Harris resigns amid pending suit

Athletics director Joel Maturi must find a new golf director for the second time in two years.
June 29, 2011

University of Minnesota Director of Golf John Harris resigned Friday after less than a year on the job amid a pending lawsuit alleging discrimination and hiring under false pretenses.

The University issued a press release late Friday afternoon announcing Harris’ decision to step down.

The release made no mention of the lawsuit, and quoted Harris as saying, “My wife and I are looking forward to spending more time on travels and pursuits that are not so focused on golf. I feel that it is best for the University and the golf program for another coach to move forward to build on the current positive performance momentum in the program.”

In a subsequent email to the Pioneer Press, Harris claimed he is being “defamed” by Brenny and her lawyers for financial gain and that his decision to resign was unrelated to the scandal.

The complaint, filed against him and the University’s Board of Regents in January by former Gophers associate women’s golf coach Katie Brenny, alleges that after hiring Brenny last August, Harris forbade her from fully carrying out her duties as an associate head coach and instead deferred those duties to the team’s director of instruction — and Harris’ son-in-law — Ernie Rose.

Harris hired Brenny to serve as a figurehead while he groomed Rose as his heir apparent, said Brenny, her lawyer Donald Mark, Jr. and multiple sources closely connected with the program to the Minnesota Daily last year when it broke the news of Harris’ alleged misconduct.

Brenny, who is openly gay, also alleges that upon learning in September that she is a lesbian, Harris kept her from traveling to any of the women’s team’s four fall tournaments and from instructing the female golfers on anything golf-related.

The lawsuit paints a negative portrait of Harris and the Gophers athletics department.

For example: “Upon learning that Plaintiff [Brenny] had scheduled a team meeting and photograph, Harris informed [Brenny] that he did not want her meeting with the team, telling her, ‘You have nothing to talk to these girls about.’ Harris instructed her to cancel the team meeting and photograph (which [Brenny] did).”

The complaint also alleges that Harris told Brenny to “keep a distance” from the seniors on the team and stick to instructing the freshmen, though only on “boys, life and school,” and nothing related to golf.

Brenny complained on several occasions to athletics department staff, including associate athletics directors Elizabeth Eull and David Crum and Athletics Director Joel Maturi, who allegedly “told [Brenny] that her choices were to either quit or comply with Harris’ demands.”

Brenny resigned Nov. 1, after about two months on the job.

The University could not be reached for comment about the lawsuit.

Around the time he hired Brenny, Harris also was busy recruiting the Gophers 2011-12 golf class, which includes Orono standout Patrick Johnston.

Harris watched Johnston play in a couple tournaments and shared his vision for the future of the Gophers golf program.

“He said some of the kids [had] lost sight of what golf’s all about,” Johnston said of his early conversations with Harris. “His goal was to make sure everybody was having fun.”

Johnston said he learned of Harris’ resignation Friday in an email from associate head coach John Carlson, who led the men’s team under Harris and was hired around the same time as Brenny.

According to Johnston, Carlson pledged in the email that he would remain with the team and that a new director of golf would likely be named within a couple weeks.

As for the Brenny scandal contributing to Harris’ departure, Johnston said, “I feel that that obviously played a role into it.”

But, Johnston said, “All of us [recruits] really like John Harris. We think he’s a great guy [who] really knows what he’s doing. We’re all pretty bummed to not be able to work with him.”

Said Johnston’s fellow recruit, St. Cloud Tech’s Charlie Braniff: “I was just shocked when I heard the news [of Harris’ departure]. I didn’t really know what to think at the time and I still don’t know what to think.”

Like Johnston, Braniff was immediately drawn to Harris when he met him as a recruit.

“The first time I met him, I told everybody, ‘He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met,’”**** Braniff said. “I knew right then and there that I wanted to play for him.”

As Johnston and Braniff adjust to the idea of not playing for the man who recruited them, and with the start of the fall season less than three months away, Maturi now must find a new director of golf for the second time in as many years.

Last year’s process of hiring Harris to replace outgoing golf director Brad James drew the ire of some program boosters who were wary of Harris’ intentions and felt Maturi did not give a fair shot to Gophers assistant Andrew Tank, who now coaches the men’s team at Iowa State.

The Daily reported in December that former Minnesota Golf Booster Club president Phil Ebner emailed Maturi on July 12, warning that Harris — who was nearing 60, had never coached college golf and was playing professionally on the PGA Champions Tour — only wanted to coach the Gophers so he could hire his son-in-law and groom him to take over the program.

Rose, who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree and therefore cannot hold a coaching position, was hired as “director of instruction.”

Maturi did not name an interim director of golf for the current search period, which began immediately following Harris’ resignation.

Athletics department spokesman Garry Bowman did not name any front-running candidates, though he did say Carlson is “encouraged to apply.”

Bowman confirmed that Carlson and Rose are still with the program. “There is a little bit in flux there while the search goes on,” Bowman said, “but those two will continue to do their jobs.”

Bowman said he had no prior knowledge that Harris planned to resign, and that the athletics department did not pressure Harris to do so.

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