MINNEAPOLIS — Hired as the University of Minnesota’s athletic director in 2016, Mark Coyle returned to the school where he was an administrator from 2001 to 2005 and oversaw some of the best days of Gophers men’s hockey, when coach Don Lucia and assistant coach Bob Motzko won back-to-back NCAA titles. A year ago Coyle, 50, hired Motzko to take over after Lucia retired and he oversees a high-profile program that still means significant revenue for the school despite attendance issues. In part one of a two-part interview, Coyle, talked about his new coach, the challenge of selling tickets and where the Gophers can be found on TV.

What’s your job assessment for Bob Motzko after one season in the position?

I do sit down with the coaches at the end of each year, and I did with Bob. I would say in year one we're very thankful that he's here. When coach Lucia decided to step down, we obviously felt like we had a big opportunity for somebody and we felt like we needed to find the best fit for Minnesota hockey. I talked to some former players and other people associated closely with our program and Bob's name kind of popped up with all different groups of people. Bob came in here and hit the ground running hard. He was very visible on the recruiting trail and I think you're seeing some of the results with some of the recruits we have coming here. At the end of the year I think we were among the teams playing the best hockey. I think Bob will tell you year one was a learning experience here, transitioning to the Big Ten and again, at the end of the year we were playing really good hockey. So I'm very pleased with what Bob's doing and excited for him. Everyone in our staff is looking forward.

While attendance was down overall this past season, the issues kind of came to a head in the two sparsely-attended playoff games with Michigan. You announced a price cut for some tickets recently. What went into that decision and what else is being considered to boost attendance?

Everything is on the table. I've said this publicly many times, but it's on us to get people back. We’ve got to do that. I was raised to know that when you point a finger, you've got three fingers pointing back at you, so we have to take a look at how we do things, and that's what we've done this offseason. We’ve taken a hard look. It’s important to point out that we were second in the country in overall attendance. Sometimes the narrative is ‘Oh, my God,’ and no doubt the Michigan (playoff) series caught everyone's attention. It caught our attention. But we had several very good crowds this year and people remember that last series against Michigan in the Big Ten playoffs. Sometimes we lose sight that we were second in the nation in attendance.

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But you talked about the ticket prices. We wanted to take a hard look at how we did that. We reduced ticket prices to $500 for some season tickets, which is the lowest it has ever been inside 3M Arena at Mariucci. We looked at our scholarship seating areas and how we could make some adjustments there based on feedback we got from fans. We went to our Board of Regents and we’re thankful for their support and the support of our president where we can now have beer and wine sales inside that venue. These decisions were based on all ideas and input that we got. When I was hired we put together a Fan Advisory Council. And these are things, when we look at the market, we see. I believe all schools in the state of Minnesota sell beer and wine at their facilities, so why aren't we doing it here? It's all part of the fan friendly environment that we're trying to create. So we'll continue to be aggressive and look at hockey. There's no doubt it's a priority for us and it's not their fault they're not coming to games, it's on us. We have to figure out how to get them back and that's something it seems like we have conversations about daily.

Related to that, is there a break-even point where ticket prices can drop too much and hockey is no longer a revenue sport?

Hockey will always be a revenue sport here at Minnesota. It's one of the foundational programs in this department. I said it when coach Lucia stepped down and retired, I feel that we have the best hockey job in the country and hockey will always be a revenue sport for us.

Despite finishing second in the nation in attendance last season, the Gophers sold fewer than 2,000 tickets for a playoff game versus Michigan on March 8, 2019. (Jess Myers photo)
Despite finishing second in the nation in attendance last season, the Gophers sold fewer than 2,000 tickets for a playoff game versus Michigan on March 8, 2019. (Jess Myers photo)

One of the early complaints from fans about Big Ten hockey was the inability to find games on TV, at least in the places where fans were used to finding them. Has the situation with Big Ten Network and FSN gotten better for the home viewer?

We hear that every day from people, and selfishly we feel that we have the best college hockey television package in the country. We have phenomenal relationships with the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports North and I think we're on TV more often than any other college program in the country, which is awesome for a lot of different reasons. We work very closely with our TV partners. I can tell you that Francois McGillicudy, the new president of Big Ten Network, is aware of what hockey means to Minnesota and Michigan and the other teams in the Big Ten, and the priority we place on that in terms of TV and the exposure we get. We feel very positive about the exposure we get on TV. It's important for our recruiting and when it's done right it can be a great marketing tool for our institution. People can see what the University of Minnesota is like when they watch Gopher hockey games on Friday and Saturday nights. We feel like we have strong partnerships and we're thankful for the TV coverage we do get.

What is your relationship with Big Ten leaders like Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia and incoming Commissioner Kevin Warren?

We work closely with Brad who is the contact for hockey and Commissioner Warren when he starts in September we will have more conversations with him. The great thing about his background here in Minnesota is he understands what hockey is, and what college hockey is after being in this community for so long. So we’re very optimistic and thankful for the Big Ten.

Gopher hockey fans have notoriously high expectations, with some demanding a national title every year. What are the realistic benchmarks you have for Bob Motzko and his program?

We talk every day and we feel like we have the best hockey job in the country. I feel like it’s my job as the athletic director to do everything we can to support not only Bob, but all of our coaches in all of our sports. Selfishly, with the renovations we’ve done to 3M Arena at Mariucci in the locker room area and the additional renovations we’re going to do to the facility coming up here -- we got board approval to do additional renovations to the offices and the weight room -- we feel like we have the top hockey program in the country and we expect those results. For us in terms of benchmarking, Bob brought in a phenomenal recruiting class that will be here this year. We’re going to be young, no doubt. But I tell you this: when I was first hired at Minnesota I had a chance to talk to (former Wisconsin athletic director and football coach) Barry Alvarez briefly, and I asked him what he did at Wisconsin. He said ‘We stopped making excuses.’ So we’re not going to make excuses. We want to compete at a high level. That’s why we hired Bob. We saw what he did as an assistant coach here, winning those two national championships. We saw what he did at St. Cloud State, and we’re very confident that he’ll have that same success here at Minnesota, and we’ll have that success long term that our fans expect out of the program.

Tomorrow, in part two of our interview with Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle, we talk about maintaining regional rivalries, what he learned in his first stint with the U of M, and what the future looks like at the Gophers’ home rink.