Defining Success in College Sports Isn't Ever Easy - Or Is It?

Joel Maturi is a polarizing figure. He has some accomplishments, and some headline making failures. Which are more important in today's world?

The University of Minnesota is synonymous with prestige. The school is one of the foremost research Universities in the country, perhaps even in the world. Medical and scientific research at the U has saved and changed countless lives. The Carlson School of Management is considered a premier business school for MBAs. The academic record of the university is unquestioned.

Turing to the college athletics, the University is less than prestigious. Save for a powerhouse D-I men's and women's hockey program, Golden Gopher sports is largely seen as the laughing stock of their respective fields of play. Sure, there are other sports on campus, some of them very, very good. The problem? They don't bring the attention.

All of this leads to few questions about those running the academic side of the school, and nothing but questions about the man running the athletic side. Enter Joel Maturi, University of Minnesota Athletic Director. If there is one person on campus under more heat, I defy you to name them. The debate rages about Maturi and his ability to lead the athletic department.

Enter into the record a recent article from Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Souhan does what any good sports writer does. He looks at the situation, and offers his opinion. I don't always agree with Mr. Souhan, but he is pretty damn good at what he does. In the article, Souhan calls Maturi "The lowest common denominator." If you take a moment to move past the colorful language of a sports columnist, you realize Souhan is simply making the same case that a Management 101 text book would. Managers take all of the blame, and get none of the credit.

The Gopher basketball program is in ruins, the football team has not won a major bowl game since 1961, and the pride and joy of the U, the men's hockey program, has missed the NCAA tournament for the third straight year. After such disappointments, Maturi continues to offer contract extensions to the coaches running the programs.

Either the coaches aren't doing what is expected, or the AD is not doing what is expected. Someone has to take the blame, right? So if it is on the coaches, why reward them? If it is on the AD, why defend him?

Well, Jay Weiner of MinnPost.com makes the argument in favor of Matri's accomplishments. I'll let you read Mr. Weiner's post for his full argument, but it boils down to the fact that one, there is more to an athletic department than football, and two, there is more to college sports than winning.

Weiner says that Maturi has made the department one after combining the men's and women's programs, that he has dealt with slimming budgets and made the department self sustaining. He goes on to argue that graduation of the student-athletes is at record levels, and that he supports all of the sports, not just the "major" sports. Finally, Weiner argues that other schools are hiring businessmen to run the athletic departments, moving away from sports men.

What it Boils Down To

Whether you like or hate Joel Maturi boils down to one thing: What is the purpose of college athletics? Are the students there to go to college, or are they there to play sports and earn the program money? If you think it is as simple as one or the other, you are missing the point.

Scholarships are given only to the best of the best in their respective sports. Figure in academic ability, federal requirements such as Title IX, and things get more and more complicated. Still, the scholarship money is intended to... wait for it... pay for that student to attend class. Thus, the argument can be made that they are there to go to school.

The embarrassment that is Trevor Mbakwe is enough to anger anyone who had to pay their own way through college.

At the same time, most of the scholarship students have big dreams, and in the "major" sports, they rarely involve an MBA and a desk job. Gopher hockey players are drafted by NHL teams and many go on to outstanding professional hockey careers. Many don't. Same goes for the other major programs. Even with the destitute Gopher football program, players such as Laurence Maroney go on to solid NFL careers. Thus, these students are there to play sports, the academics become secondary.

You can argue back and forth all day, and many will. The point of the major programs, at least to the students, is a spring board to professional sports. Are the Golden Gopher men's golfers going to go on to huge success in the golf world? Maybe.

No one cares where they went to school even if they do. With the revenue sports (football, basketball, hockey), the alumni the school produces and their professional sports careers puts money into the program. Better recruits based on past success stories. Better recruits equals better programs and more wins. More wins equals TV time. TV time equals money, and the cycle repeats.

Sure, Maturi has had successes. Graduation rates are up, no major NCAA violations, the department is self sustaining. Great. How long do you think the department remains self sustaining if Mariucchi is half empty, if TCF Bank Stadium continues to be populated by losers, if Williams Arena continues to house small time programs with expensive coaches?

I applaud the graduation rates, I marvel at the lack of NCAA violations with the cornucopia of rules and regulations that must be navigated. It is great that all of the "minor" programs are on his radar. They should be. Damn right they should be. However, when three programs bring in the dough to support the other programs, there better be a clear and conscious dedication to those programs.

Not to state anything that hasn't already been stated, but without the "major" programs, the "minor" programs become intermural sports. Division one golf without division one hockey? Good luck. Division one swimming without division one football? Unlikely. Even if a school can swing it, those sports don't bring in the money. Sorry, they just don't.

Ever seen 1000 people line up to buy Golden Gopher Golf tickets? 

What's the Point?

You people always want a point. So demanding. Here it is: if you are going to be a division one school, you need to act like one. Division one schools want to win, and they want to get better. Division one schools want their athletes to graduate, just as long as they win. No one writes about hockey players graduating, they write about National Championships. Like it or not, the University makes no money when the student athlete graduates. They do make money when the hockey team wins and sells season tickets.

I want to see the kids graduate, I really do. That's their problem to make the best of the chance they have been given. My business is to write about the athletic successes and failures. With the number of failures makes the headlines, it becomes clear that the man running the department is not setting a winning standard. Being satisfied that  the graduation rate is up would be like being satisified with Chuck Fletcher because Mikko Koivu paid all his bills last month.

So, while Joel Maturi has done a great job making the department self sufficient, he has done nothing to make sure it stays that way. While he has overseen record setting graduation rates, he has also overseen the demise of the biggest name in college hockey, the embarrassment of one of the biggest names in college basketball, and the continued embarrassment of a gorgeous stadium populated with a team that has zero chance of earning the right to play in it.

You want respect for Joel Maturi's accomplishments? Good luck with that. If you want the respect of the football, basketball, and hockey fans of Minnesota, you better field winning programs. As much as it may seem callous and bitter to the rest of the world, sports fans don't care if the student athletes graduate. They want to see them win.

To put it even more bluntly: They didn't buy a ticket to commencement. 

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