Joe Nathan column: Thousands of friends, fans urge U of M to fire football coach

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

More than 2,500 alumni, students, educators, parents and other concerned people from 42 states have signed an online petition, as of Dec. 28, urging the University of Minnesota to fire its head football coach, Tracy Claeys.

While many people are pleased that the University of Minnesota won the Holiday Bowl game, it’s clear from powerful, passionate comments on the petition that the university has suffered badly from the actions of some of its players and its coach.

Nancy Bitenc attempts to deliver the petition to the University of Minnesota’s athletic department office Dec. 28. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Nancy Bitenc attempts to deliver the petition to the University of Minnesota’s athletic department office Dec. 28. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

On Dec. 28, staff at the university’s athletic department did something foolish when Nancy Bitenc, a parent who helped write the petition, and her 9-year-old son tried to deliver the petition to the department office, as previously agreed to. As I watched, two university officials threatened to have her and her son arrested if they tried to deliver the petition to the athletic office – though just 15 minutes earlier, one of the officials had said this would be OK. Despite threatening arrest on trespass charges, University of Minnesota Associate Director of Communications Dan Reisig ultimately accepted the petition.

Shocked by these threats in a public, university building from Reisig and Sam Nolden, another athletic department staff member, Bitenc and her son then delivered a copy of the petition to President Eric Kaler’s office. Chief of Staff Amy Phenix accepted it and apologized that they had been threatened with arrest.

Removing Claeys is only a first step. Many rightly urge an extensive review of and changes in the men’s football program.

In a column written just before Christmas, I urged that Claeys be fired and that the university do a review of its football program. After the column appeared, some parents talked with me and decided to start a petition.

Nancy Bitenc and her son talk with members of the media Dec. 28 at the University of Minnesota. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Nancy Bitenc and her son talk with members of the media Dec. 28 at the University of Minnesota. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Bitenc explained to me: “I’m doing this for my 9-year-old, who loves to play hockey. I’m doing this because I want coaches and players to be models for others.”

Bitenc noted that one of her concerns involves the recruiting process, which by contract Claeys directs. In a discussion with me, Bitenc asked: “Why was an underage football recruit brought to ‘have sex’ with a young woman who had been drinking heavily? Why hadn’t the coach made clear that this is completely unacceptable?”

Then there’s the issue of the tweet from Coach Claeys as the team was boycotting practice and threatening to boycott the game. For Bitenc, and many who signed the petition, Claeys gave players and the broader community the wrong message. As Bitenc explained: “His tweets should have made clear how disgusted he was by some team members’ actions. He should have defended women. He failed as a leader.”

Thousands of people across the country agree. John Merrow, formerly education correspondent for the “PBS News Hour,” wrote on the petition that Claeys “will be terminated if the ‘U’ cares about integrity and its own reputation.”

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle should consider not just the university’s reputation, but also the impact of their decisions on fundraising.

A person from Omaha who identified himself as a 2009 graduate of the university wrote on his petition entry: “(I’m) now in a position to donate more significant assets to the programs and charities that I believe in. As a lifelong and diehard Minnesota supporter that now has a daughter, I’m sickened by the stance that Claeys took to ‘support his players.’ … If things do not change, our annual gift will go to my wife’s alma mater (in Nebraska) and I’ll encourage my fellow alumni to reconsider their donations as well.”

Many other university alumni and parents, rural, suburban and urban, who signed the petition made similar comments.

A suburban Twin Cities woman wrote: “My family provides significant financial support for the university. I could not find this incident more deplorable and sincerely hope the university will take the only reasonable stance here and terminate this coach.”

But the team won its bowl game. Shouldn’t we be pleased and retain the coach?

Another person who signed the petition, who identified herself as a medical doctor and a graduate of the university’s medical school, spoke for many: “What happens on the field with the coach is no longer relevant. There is a ‘loss of confidence’ in his leadership, and he must go. … The president and the AD (athletic director) also have demonstrated poor leadership.” She urged “an examination of where leadership failed at every level with corrective actions to effect change regarding sexual assault and athletic teams.”

The petition, which continues to gain signatures, is available here

Athletic Director Coyle, President Kaler and university regents should read the comments on this petition. Then they should do the right thing, for the university, current and future students, faculty and Minnesota taxpayers: Fire Claeys and do exactly what the doctor, quoted above, recommended.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]



16 Responses to Joe Nathan column: Thousands of friends, fans urge U of M to fire football coach

  1. Bob Hollister says:

    Yep, the coach is a baby sitter. Does your mother proof read your column before it is
    published? Where is the link to the petition to support coach Claeys? My bet would be
    that a majority of the fire coach Claeys signees have never even been to a Gopher
    football game. AH THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL RULE.. Get a life!

  2. Marilyn says:

    You have it all wrong! Seize the moment use your time to make a difference. You are trying to destroy a good man. I have no respect for you. You may be an intelligent man but you are acting like a child. Use your time to make a difference create a plan to educate young men like Rich Pitino is doing. Tracy Claeys donated $50,000 for the cause and you want to fire him. Shame on you. Really sad you have the same name as a former Twin reliever. You are a disappointment. Let’s hope your reputation is spotless cause if it is not be prepared!

  3. Dr. Betty Webb says:

    I am a graduate of the University of Minnesota and a huge sports fan. The University as a whole and the Athletic department in particular have serious internal cultural issues that go beyond firing a coach. There is a serious need to examine the internal cultural (ways of doing and being) climate and crafting strategies to resolve those issues for both the staff and the student athletes. My hope is they will not stop at just firing individuals as he only fix for the problems.

  4. Fred Easter says:

    Coach Claeys is the only adult who earned my respect in this debacle. The players were suspended, in Sept., near the time of the police investigation. Given the threshold differs for police and school disciplinary action, the U might have announced, in Sept, that it was reserving judgement until its own investigation ran its course. Arriving at, and imposing a penalty twice suggests poor decision making at levels a few steps above the coach. The phrase “double jeopardy ” comes to mind.
    Coach Claeys would have no value as a coach or recruiter if he had turned on his players as they raised valid concerns.

  5. Jay Jeweler says:

    This article proves the ignorance of people and to those who graduated from the U and are threatening to pull out of your donating and potential donating, go look in the mirror and ask yourself if you have any sense about you. If any of you think for 1 second that the coach is not disgusted with the behavior of his players you are fools. He is a football coach not a PR expert. Don’t judge this man on some Tweet maybe gone wrong. You people never said anything that did not come out like you intended? That makes you Hippocrates. You want somebody fired? Disgusted by the actions some of the students involved or ALL of the students involved? Picking and choosing who has better morals? How many of you can manage 100 plus kids that are on their own when they leave your sight? Claeys did nothing wrong and like his bosses never lied or twisted the truth during this ordeal.

  6. Joe Nathan says:

    Thanks to those who are commenting. Here’s what student leaders from all 5 University of Minnesota campuses are saying about Tracy Cleays They want him fired:

    • Trish Palermo says:

      Thank you for including the student perspective! As a UMN junior I speak on behalf of many students when I say we want Claeys gone and are embarrassed by the actions of the football team.

  7. Arnold Fege says:

    Thanks for your article and thoughts Joe. You of course know the emotion behind college football, the Division 1 farm teams for the NFL, and that you have taken on the Tiger by its tail–only the tip of the ice berg. While I did not attend the University of Minnesota, I have had respect for their football program in the past, But over the years have lost confidence that the goverance frameworks of our universities have any control over their football program where the coaches are king, and college presidents are mere pawns–where coaches are paid exorbitant salaries and where unpaid football players are relied on to earn millions in income. I agree with the students, who are really acting as the adults and could raise major awareness about the corrupting influence of a sports program gone awry. It is possible for a rebalanced to occur, where a healthy sports programs is actually accountable to what’s really important, the exceptional academic program the University of Minnesota has to offer.

  8. Mike Howard says:

    Lets see; This disgusting display of caveman behavior took place in September and until the U of MN’s internal investigation was made public in December, coach Claeys did absolutely nothing to hold his student/athletes accountable? That’s a total and complete lack of leadership and leadership and what’s worse, a total disregard for humanity. Nowhere have I read he ever questioned the four or five originally suspended players and made it his mission to get to the truth, his demeanor and behavior was that of a coward that feared for his livelihood, and hoped against hope that everything would just go away. When more of the facts were made public, he then took the high road and supported a clan of cavemen that thought it was totally okay to gang up on a woman and somehow express their manhood. This whole BS is beyond comprehension. This is our State University, a Land Grant Institution, is this what we accept? I hope not.

  9. Mary J. Wise, Educator, Caring About Other People Children says:

    I am writing to ask that before we jump to firing the coach, let us take a moment to stop and think about the double messages we send to our young students. I must admit, I do not have all the facts. However, I do know that an older man, by his own admission has done much worse offenses against women and the people of the United States of America has just rewarded him by making him the most powerful leader of the free world. The students were wrong and should be appropriately disciplined when all the facts are known. We must not be hypocritical. Firing the coach would teach what lesson? How would it help? Is disrespect and abuse of women and other venerable persons excused, if it is done by the rich and powerful? The university is a place of teaching and learning, let us teach and lead by example. Please seek to get to the root causes of these awful acts of aggression against each other in this learning community. Then put in place, firm, fair and consistent guidelines, (rules) that are taught as an integral part of the education that the students are receiving at the university. Holding each student accountable for his actions and behaviors. Students are watching those who are in leadership roles. No special passes for the privileged or unfair punishment for those who seek to guide and support when grave mistakes are made.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Just read some of the comments on the petition …so many disturbing attitudes. I’m guessing the people defending the legalities of the ‘consensual group sex’ would feel differently if the woman involved was their daughter or sister.

  11. Alan Muller says:

    Mr Fege makes sense. But I would, if I were King of the World, just shut down the U of M varsity football program. I don’t see any valid connection to the supposed missions of an institution of “higher education.” Rather big-time football seems to impact the integrity of academic programs and results in the exploitation of many if not most of the players.

    Getting rid of Mr. Claeys would certainly not fix all the problems in the football program, but it would be a signal that the university is serious about cleaning up its act.

    Kudos to Joe Nathan for helping lead the demands for change here. A form of “school change,” perhaps?

  12. Trish Palermo says:

    Thank you for covering this. UMN deserves so much better. I appreciate that so many people such as yourself are speaking out against Claeys.

  13. Monica says:

    We need to send a message to the men at our Universities regarding their code of conduct. Taking advantage of an inebriated woman is not acceptable. It should have been stopped, and someone should have protected her. I hold Kaler just as responsible. This culture of rape and assault is unacceptable. Joe is exactly correct. Thank you for your leadership!

  14. Warner Jones says:

    There is no excuse for abuse of any nature. However, we as a society must stop looking to all athletes as role models. Athletes are a sample of the environment we share( good, bad, ugly). Anytime I read or see comments regarding violence or abuse to women, I am reminded of the extreme need for positive male role models in our society. Some athletes meet that criteria, many fall short. That is the nature of that vocation as is the case with many others vocations.
    There are positions we as a society, should only allow a positive role models to fulfill, particularly, when the position demands the individual be at least 35 years old.
    So to those who want to make all 18 to 20 year old young men positive role models for their children, I say look higher. I also say examine yourself, particularly your action when your were 18.
    If we can’t or will not demand that an individual who must be 35 years old before he “hold office” be a positive role model, how dare you place that burden on a group of 18 to 21 year kids.
    Maybe your outrage is driven by other motivations?

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