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U of M Contract Clauses Cover 'Program Elimination'

Paul Steinbach

The University of Minnesota athletic department began including program-elimination clauses in coaches' contracts in 2019, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Seven coaches serving men's gymnastics, men's tennis, women's cross country, women's golf, men's golf, softball and rowing have such clauses in their contracts.

Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle announced last month that men’s track and field, gymnastics and tennis would be eliminated after this season. Coyle cited financial problems, which were heightened by the pandemic, and Title IX compliance issues. The U’s Board of Regents is expected to vote on the cuts at a Friday meeting.

Last year, men's gymnastics coach Mike Burns signed a contract extension that included a new clause, which stated his employment would automatically end if the university decided to cut men’s gymnastics. 

“They said, ‘Oh, by the way, you should be aware of this new language we put in here, about the possibility of the program being cut,’ ” Burns told the Star Tribune. “I don’t know if I was shocked, or surprised, or what. Certainly, it was a bit of a foreshadowing of what might come.”

If the three sports are discontinued, Burns and men's tennis coach Geoff Young would end their tenures 120 days after the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. Both of their contracts are scheduled to run through June 9, 2022. Director of track and field Matt Bingle — whose 2018 contract extension does not include the clause — would not be affected, since he is head coach for both the Gophers men’s and women’s teams.

All the coaches who have a program elimination clause signed their contracts in 2019 or ’20. Several Gophers coaches who signed extensions in the same time period do not have the clause, including P.J. Fleck (football), Richard Pitino (men’s basketball), Lindsay Whalen (women’s basketball), Bob Motzko (men’s hockey) and Hugh McCutcheon (volleyball).

In a letter to University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents, attorney Andrew Miltenberg cited the program elimination clauses as evidence the university “appears to have been secretly planning [the sports cuts] since before the COVID-19 pandemic.” Miltenberg, whose firm has been retained by several current and former Gophers athletes demanded in the Oct. 2 letter that the Regents vote no on the resolution to eliminate the sports.

According to the Star Tribune, Miltenberg argues that there is no reason to include the program elimination clause in some contracts, other than “to reflect the University’s unspoken intent to cancel certain teams in the near future.” By not disclosing those plans to athletes, he wrote, the university engaged in “fraudulent and bad-faith conduct.”

If the sports are eliminated, Miltenberg said legal action could be taken.

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