Gophers AD Mark Coyle changes course with hiring Dawn Plitzuweit
MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Mark Coyle said it without actually having to say it on Tuesday at Athletes Village: Hiring Lindsay Whalen might have been his only misstep so far as Minnesota Athletic Director.
There was an absolute buzz in Dinkytown in 2018, when Coyle brought Whalen in to run the women’s basketball program after Marlene Stollings left for Texas Tech. Coyle took a huge gamble, hiring Whalen without any prior coaching experience.
Whalen is essentially the First Lady of Minnesota basketball. She single-handedly brought fans to Williams Arena as a player during the Gophers’ run to the Final Four in 2003. She made basketball cool for little girls growing up in Hutchinson. She won championships with the Minnesota Lynx, and won Olympic gold. She’s a first ballot Naismith Hall of Famer. Her jerseys hang at both Target Center and Williams Arena.
Her impact as a player will never be forgotten. For whatever reason, it didn’t translate on the sideline. She went 71-76 in five seasons, 32-58 in the Big Ten and no appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Coyle went outside the box with bringing in Whalen, and would’ve been a hero if it worked.
It didn’t, and his decision to bring in Dawn Plitzuweit is a complete change of course. She’s got 16 years of head coaching experience, has led teams to five NCAA Tournaments and led South Dakota to the Sweet 16 two years ago. In her only season at West Virginia, she led the Mountaineers to their first NCAA Tournament since 2017. She’s won as a head coach everywhere she’s been, and that experience matters.
"It played a part. That’s addicting to get to that level, to have that opportunity. We felt it was important to find a coach who has won at a high level," Coyle said. "We feel really confident that we got the right coach, we’ve got the right young ladies here that our program can start to see some significant success."
Coyle knows good basketball. He oversaw programs while at Syracuse and Kentucky before coming to Minnesota. That’s why it’s that much more disappointing Whalen didn’t work out, when you look at Coyle’s other hires at Minnesota:
FOOTBALL – PJ FLECK
It became very clear in 2017 that Tracy Claeys was never the guy Coyle had in mind to run the football program. The Gophers went 9-4, but nearly didn’t play their bowl game that season due to players boycotting over suspensions stemming from an alleged sexual assault after the first game of the season. Coyle fired Claeys after the season, and brought in PJ Fleck. At that time, Fleck had just led Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and facing Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl in his fourth season as a head coach. In six seasons with the Gophers, Fleck is 44-27, 26-26 in Big Ten play and Minnesota has won at least nine games in three of the past four seasons. He’s also 4-0 in bowl games.
MEN’S HOCKEY – BOB MOTZKO
Bob Motzko was the head coach at St. Cloud State for 13 seasons before Coyle hired him to replace Don Lucia. In his first four seasons with the Gophers, Motzko is 84-50-11 and 54-30-10 in the Big Ten. This year, they’re 26-9-1, won the Big Ten regular season title for the second straight year and have been No. 1 in the country most of the season. They’re favored to go to a second straight Frozen Four.
MEN’S BASKETBALL – BEN JOHNSON
Coyle parted ways with Richard Pitino two seasons ago, and replaced him with former Gophers’ and DeLaSalle standout Ben Johnson. The jury is still very much out on Johnson, and it was another gamble by Coyle. It was a calculated risk, as Johnson had been an assistant coach for 16 years and built up equity. But he came back to Minnesota having never been a head coach.
In two seasons, Johnson is 22-39 and 6-33 in Big Ten play. His teams have been plagued by injuries, and they dealt with a 12-game losing streak this year. But it’s only been two years, and he’ll get time to build his program. Make no mistake, next season is crucial for Johnson’s future.
We all wanted Whalen to work out, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t. Plitzuweit is a proven winner, and she inherits the best recruiting class in program history. Mara Braun, Mallory Heyer, Nia Holloway and Amaya Battle will all be back next season. The cupboard isn’t empty, and it appears the future is bright for Gophers’ women’s basketball.