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Former Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys tapped by Washington State to become defensive coordinator

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach congratulates Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys after WSU lost the 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Mike Leach returned to a familiar place to find the next leader of Washington State’s defense.

Tracy Claeys, the ex-Minnesota coach whose team beat the Cougars in the 2016 Holiday Bowl thanks to spectular play on the defensive side of the ball, was hired Monday evening as WSU’s new defensive coordinator.

Claeys, whose last stop was in the Big Ten Conference, replaces Alex Grinch, who left the Cougars for the Big Ten, officially accepting an assistant position Monday morning with Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State. Grinch’s exact role with the Buckeyes is still to be determined.

“Alex did a great job with our defense,” Leach said Monday in a text message to The Spokesman-Review. “We wish him and his family the best, as they go back home to Ohio.”

Hours later, the WSU coach spoke just as highly of Grinch’s replacement – a 24-year coaching veteran who’s spent 15 years in college football as a defensive coordinator with stints at Minnesota, Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Emporia State.

“Tracy comes highly recommended as a tremendous teacher, strategist, and a player’s coach with an impressive body of work that has withstood the test of time,” Leach said in a WSU press release. “We are fortunate to have him at Washington State University.”

Said Claeys in the press release: “I would like to thank Coach Leach and Washington State University for the opportunity to coach the Cougs! I am looking forward to getting to Pullman, working with a great staff and getting to know the players.”

Claeys’ work is all too familiar to Cougar fans – and perhaps even a bit aggravating.

Minnesota’s defense limited WSU to a single touchdown in the ’16 Holiday Bowl and that came in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter. The Golden Gophers suffocated WSU’s Air Raid offense, holding the Cougars to 303 total yards and limiting the ground game to 39 rushing yards on 23 carries.

But the bowl win came amid sexual assualt allegations that resulted in the suspension of 10 Minnesota players. In support of their teammates who they believed were falsely accused, a number of other players boycotted team activities and threatened to skip the Holiday Bowl. They ended their protest in time to suit up for the game in San Diego.

Claeys, who was vocal in his support of the player protest, was fired on Jan. 3, 2017, despite leading the Golden Gophers to a 9-4 record. He then took a hiatus from college football during the 2017 season.

In an editorial piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Claeys expressed remorse for using social media to support the players’ boycott.

“This was too complex and important an issue to address in a 140-character message,” Claeys wrote. “It generated more questions than it answered and likely created more problems than it solved.”

In an external review filed by Dorsey & Whitney law firm, Claeys was blamed for demonstrating “weak leadership,” although the coach displayed regret in the editorial, writing “Could it have been handled more smoothly? Maybe. Could it have gone much worse? Without a doubt.”

The piece was titled “I’d do some things differently, but we accomplished much.”

Many of those accomplishments came in Claeys’ short time as the head honcho in Minneapolis.

In two seasons as a head coach/interim head coach, Claeys led Minnesota to an 11-8 record and won both of his bowl games – the 2016 Holiday Bowl vs. WSU and the 2015 Quick Lane Bowl against Central Michigan.

Claeys replaced ex-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who left the program midway through the 2015 season because of health problems. The Golden Gophers under Claeys made similar strides to the ones WSU made under Grinch.

In 2016, the Golden Gophers ceded an average of 22.1 points – the lowest total since it allowed 21.9 in 2003. In 2011, Claeys’ debut season as defensive coordinator, Minnesota allowed 31.7 points, but since then the most it has allowed in a season is 24.2 points.

Before he was hired as the interim coach at Minnesota in 2015, Claeys was the Golden Gophers’ defensive coordinator for four-plus seasons. He’s also been a DC at Northern Illinois (2008-10), Southern Illinois (2001-07) and Emporia State (1999-2000).

It isn’t the first time Leach has gone to the 2016 Minnesota staff for help on defense.

Only a few weeks after the Holiday Bowl loss to the Golden Gophers, WSU hired ex-Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps to lead the same position group in Pullman. Phelps’ first season in charge of the Cougars’ D-line was a major success. WSU finished 20th in the FBS with 2.85 sacks per game and the Cougars were tied for ninth nationally with 7.9 tackles-for-loss per game.

Phelps worked under Claeys for six years at Minnesota and was his D-line coach at Northern Illinois for two years before that.

Claeys is the first of three hires Leach is expected to make this offseason. WSU is also in the market for a new outside linebackers coach, with Roy Manning’s departure to become Chip Kelly’s special teams coordinator at UCLA. Manning hasn’t been announced by the Bruins yet, but posted a farewell message on Twitter Monday.

Leach is also expected to hire someone with a defensive background to fill the 10th assistant coaching position on his staff.