MINNEAPOLIS — After stints at Kentucky, Boise State and (briefly) Syracuse, Mark Coyle returned to the University of Minnesota in 2016 as the school’s athletic director. As an administrator and marketing professional there from 2001 to 2005 he 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 challenges. In part two of a two-part interview, Coyle talked about the prospect of a new Big Ten hockey program, the importance of maintaining the Gophers’ regional rivalries and the future of their home rink.
Just to put the protestations of some Gopher hockey fans to rest, can you confirm once and for all that the program is not moving back to the old WCHA?
We are a legacy member of the Big Ten Conference and we are very proud to be part of the Big Ten.
With that said, how important are efforts to maintain rivalries with the four other Minnesota-based programs and North Dakota?
That’s incredibly important, and I know it’s a priority for Bob (Motzko). We talked about it when he was first interviewed. As you know, hockey scheduling is unique. We have 24 conference games, which gives us 10 nonconference games. With the Mariucci Classic now you’re down to eight games and you’re trying to find those series. We’re playing North Dakota, we play (Minnesota) Duluth and we have some of those teams on our schedule and that’s something we want to make a priority. We think it’s important for hockey at the college level, and we think it’s important for hockey in the state of Minnesota that we have those games. But it does get tricky with the limitation on your nonconference games. Still, we recognize the value of doing that and we feel it’s important to have those games.
Previously you were the marketing director for athletics at the University of Minnesota. What did you learn from that experience?
I tell people I did a very poor job, and what I mean by that is when I was here before the building was sold out and we had those back-to-back national championships and things were going well. When I came back three years ago we won the Big Ten so that was six straight conference titles. So we’re winning conference championships, we’re competing at a high level and we still had some attendance challenges. And again, that’s on us. That’s nobody else’s fault. That’s what led to these conversations about looking at ticket prices and making it more fan friendly to get people to come to our games and getting more aggressive. We used to do a program called Skate with the Gophers when I was here before, where people would come down and skate at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Last year we took Skate with the Gophers on the road and we went out (in the community) and it’s the first time we’ve had to do that. We realized we have to go out. So a big part of what we’re trying to do is to make sure we build upon that emotional connection. When I was here before there was a deep connection and we need to do everything we can to strengthen that connection.
We’re very confident in the type of young men that Bob’s trying to bring in to this program. Academically they’re doing it the right way. In fact I think we had one of our highest grade-point averages ever for men’s hockey, which is phenomenal. I get that people pay attention to what happens on the ice, but we’re different than other programs. We worry about the academic side, but athletically we’re very confident that we’ll start to get those wins. It will be interesting to see how our fans respond with those wins and how that affects our attendance numbers.
The University of Illinois is openly exploring becoming the Big Ten’s eighth hockey program. Have they sought your advice, and if so, what have you offered?
Josh Whitman, their athletic director, is doing a fantastic job down there. Selfishly, for Minnesota and the other Big Ten members who sponsor hockey, we’re hoping that Illinois does add hockey. Those are decisions that they have to make but we feel they would be a great addition to the Big Ten. It’s something we would welcome and would give us an even schedule. Right now one team has a week off, so I think it would solve some scheduling logistics for a lot of people. We’re hopeful and optimistic and I think they’re getting close to making a decision per the last articles I’ve read about the process. It’s a decision they have to make, but selfishly we’d be supportive.
You’re originally from Iowa, where the loyalties for football and basketball are divided between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones. Minnesota is unique because Gopher football and basketball are the Division I teams for the entire state, but in hockey there are five or six teams if you include western Minnesota, where North Dakota is quite popular, that divide the hockey loyalties. How do you look at that?
It’s awesome. It’s one of those things where we feel this state is the college hockey hotbed. We have great programs here and we all talk. I have a lot of respect for (Minnesota) Duluth and what they’re doing. I’ve gotten to be very close to Josh Berlo, their athletic director. About a year ago I went up and spent a day with Josh and got to meet some of his coaches, and I really respect what they’re doing up there. At Minnesota State I know their athletic director. At St. Cloud State I know (athletic director) Heather (Weems) very well. I think it’s great for hockey that all those teams are competing at a high level. There’s no doubt that we want to beat them and compete against them. There’s no doubt that we recruit against them. Again, it’s important when we can schedule those games and it’s great for hockey because hockey, especially at the college level, has that regional connection and that regional feel. Fans can drive to each other’s venues to watch the games and we love the intensity of the fans. We welcome those things, we think they’re great for hockey and we want to do everything we can to build that, not only in Minnesota but nationally.
Amazingly, 3M Arena at Mariucci is more than 25 years old now. There has been talk of changing the seating capacity and changing the ice sheet size. What do you see in the future there?
In full transparency, we’re having the same conversations about the ice and the size of the rink and what do we do about that. We’ve got a new president on board in president (Joan) Gabel. Those are conversations I had with president (Eric) Kaler when he was here, and those are conversations I will have with the new president. I do think we have to take an overall look at our program and our facility. I’ve never coached a game in my life. My coaching experience is being the dugout dad for baseball games. I love that because every kid is excited to bat so it’s the best job in the world. But when I talk to coaches, I always ask what’s the most important thing from a coaching standpoint. Whether I was at Boise State, Kentucky, Syracuse or Minnesota the answer is always recruiting. You have to get the right people to come into your program. And when we created the Athletes Village, when we made the renovations to the locker room at 3M Arena at Mariucci, when we do the next round of upgrades to the facility, those are all part of the ‘wow’ factor. When young men come to your campus, you want them to say ‘wow’ and be excited. When your fans come to the facility, you want them to say ‘wow’ and be excited. So I think we need to take a really strategic look at the arena and explore some of the things we can do to enhance the experience not only for the student athletes but for the fans. Those are all things on the table and those are conversations we have to have as we move forward with a plan for all of our facilities on campus.
The Gophers are coming off an 18-16-4 season with Motzko at the helm for the first time. They finished third in the Big Ten and 19th in the Pairwise rankings, missing the 16-team NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. They open the 2019-20 season on Sunday, Oct. 6, with a home exhibition game versus Mount Royal University of Canada.