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Mark Coyle, Phil Esten: How Minnesota's top athletics directors are living with NIL


Mark Coyle, left, and Phil Esten: Minnesota's Division I athletic directors are leading through constant change in college sports.


Mark Coyle has been learning to meditate.


The University of Minnesota athletics director didn't say that the endless cultural shifts happening in college sports are what led him to the search for transience in a deep breath, but here we are.


"I'm trying to understand how that works," Coyle said, sitting inside his office at the Bierman building while road construction raged in the Dinkytown streets below. "A big phrase in meditation is wisely responding vs. blindly reacting."

In the disorienting time that is the name, image, likeness [NIL] era of college sports, wise responses continue to be essential while everyone waits for the ground to stop rattling.

The latest seismic event was the decision by the NCAA and its power conferences to settle three federal antitrust lawsuits for $2.7 billion that will also create a model for letting colleges pay players directly for their performance. The ramifications of that decision — how it affects Title IX, how different Division I universities distribute money and to whom and how much — figure to play out over months if not years.


That such a monumental change will only provide some clarity over the future of college athletics is fitting, given all that has transpired in the three years since the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA broke antitrust laws in limiting how student-athletes could earn money.

In the NIL era, even the two men at the top of Minnesota's Division I athletics programs continue to search for answers.


For St. Thomas Athletics Director Phil Esten, the changes come amid an unprecedented transition by the school from Division III to Division I.


"We don't have 30 or 40 or 50 or 80 years of Division I experiences," he said. "There's good and bad to that. The good to that is we don't have to change anything that we have become used to or accustomed to or are integrated into the fabric of who we are as a Division I institution, because we're not really established yet in Division I."


The Gophers on the other hand are deeply established. Coyle said they're lucky to be in the Big Ten because of media rights deals that are going to keep them financially stable and highly visible. But they're also dealing with a men's basketball team that will have 10 new players next season, and coming off a lackluster year competitively.


"There's no reason why it can't be done here," Coyle said. "It drives me bonkers. We have not had the year we're supposed to have athletically here."


'Chasing ghosts'


How exactly do you build a successful program in this era?


Part of it is courting donor money towards official NIL collectives; the U has Dinkytown Athletes and St. Thomas has Raise the Arches. Those collectives operate as the conduit for getting money to athletes. For years, they couldn't have a direct relationship with colleges, but that changed last August when the NCAA allowed university officials to work directly with collectives.


"Seven, eight months ago, I couldn't even talk to you about Dinkytown Athletes," Coyle said. "Now we can talk about it and work with them on fundraising and programming. When I do donor dinners it's talking about NIL."

NIL has also become essential to any discussion about recruiting, even though it was never intended to serve that purpose. That process also lacks any kind of transparency, leaving schools in a marketplace where no one knows how much a college is offering a player or if leaked numbers are true.



"Right now we're chasing ghosts and that makes it really hard to manage," Coyle said.

Just as essential is having coaches that can reach a new generation of athletes who have different stressors and opportunities than any generation before them. The instant gratification and comparative culture of other schools wanting you, offering playing time and NIL money, is an elusive psychological dynamic.


"I think particularly with these young people coming out of COVID, they have had different experiences," Esten said. "I think the best leaders try to meet employees where they're at, and the best coaches try to meet their student-athletes where they're at. We don't even know where they're at."


That more impulsive relationship between a young person and their school is creating mental strain on coaches, administrators and teammates.


"You think about how much time our coaches spend recruiting these kids and then," Coyle snapped his fingers, "it's over."


It also is a different metric for power conferences like the Big Ten or SEC and mid-majors or smaller colleges. At St. Thomas, Esten said if recruiting is determined strictly on NIL money, they will be unable to compete.


"We are not resourced that way and we're not ultimately going to win all of those kinds of battles," he said.


Searching for clarity


The two Division I schools in Minnesota exist in different financial realities and philosophical spaces. The U of M a state school entrenched in a Power Five conference with enrollment over 50,000. St. Thomas a private Catholic university with teams in several conferences trying to learn how to be a Division I program with enrollment under 10,000.


But Coyle and Esten were surprisingly similar in saying that their overriding hope is once the dust settles on these changes, they can get back to a more holistic look at the relationship between academics and athletics. They both said their core ethos remains: provide an experience to student-athletes that is about the rest of their lives not just the years they're on campus.


Is that actually possible? At a time when the NCAA can't win a court case, where every challenge to the traditional structure of college athletics seems to succeed, the most difficult reality might be that athletics directors and universities and the NCAA are no longer in control.


"I think good, bad or indifferent, the pandemic showed us anything can happen at any time," Coyle said. "The last four years in college athletics has just been a shifting landscape and it's going to continue to be a shifting landscape."


That's Division I athletics in the NIL era. Unstable ground and very few opportunities to settle your feet, close your eyes and take a deep breath.

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