AD finalist Maturi sees opportunity in U athletics challenges

Ben Goessling

When Gophers men’s hockey coach Don Lucia saw Miami of Ohio University athletics director Joel Maturi at a party last spring, he jokingly asked if Maturi would be applying for the Minnesota athletics director position.

Maturi never did apply, but now he is the only finalist.

At a press conference Tuesday, athletics director search committee chairwoman Mary Jo Kane announced Maturi had been “unanimously and enthusiastically” approved by the committee as its finalist.

Maturi, a Chisholm, Minn., native, said he has been contacted by at least a dozen schools in his four years at Ohio, but he said Minnesota was one of only two or three schools in the country for which he would leave Ohio.

When the offer came to go home, Maturi said, he knew he couldn’t pass it up.

“When Don Lucia talked to me, I told him I would be interested in the Minnesota job, but I would not apply,” he said. “I didn’t want to ever think I had a foot out the door (at Miami), but I’m coming home to an institution I grew up following and admiring.”

The Board of Regents will vote on his appointment at its meeting Thursday.

Maturi began his career in collegiate athletics as an assistant athletics director at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987 and was promoted to associate athletics director in 1992.

His role in the Wisconsin athletics program turnaround, which produced three Rose Bowl championships in football and a Final Four appearance in men’s basketball in the 1990s, was a major selling point for outgoing University President Mark Yudof.

“We really think about the resurgence of Wisconsin as our model,” Yudof said. “There’s a program that, in the early ’90s, clearly was in trouble, however you define trouble. And Joel was a key player in turning that around.”

After leaving Wisconsin in 1996, Maturi became the athletics director at Denver University and oversaw that athletics program’s move from Division II to Division I status.

When Maturi arrived at Denver, he inherited another program in a state of disarray. Men’s hockey coach George Gwozdecky said the athletics department was in such poor shape that its basketball coaches used a trailer as their office.

“Joel was here during a very difficult transition period,” Gwozdecky said. “There were many people who would never have survived during that period if he hadn’t been here.”

Many challenges ahead

But Maturi’s work in Wisconsin’s and Denver’s athletics programs might pale in comparison to the situation he will inherit at Minnesota.

Several hours before Maturi was named the finalist, the NCAA announced it was extending Minnesota’s probation period through 2006 due to major violations committed by the women’s basketball program.

Minnesota had already been on probation through 2004 due to the men’s basketball academic fraud scandal.

Additionally, Maturi will walk into a merger between the athletics departments, which face a $21 million budget shortfall over the next five years.

Maturi said he also aims to improve graduation rates. Ohio graduates 72 percent of its student athletes, a rate 16 percent higher than Minnesota’s.

“People get rewarded for winning and fired for losing,” he said. “I know I may not be popular at Minnesota, but I want to change the perception (of academic importance).”

Maturi also said he wants to find a way around the department’s financial troubles, which caused it to announce the elimination of the men’s and women’s golf and men’s gymnastics teams in April.

Team supporters raised $900,000 to keep the teams in existence through next season, but another $1.8 million must be raised by Feb. 1 to ensure their survival through 2005.

“I do not want to be the athletics director at Minnesota that eliminates sports,” he said. “We have to raise the funds to save the three sports (targeted for elimination), but we also have to raise enough money to ensure the rest of the sports are competitive.”

He also faces opposition from some student-athletes, who say Maturi cut four teams during his employment at Denver and Ohio.

“I’m not saying he’s not the right guy for the job, but his history does worry me,” said Clayton Strother, a men’s gymnastics senior.

A chance to come home

Maturi was at a reunion in Chisholm on Thursday when he heard he was a serious candidate for Minnesota’s athletics director position.

Upon hearing the news, he and his wife Lois drove 872 miles back to Oxford, Ohio, where Maturi told his staff last Tuesday he would likely be leaving.

“It is very difficult to put into words how good people have been to me (at Miami), so I had some sadness about having to say goodbye,” he said.

But Maturi said he is looking forward to the opportunity to work at the school he grew up following.

“I’m a person who believes we all fit in some environments more than others,” he said. “But I’m hopeful I’ll fit at Minnesota, and I’m very excited and elated about the potential challenge there.”