Sources: Golf coach didn’t get a shot

Katie Brenny wasn’t allowed to coach, travel or recruit before resigning after two months.
John Harris, right, lines up a putt with his current son-in-law and caddie, Ernie Rose, at a Champions Tour event in 2004. Sources say Harris let Rose coach the Gophers women’s golf team without the official title of head coach, in violation of University policy.
  • AP Photo
  • Nate Gotlieb, Trevor Born
December 01, 2010

When new Director of Golf John Harris offered Katie Brenny the Gophers associate women’s head coaching position this summer, he was offering a job she never had a chance to perform, multiple sources closely connected with the program said.

Brenny resigned in late October after just two months on the job and without traveling to any of the team’s four fall tournaments. Though she declined to comment for this story, the Minnesota Daily spoke with more than 10 people connected to the golf program, including half a dozen with intimate knowledge of the situation, about her brief and ambiguous tenure. Most requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize their relationship with the school or golf program.

They corroborated a tale of a hiring under false pretenses, of Harris’ goal to promote his son-in-law Ernie Rose to head coach despite violating University of Minnesota hiring policy and of frustration among players and boosters with Harris’ extended absences while continuing a professional career he implied he would taper off.

University officials, including Athletics Director Joel Maturi, couldn’t comment on the resignation because of University policy about publicly addressing outstanding personnel matters. Harris declined to comment on any aspect of the story when reached by phone.

Shake-up in staff

When Brad James’ departure this spring vacated the director of golf position, which oversees both the men’s and women’s golf teams, Maturi sought help finding a replacement. He contacted Harris, a former Gophers golf and hockey star who went on to successful amateur and pro golf careers, about using his connections in the golf world to help find a successor.

Maturi also mentioned to Harris, according to an August interview Harris did with the Daily, that the position was available to him if he felt his golf career was coming to an end. Harris, 58, said that at some point while trying to find a replacement for James, he realized his competitive days were "unfortunately" winding down and decided to accept Maturi’s offer.

Though he’d never coached before, he beat out then-associate men’s head coach Andrew Tank, another top candidate for the job who soon after took the men’s head coaching position at Iowa State.

Harris informed then-associate women’s head coach Kris Wessinger that if she stayed on, her role would change, multiple sources said. About two weeks after Tank departed for Iowa State, Wessinger left to start the women’s golf program at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul.

Even if Harris wanted to name Rose — who is married to Harris’ daughter and spent the previous season as an assistant coach under James — as Wessinger’s successor, he couldn’t. Like all University Professional and Administrative jobs, a head coaching position requires a bachelor’s degree, which Rose didn’t finish during his playing career at the University of South Carolina. So Harris promoted Rose to "Director of Instruction" — Rose’s title at Windsong Farm Golf Club in Independence, Minn. — and kept him on as an independent contractor rather than a University employee, skirting the qualification rule, sources said.

Reports that Harris was the front-runner for the job came out weeks before his official hiring and unsettled many boosters, according to then-President of the Minnesota Golf Booster Club Phil Ebner. Most apprehensions centered on the relationship between Harris and Rose as well as Harris’ lack of coaching experience, Ebner said.

On July 12, Ebner e-mailed Maturi with concerns over the potential hire and warned that Harris’ "main objective is to hire his son-in-law (Ernie Rose) as men’s coach and eventually have Ernie take over. … Why does someone almost 60 and very wealthy, that has never showed interest in college golf (except that he played for the Gophers in the ‘70s), want to become a coach now? What are his motivations?"

Maturi replied: "John Harris is a candidate and many believe a very viable one. If hired he will getvtobdetermine [sic] his staff but not his successor."

Maturi officially named Harris the director of golf on July 30, capping a process Ebner and others said angered many boosters, caused several to stop donating and led Ebner himself to resign as president of the booster club.

"All [Maturi] listened to was John Harris," Ebner said. "Apparently John Harris was initially the guy that said, ‘I’ll help find the new coach.’ Then he ends up hiring himself."

With the task of filling both associate head coaching positions, Harris set out to find a women’s coach with a bachelor’s degree who could act as a figurehead while Rose did the coaching, Ebner and multiple sources said.

While he’d been upfront with Wessinger and James, who both declined to comment for the story, about his plans to let Rose act as coach, he made no mention of it when he contacted Brenny — who likewise had no coaching experience — about taking the job, multiple sources said.

According to Terrie Purdum, the publisher of Florida Golf Central magazine, for which Brenny writes a fitness column, Brenny thought she was taking "her dream job." She put an  aspiring playing career on hold and moved from North Carolina back Minnesota, where she won the 1998 state championship at Little Falls High School.

When she arrived, however, Harris disallowed her from talking with the team about golf, traveling to matches or recruiting off-campus, sources said. She was relegated to handling paperwork and interacting with players in a mentorship-only role. Well-liked by the players, she joined them each day for their 6 a.m. workouts but had to deflect questions regarding golf to Rose or Harris.

"She seemed to really get along with the girls," said Anna Laorr, the only class of 2011 player committed to the women’s team, in an interview about her recruitment.

Meanwhile Rose, whose $49,500 salary was $5,500 more than Brenny’s (though as a contractor he didn’t receive employee benefits), performed all of the official women’s head coaching duties and was the lone coach that traveled with the team. A YouTube interview posted Nov. 5 by the athletics department even expressly labels Rose as "Women’s Golf Head Coach."

When Ebner e-mailed Maturi on Nov. 14, citing a Golfweek magazine report that Brenny didn’t travel to any tournaments, Maturi responded: "Not certain what your point is - John Harris is the ‘head’ of both programs and allowed to determine who [h]is staff is and what responsibility they have. Interestingly, our Women played the best they EVER have this fall."

The Gophers women finished in the top 10 in each of their tournaments this year. They recorded four of the lowest 54-hole scores in the program’s history.

Laorr said Brenny acted as her host during her on-campus visit, and Tyler Lowenstein, a men’s golf recruit, said Brenny helped lead him around. Both cited impressions of Harris and the coaching staff among their top reasons for choosing Minnesota.

"They’re generous people and they’re great coaches," Lowenstein said. "John [Harris] has more experience than any other coach I’ve met."

Purdue Director of Golf Devon Brouse also expressed admiration for Harris.

"My knowledge of John Harris is he’s a great player and an outstanding person and certainly a gentleman," Brouse said. "I have no reason to believe he’ll be anything but good for the University of Minnesota."

Laorr said Harris came to her house with a scholarship offer in the last week of October. He told Laorr that Brenny had resigned that morning.

According to Purdum, Brenny "was heartbroken."

As of Tuesday night, the team’s official website still listed her as "Associate Head Coach."

Balancing coaching and a pro golf career

Multiple sources, including Ebner, surmised that Harris planned to groom Rose to run the program so he could continue playing professional golf on the Champions Tour, formerly the Senior PGA tour, where he made more than $3 million since 2002.

When Harris told the Daily in August that he took the job because his playing days were in their twilight years, he said he planned to play only "sparingly" the next few years.

Harris’ one-year, $110,000 contract states, "The University and Mr. Harris also acknowledge that he will from time to time participate in professional and amateur golf events which will not interfere with his duties as Director of Golf."

But in his first fall with the team, Harris played in three Champions Tour events, two of which coincided with men’s tournaments. He made $19,823 in those three tournaments and didn’t attend any of the four women’s events with Rose. He also missed National Signing Day while attending a corporate golf event in Florida.

Athletics spokesman Garry Bowman said Harris had already committed to play the events and Maturi approved of his attending.

Ebner said it bothered him and other boosters.

"That’s the other frustrating part," he said. "You’d think the new director of golf would initially want to travel with the team and see how it works, and he played three Champions Tour events with them and was gone quite often. In fact, one of the players said he hadn’t seen him in over three weeks."

For reasons unclear

Harris’ motive for preventing Brenny from coaching remains unclear. Because the team operates as a combined program, the Gophers are allowed four paid coaches. The NCAA allows two paid coaches to travel to tournaments, and since Harris didn’t attend any women’s tournaments, she, too, could have traveled.

Even if he wanted his son-in-law to act as head coach, it’s unclear why Harris didn’t let Brenny travel along as an assistant. If the team wanted to bring her along slowly because she lacked coaching experience — though men’s head coach John Carlson also came in with no experience and has acted as a full head coach — it’s unclear why Harris didn’t consider Brenny traveling along with the team and talking golf with players paramount to her development.

Brenny offered only one remark for this article: "There’s more to this story."

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