relax for the time being. It’s not going to happen.
Men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said Thursday he’s not even considering making such a move, and he’s “fully committed” to giving Wacker until the end of the season to turn the program around.
“I don’t plan to do anything from my end of things until the year is over,” Dienhart said. “We have a contract that has stipulations within it, and we have a performance agreement within it that spells some things out. But we have three games that we can win, and I’m going to be as supportive of Jim as I can possibly be. To do less would be an injustice to the kids who are on the team.
“I’m not quitting on them, Jim isn’t quitting on them, nobody’s quitting on them.”
In a personal interview, Dienhart discussed Wacker’s contract, defended its structure, and reasserted that he can choose to retain Wacker even if the Gophers don’t win five games.
The controversy over Wacker and his contract status began last November, when he was finishing up the fourth year of his five-year contract at Minnesota. Despite a 12-31 record over those four years, Dienhart gave the coach a two-year extension. Dienhart cited the team’s academic achievements and the cleanliness of Wacker’s program as reasons for the extension.
Late this summer it was revealed that there’s a stipulation in Wacker’s contract saying he must offer his resignation if Minnesota does not win at least five games this year, or at least six games in each of the following two years. Upon receiving the resignation, Dienhart would have the option of whether or not to accept it.
With three games remaining, the Gophers have a 3-5 record and play at Wisconsin on Saturday. Minnesota has lost its last 12 Big Ten games and though Wacker and Dienhart have both received heat from fans and media, Dienhart is sticking by his decision.
“I think in retrospect, although I regret we have not won more games at this point, I do not at all regret the extension,” he said. “I think fundamentally it was the fair thing to do. He was given a five-year contract.
“The easy thing to do would have been to change coaches, and for eight months, I’ve had a lot of people telling me how stupid I was to give an extension to a coach with that type of record. But I knew that the decision to extend him sent a strong message about the kind of values we’re going to cling to in this program, and I also knew Jim had agreed to limit the University’s liability.”
That agreement is also one of the big reasons Wacker won’t be fired this season. With more than two years remaining on his contract, Wacker would have to be paid more than $600,000 if he was fired. If the Gophers do not win five games this year, Dienhart could accept Wacker’s resignation and the University would owe him nothing.
Regardless of the financial situation, the football program has received a multitude of negative publicity this fall. But Dienhart said the contract is not entirely to blame. He said there would have been plenty of attention on the Gophers’ problems and coaching situation even if the contract’s details had not been released.
Had the stipulations remained unknown, however, there probably wouldn’t have been other conference coaches criticizing the University this year. For example, Northwestern coach Gary Barnett said publicly that putting a magic number of five wins on Wacker was unfair. Dienhart disagrees.
“The number five would be unfair if there wasn’t agreement,” he said. “But there was agreement. Everyone agreed this was to be the year that we took a step forward competitively. Anybody who thinks there would be less pressure now if not for the agreement — that’s absolutely ludicrous.
“This is better than having the coaches and their families making judgments on their future based upon what they read in the newspaper or what they catch in a paragraph of a conversation. This is infinitely preferable to stumbling into the end of this year with no one knowing which way it’s going to go.”