Former Minnesota athletics chief Joel Maturi says Japan can benefit from college sports overhaul

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Staff Writer

Joel Maturi, an ex-director of athletics for the University of Minnesota, thinks it is “insane” and “crazy” that some of the major NCAA schools make a large amount of money through sports.

But he adds that it is the reality in the United States, and he hopes that Japan can use the U.S. as a reference when it starts its own version of the collegiate governing body.

Speaking in a keynote speech for Japanese collegiate and governmental athletic officials and administrators at the International Congress Center in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, late last month, Maturi told the audience that he could give them some “suggestions and recommendations” of what might work in Japan, but did not intend to tell them what to do.

“I’m not here to say this is what you should do in Japan,” Maturi told the participants. “I am here with you to share what works in America.”

The 72-year-old continued: “If I mentioned the budget at the University of Minnesota, you are going to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Because you know what it is? $112 million dollars for our athletic department budget. It’s insane, it’s crazy. I’m an athletic director telling you that. But it’s a culture, it’s what exists. And if we are going to play sports at that level, it’s what we have to do, because they do it.”

Maturi, who served as Minnesota’s AD between 2002 and 2012, stressed that he is an educator, and regrets that star athletes and coaches get more recognition than scholars at educational institutions.

“Quite honestly, if our football team goes to the Rose Bowl, which is the biggest game for our conference (Big 10) and our team, that team and that coach receives more recognition than the professor who wins a Nobel Prize,” said Maturi, who was visiting Japan for the first time since he came as an assistant athletic director for the University of Wisconsin-Madison when the Badgers played against Michigan State University in the Coca-Cola Bowl at Tokyo Dome in 1993.

“It’s wrong, but it’s a fact,” he said. “And I’m hoping that would never happen in Japan.”

Maturi said he was introducing “some of the evils of big-time college sports” in the States.

But he also stressed some of the positive aspects of collegiate athletics in the U.S. He advised that Japanese universities should take advantage of the attention and popularity of their athletics as “the front porch” to their institutions.

“If you embrace that (athletics getting more recognition than academic success) and utilize it in a positive way, it can be OK,” he said. “You can have a tremendously successful academic institution and tremendously successful athletic institution. And the attention that athletics bring to it can give you the publicity, it can give you the recognition, it can lead to pride from alumni, which then leads to greater giving.

“It can lead to pride with corporations and sponsorships, which lead to revenues for institutions. It can lead to graduates having passion and feeling for their institution.”

Maturi added that universities are about more than just academics and that sports can be part of the fabric of universities.

“I am biased,” said Maturi, who coached football, basketball and baseball while also serving as an athletic director at a high school in Minnesota after he graduated from the University of Notre Dame. “I don’t think you learn life lessons any places as well as you do through sports.

“Where else do you learn to win or lose? Where else do you learn to respond to winning and losing? Where else do you learn to really need to persevere and work and continue to get better? Where else do you learn teamwork?”

Yuhei Inoue, an assistant professor of sports management at Minnesota who helped bring Maturi over to Japan, said that studies show that sports increase a sense of belonging to a student’s own community, but that it is important to let the students and people in the community know about the collegiate teams first.

“I am a graduate of Tsukuba, but you don’t really know where the games are played,” Inoue said during an panel discussion after Maturi’s speech. “Ultimately, you have to establish an attachment (with the sport teams), so they will form an identity for your school and community.”

Maturi warned, however, that collegiate athletics should not put too much of an emphasis on winning because that is not the definition of having a successful university athletic career.

“We need to see the bigger picture of the life skills,” said Maturi. “But we are so competitive and winning defines us. And the media defines us that way, which makes it part of the problem.”

An academic dishonesty scandal hit Minnesota’s men’s basketball program in the 1990s and the team was put on a four-year probation by the NCAA in 2000. Team head coach Clem Haskins, athletic director Mark Dienhart and school vice president McKinley Boston were dismissed.

Maturi recalled that the school suffered “tremendous damage” from the scandal, and its impact lasted for a while. But the team and those involved were punished and disciplined.

Scandals and accidents may happen at Japanese athletics as well, and Maturi believes they might want to have athletic departments so they can monitor the teams and their activities (Athletic teams at Japanese universities are private entities and receive little support from their schools).

During his stint as AD at Minnesota, the Golden Gophers won national championships in wrestling (2007), men’s golf (2002), men’s hockey (2002, 2003) and women’s hockey (2004, 2005, 2012). For his achievements, the university renamed the arena for volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics the Joel Maturi University Sports Pavilion earlier last month.

The native of Chisholm, Minnesota, has worked on the NCAA infractions committee since 2013. He was also the director of athletics at the University of Denver and Miami University before he went to Minnesota.