The University of Minnesota put its top athletic department leaders on a bus earlier this summer, sending them on their annual trip around the state to rev up fan interest among the Gopher faithful.
Those passengers, including men and women head coaches of their 23 teams, shared one thing in common: They were all white.
The U, once a leader in athletic department diversity, now trails most of its peers. A Star Tribune analysis of senior athletics leadership, including the athletic director, senior assistant ADs and head coaches, at the 14 schools that make up the Big Ten found Minnesota tied for last with Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State in number of minorities in those positions: one each.
Almost a quarter of the U’s student athletes are nonwhite, and in big money sports like men’s basketball and football, the ratio of minority athletes is even higher. It’s been four years since the U had a minority head coach, and more than a decade since it last hired one. The last time a person of color served as Minnesota’s athletic director or deputy athletic director was 18 years ago.
“We should be embarrassed,” said Al Nuness, a former basketball player and hall-of-fame member of the M Club, the Gophers’ official alumni group. “Especially when you look at the metropolitan area we live in, which is praised for quality of life and opportunity for people of color. And our university doesn’t reflect any of that.”
The absence of black or nonwhite coaches and athletics leaders at the U is in sharp contrast to what’s happening nationally. In the Big Ten, 59 of the 355 head coaches are minorities, a 10 percent increase since 2010. At major conference schools, the number of minority ADs has increased 9 percent since 2010, according to NCAA data reviewed by the Star Tribune.
The lack of diversity in the top jobs of Gophers athletics emerged as a divisive issue between U leaders and the increasingly diverse student-athlete population last year. In the wake of police shootings of black men, black and international student-athletes began meeting to discuss issues faced by minority athletes at the U, and to share their concerns with athletics leadership.
Gaelin Elmore, a football player who graduated this spring and transferred to use his final season of eligibility elsewhere, said the Black Student-Athlete Association struggled from the start of the school year to communicate with top leaders. The group’s frustrations played out in public in December, when the football team staged a two-day boycott after 10 black players were suspended following the school’s investigation of an alleged sexual assault.
“Across the board, it was a pretty racially tense year,” said Elmore, one of five players who became de facto team spokesmen during the boycott. Elmore said white administrators seemed uncomfortable hearing their concerns, leaving black student athletes “feeling like they don’t have someone to talk to who does understand where they’re coming from, at least not in a position of power.”
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle told the Star Tribune diversity is a priority in hiring, and that he wants his leaders to learn from the communication issues of this past year.
“When student-athletes walk our hallways, when they’re in our academic center, when they’re in our development and administration area, do we have diversity that they can see?” Coyle said. “Those are things we’ll always focus on and always put an emphasis on moving forward.”
University President Eric Kaler declined several requests to discuss the Star Tribune’s findings. In a statement issued last week, Kaler said: “We value diversity in all its forms. Diversity, including race, amongst leadership is important and an area we continue to focus on. We’re committed to making progress here.”
The U employs minorities in important positions in athletics — from a marketing director, to development coordinators, to assistant coaches. Coyle, who hired Syracuse’s first black football coach before coming to Minnesota, has hired two head coaches and four top administrators in his first year, all white. Ayo Taylor-Dixon, the senior associate AD for fan engagement who arrived two months before Coyle, is the only nonwhite member of his senior staff.
Tubby Smith, fired more than four years ago, may be a distant memory for Gophers basketball fans, but he remains the most recent nonwhite head coach hired at Minnesota for any sport, in 2007.
“When they say they’re supporting diversity, they’re talking about at the lowest level, with students and athletes,” said Will Humphries, a former president of the M Club. “They’re not talking faculty or coaches. The issue is the inclusion of African-Americans into the inner workings of the university. How do we break through the glass wall that has been put up?”
Kendal Shell once considered pursuing a career as a college AD. The U’s handling of the football boycott caused the former men’s basketball player to reconsider that goal.
“Seeing what happened at the University of Minnesota, it made me not want to be a part of what’s going on right now as leadership,” said Shell, who graduated with a master’s degree in 2016 and works for a local retail consulting company. “Hopefully things turn around with [Coyle]. But just seeing the way things went wrong, it completely steered me in a different direction.”
With little opportunity for interaction with nonwhite leaders, the importance of peer groups such as Gophers International (for white and nonwhite foreign-born athletes) and the Black Student-Athlete Association increases, said Goaner Deng, a former All-America runner and team captain.
At the black-athlete group’s first meeting this past school year, held in a TCF Bank Stadium club room, the athletes debated whether the school would support them if they joined athletes across the country in protesting police shootings and other perceived injustices.
Coyle spoke to the group and listened to their opinions. But when he left the room, athletes wondered if any progress had been made.
“When you go away from home and are taking that next step, one important thing is to connect with students and feel like you’re represented in the leadership, too,” said Deng, a former black-athlete association ambassador. “It’s definitely something I’ve heard other athletes talk about for years.”
The last nonwhite leader of Gophers sports, McKinley Boston, left in 1999. In the 18 years since, only two people of color have held senior assistant AD jobs.
“Minnesota knows what the problems are,” Boston said. “If you say, ‘We’re committed to diversity,’ then who is responsible for not only the commitment, but defining what that is? Because if you can’t measure it, then how can you achieve it? How can you say we’ve achieved a diversity level on our campus that’s acceptable to us? I bet you no one on that campus, including the president or regents, can answer that question.”
Humphries, a former U football player and the father of NBA player and ex-Gopher Kris Humphries, said Coyle has agreed to meet with him to discuss diversity and the inclusion of more black alumni.
“A lot of us are in a position where we can do a lot more than what we do,” Humphries said. “We, as former athletes, can help the university with these kids that come into this environment and they just drown.”
Lee Hutton, a Minneapolis attorney and a former Gophers receiver, represented players accused in the sexual assault case. For years, black athletes have reached out to him, he said.
“I will always pick up the phone for those guys,” Hutton said. “But it shouldn’t happen in that procedural way. If they’re calling outside of the school, then that’s a fundamental distrust of your administrators.”
At a February meeting, Coyle told the U’s Board of Regents that improving communication with athletes was a priority.
“You have to provide open and honest dialogue,” Coyle recently told the Star Tribune. “That’s the one thing I take away from that [boycott] situation is we need to continue to make sure as a department and as a staff that we have open dialogue with the parties and make sure people are being communicated to and that there’s an understanding.”
Peyton Owens is Coyle’s point man on this mission. As head of student-athlete development, he helped start the Black Student-Athlete Association and Gophers International. These settings allow athletes to “take the mask off” and talk about their issues, Owens said.
“The focus now is on how we can grow our numbers, be consistent with it and continue to have quality connections with the campus and the community,” he added.
Owens, one of three minorities among 17 members in athletic administration, is in closest contact with athletes of color. He said efforts to support diversity aren’t just “lip service.”
“I see it and live it,” he said, “and get a chance to execute it every day and feel empowered to do it.”
Nationally, minorities represent 42 percent of the men and 34 percent of the women competing in Division I, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. A majority of athletes are nonwhite in football (59 percent), women’s basketball (65 percent) and men’s basketball (73 percent).
Minorities held about 10 percent of senior athletics and head coaching positions at Big Ten schools on average, the Star Tribune analysis found. The Gophers (one minority in 28 of those jobs) are at 4 percent.
“We talk a good talk about the athletes and their experience and their education,” said Joel Maturi, the Gophers’ AD from 2002-12. “But if that’s the case, then to me [diversity] is an area that needs to be addressed.”
Among all levels of athletics, college sports ranked the worst in terms of diversity hiring, said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the diversity institute’s director. Most university presidents and ADs are white, he said, and they are drawn to candidates with whom they are most comfortable.
“That’s what, by definition, the ol’ boy network is, and there’s no question that it’s sadly alive and well in too many places,” Lapchick said.
The NCAA debuted a mission statement last year to promote ethnic and gender diversity hiring. The Presidential Pledge was signed by many, including Kaler and leaders from the 13 other Big Ten schools.
Abdul Omari, a U regent, said he would like to see the school do more.
“We can sign all the pledges we want,” Omari said. “I appreciate intent — [but] what impact are we having? If those two don’t align, then our actions need to change.”
Ethan Nelson, a student at the University of Minnesota on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.