If you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em. That is apparently Mike Leach’s train of thought, as he has hired former Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys to replace Alex Grinch, and run the Washington State Cougars defense. This comes just a year after Leach hired Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps when Joe Salave’a departed for Oregon.
The news of the hire was first reported by Minnesota Star Tribune reporter Joe Christensen.
WSU made it official shortly afterward.
The Clay City (coincidence?), Kansas native joined Jerry Kill’s Minnesota staff as Defensive Coordinator in 2011. After running a defense that gave up over 31.7 points per game in his first season, Claeys’ Gophers improved dramatically in 2012, allowing a full touchdown less per game.
The Gophers allowed 22-25 points per game for the remainder of Claeys’ tenure. Claeys assumed more responsibility in 2014, when he was named Associate Head Coach due in part to Head Coach Jerry Kill’s tenuous health situation. When Kill called it quits during the 2015 season, Claeys stepped in as interim Head Coach. Minnesota lost four of its five regular season games (three to Top 15 teams) under Claeys, but rebounded to win the Quick Lane Bowl.
Despite the less-than-stellar finish, Minnesota gave Claeys the permanent head coaching job. During Claeys’ first - and what would turn out to be only - full season as head coach, the Gophers turned in an 8-4 record and earned a Holiday Bowl bid, allowing just 22 points per game.
That’s when things got sideway for Claeys and the Gophers. Between the regular season and the Holiday Bowl, 10 Gopher players were suspended following a university investigation into sexual assault allegations. Shortly afterward, Minnesota’s players sat out practice and threatened to boycott the bowl game. Claeys tweeted his support for the players.
Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world! 〽️— T Claeys (@t_claeys) December 16, 2016
Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle publicly castigated Claeys for the tweet, and Claeys likely made his eventual firing a fait accompli. Amid all of the turmoil, Minnesota ended up playing in the Holiday Bowl. I don’t need to tell you what happened. Despite the strong finish to a 9-4 season, Minnesota fired Claeys less than a week later.
After a year away from football, Mike Leach has placed faith in Claeys to continue what Alex Grinch started with the WSU defense. Even with the controversial ending to his head coaching tenure, Claeys does have some defensive pedigree, having been nominated for the Broyles Award in 2013 and 2014.
It will be interesting to see if Claeys maintains the same #SpeedD philosophy that Grinch did, or whether he tries to mold the WSU defense to his own liking. Either way, one of the biggest questions Cougar fans faced this offseason has been quickly answered.