Enjoy a Thursday notes column with a focus on Minnesota’s professional basketball franchises.
For many observers the Minnesota Timberwolves player to watch in preseason and beyond this fall will be enigmatic 24-year-old forward-guard Andrew Wiggins. The franchise opens training camp October 1, and in this town the five-year veteran’s name is synonymous with unfulfilled potential.
So flashy his nicknames have included Junior Jordan, Wiggins can prompt gasps from spectators because of his athleticism. He has a career scoring average of 19.4 and that is exceptional by NBA standards. The rest of his stat line, though, is pretty blah and his numbers in categories like assists (2.2 per game) and rebounding (4.3) hint at Wiggins not being a player who makes teammates more productive. His many critics see a high potential player who lacks the focus and intensity to be a star on both offense and defense.
Waiting on Wiggins to consistently perform at a high level seems like part of the franchise DNA. This season he gets a fresh start with new instructors, a revised coaching staff led by Ryan Saunders in his first full season as head coach. Directing from the top is Gersson Rosas, the new president of basketball operations.
How Wiggins prepared for this season may provide a clue as to things could go in the coming months. Team owner Glen Taylor told Sports Headliners he likes the approach of Wiggins who he rewarded with a five-year contract in 2017 that reportedly approaches $150 million. He said Wiggins has invested more effort this offseason than in at least a couple of years.
“Everything has really been positive,” Taylor said. “He’s stayed around (Minneapolis and) worked. Done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s working on the things that we thought were important.
“If he has a tough year (in 2020), or a good year…he has put in the effort. That was the first big step. If he didn’t put in the effort we would really be concerned. Now we’ve gotta see, does that effort translate into results?”
When Rosas was hired last spring many Wolves fans assumed general manager Scott Layden would move on. Layden had been hired by Tom Thibodeau in 2016 when he took over as president of basketball operations and head coach. Speculation was Layden might leave, or be asked to exit, months after Thibodeau’s firing in January of this year.
After hiring Rosas, Taylor told him that Layden was under contract and to decide about his future. Rosas said he had worked with Layden in the past and respected him. “He said, ‘I got no reason to push him out. If he finds another job, if he wants to do something else he thinks would be better, I am okay with that, too.’ “
Layden remains with the Wolves with responsibilities that include evaluating personnel.
The Wolves will train in Taylor’s hometown of Mankato for the first time since 2014. Taylor’s wife Becky will prepare a lasagna dinner and the two will host a team party at their home for players and staff.
Although most media who cover the NBA don’t predict a spot in the playoffs for the Wolves, Taylor is upbeat because of new leadership with Rosas and Saunders, and promising young players like rookie guard Jarrett Culver joining Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the league’s premier centers.
Taylor was elated over the 2019 regular season performance of his other basketball franchise, the WNBA Lynx. Despite a roster reshuffle after losing star players following the 2018 season, the team made the playoffs.
The Lynx are four-time WNBA champions, with the last title coming in 2017. During the past offseason, coach and front office decision maker Cheryl Reeve asked Taylor how to approach the 2019 season, with options that included rebuilding. Taylor had seen Reeve’s past skills to acquire talent and coach the team to high performances. He didn’t want a rebuild.
Taylor told her: “…Cheryl, I got you (to do things). I’d just as soon go for it (not rebuild). I am betting on you. Let’s go for it, and we’ll help.”
Taylor got involved with “recruiting” players to Minneapolis but he downplays the importance of what he did. He told players the Lynx has a culture that distinguishes the franchise from other WNBA organizations. “So you know I did the pitch,” Taylor recalled. “It helped her but I am not implying anybody came because of me.”
It was announced yesterday that Reeve was voted by her peers WNBA Basketball Executive of the Year for her work as the Lynx’s general manager.
Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen led the team in receptions and receiving yards against Green Bay last Sunday, with five catches for 75 yards. He holds the franchise record for most receptions against the Packers, coming up with 12 in two different games.
Thielen, a Minnesota native, was asked if his focus or intent is different in the rivalry games against the Packers. “No, no, not at all,” he told Sports Headliners. “It’s the National Football League. If your emotions aren’t the same for every game, you got a problem. You only have 16 games. You gotta bring it every week.”
Thielen has 212 receptions since 2007, tied for fourth most in the NFL.
The Vikings, 1-1 after their loss to the Packers, play the Oakland Raiders Sunday in Minneapolis. The two franchises met in Super Bowl XI, with the Raiders winning 32-14, and giving the Vikings one of their four Super Bowl losses. Ten individuals associated with that Raiders team, including owner Al Davis and coach John Madden, have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Defending WCHA regular season and playoff champion Minnesota State is the favorite to repeat as league champions in the 10 member conference, receiving nine first-place votes in the eighth annual Mankato Free Press WCHA Preseason Coaches’ Poll and all 10 votes in the WCHA Preseason Media Poll.
Minnesota Twins Luis Arraez and Mitch Garver appear at the Fan HQ Ridgedale store on September 21 and 22 respectively. The Minnesota Wild’s Zach Parise is scheduled there September 30. Details on celebrity appearances at Fanhqstore.com.
The 3-0 football Gophers, who are one of five Big Ten teams with byes this weekend, rank No. 13 in the country in average of time possession at 34:36. Wisconsin is No. 1 at 37:13.
CollegeAD.com reported that through Sunday tickets sold on Vivid averaged $611 for next Saturday’s Georgia-Notre Dame game in Athens. That’s the most expensive college ticket this season, CollegeAd said on Wednesday. By contrast the average for the Wisconsin-Michigan game coming up in Ann Arbor is $184.
September birthdays: Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino turned 37 Monday, and former University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler will be 63 next Monday.
Prep football coaching milestones: Jay Loven, Upsala/Swanville Area, and Tim Kirk, Mountain Lake Area, won their 100th career games last Friday. Loven’s career record is 100-55 in 16 seasons as a head coach at Upsala/Swanville. Kirk is now 100-71 in 17 seasons as a head coach at Mountain Lake/Butterfield-Odin and Mountain Lake Area.
A Monday notes column with a football focus after a weekend that saw the Vikings lose and Golden Gophers win.
The Vikings’ Dalvin Cook ran for 154 yards and had 37 yards in pass receptions in Sunday’s 21-16 loss to the Packers in Green Bay. With an ineffective passing game (Kirk Cousins 14 of 32), the Vikings were a one-dimensional offense running the football and relying on Cook. He had the Packers defense on edge for the whole game, breaking tackles, eluding defenders and running away from them. His best moment was a 75-yard second quarter touchdown run that gave the Vikings some life after falling behind 21-0.
Cook ran for 111 yards in the season opener a week ago Sunday against the Falcons. Minnesota was one-dimensional in that game, too, but the result was better with a 28-12 win over Atlanta. Cook now has 265 yards rushing in two games, averaging 132.5 yards. Over 16 games that 132.5 multiplies to 2,120 yards.
Adrian Peterson holds the franchise single season rushing record with 2,097 yards. Cook, healthy for the first time in his three-season career with the Vikings, is a long shot to reach the lofty level of 2,000 yards but he will receive a lot of carries in an offense committed to run the football. He is one of the NFL’s elite rushers and if he stays healthy is a lock to be the franchise’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Peterson ran for 1,485 in 2015.
Peterson led the team in rushing eight times. His second highest single season total was 1,760 yards, a figure that is also the second best ever for a Viking. At age 24, Cook could chase 1,760 yards this fall and in the seasons ahead.
The Packers started fast in the game, with their offense keeping the Vikings off balance and looking confused. Green Bay’s best receiver, Davante Adams, got away from Minnesota’s best cover man Xavier Rhodes, including for a 39-yard reception on the game’s first play. Adams had seven receptions for 106 yards.
Rhodes had been anticipating the matchup last week. “It’s like a one-on-one rivalry almost,” he told Sports Headliners. “We look forward to playing against each other. He’s a great player, and I am a great player.”
Don Beebe, who played for the Packers and whose son Chad Beebe is the Vikings punt returner and reserve wide receiver, planned to attend Sunday’s game. Would Don cheer for the Packers? “No, not any more,” Chad said with a chuckle.
The 5-foot-9 Beebe, in his second season with the Vikings, is the lightest player on the roster at 183 pounds.
Vikings starting offensive tackle Brian O’Neill, also in his second season with the team, had his 24th birthday Sunday.
Since 2007 the Packers have the second best home record in the NFL, 72-23-2. The Patriots are first at 85-12, while the Vikings are tied for sixth with the Saints at 65-32.
Radio station WTMJ in Milwaukee has been airing Packer games since November of 1929. Viking games have been on KFAN in Minneapolis since 2001.
A lengthy bio about Packers GM Brian Gutekunst on Packers.com includes no reference to his dad John Gutekunst who was the Gophers head coach from 1986-1991.
Despite all their warts in the first three games, the 2019 Gophers are 3-0 after defeating South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern by a total of 13 points. Those three programs have solid pedigrees and each won 10 games or more last season.
Concerns, though, are multiple for the Gophers including the offensive line that during the offseason was hyped but struggled to both run and pass block against Southern last Saturday. The run game was diminished, too, playing without four injured running backs, Shannon Brooks, Mohamed Ibrahim, Rodney Smith and Cam Wiley. Smith and Wiley were injured during Saturday’s game and didn’t return.
Minnesota gifted Southern with four scores, including a fumble return and blocked field goal attempt resulting in touchdowns. Gopher coach P.J. Fleck also set up one of two short scoring drives for the Eagles when late in the second quarter his offense was stopped trying for a first down at the Gopher 34-yard line. A poor decision by Fleck, and one that caused Minnesota’s lead to shrink from 21-13 to 21-20 in the closing minute of the first half.
The Gophers rallied in the last four minutes of the game to overcome a 32-28 Southern lead and win, 35-32. It was the third consecutive game Minnesota came from behind in the fourth quarter, and the comebacks make a statement about the program’s culture. The program that preaches “Row the Boat,” also says, “Yes, we can.”
The Gophers have a bye week before playing at Purdue September 28. Fleck said on WCCO Radio Sunday morning Ibrahim, Smith and Wiley will be ready to play, and Brooks, who has missed the first three games, should be available too.
Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who had 140 yards in receptions and caught the winning touchdown pass Saturday in the victory over Southern, was announced this morning (Monday) as the Big Ten Co-offensive Player of the Week with Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins.
After three weekends of college football, here are Sports Headliners’ power rankings of Big Ten teams: Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Maryland, Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois and Rutgers.
Minnesota native and former state Mr. Basketball Tre Jones told Spun.com recently that he passed on the 2019 NBA Draft and returned for his sophomore season at Duke to win a national championship, and that “there’s a lot of things” he can improve on including his jump shot.
The Twins, short on starting pitching with Michael Pineda suspended, need improvement from veteran Kyle Gibson who in his last six starts since August 8 has a 7.80 ERA, giving up 26 earned runs in 31 innings pitched. From June 25 thru August 3, he was 4-0 with a 3.74 ERA (18 earned runs in 43.1 innings).
Among NCAA schools, the Gopher hockey program has the most alums, 33, attending 2019 NHL training camps. The Minnesota Wild has the most former Gophers with five: Kyle Rau, Tyler Sheehy, Jack Sadek, Nick Seeler and Mat Robson.
Popular former Gophers athletic trainer Roger Schipper, a native of Worthington, Minnesota, was inducted into the Worthington High School Hall of Fame Friday night.
Mike McGee, the Gophers’ offensive line coach in the late 1960s who went on to become athletic director at USC and South Carolina, died last month at age 80. He was a key assistant on Minnesota’s 1967 Big Ten championship team.
The University of Minnesota football team, off to an exciting 2-0 nonconference start after winning one game in the fourth quarter and another in two overtimes, will play its second home game of the season Saturday against Georgia Southern, a team from the Sun Belt Conference and an opponent with the least box office appeal on the seven-game schedule at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers announced a crowd of 49,112 for their home opener August 29 against South Dakota State. The attendance count included thousands of free tickets distributed to U freshmen and 7,150 $10 tickets sold to the public in a 24-hour flash sale. U marketers have been working hard to attract customers not only for appearance and atmosphere at their 50,805 seat stadium, but also because football is the biggest revenue producer in the 23-sports program, and the school’s Athletic Department budget is an annual challenge.
Neither public season tickets nor student season tickets are providing as many guaranteed fans in the stands as the Gophers would like. According to information provided by the U this week after a request by Sports Headliners, the public season tickets total for 2019 is 21,689. Ironically, the total last year was 21,663. The student total is 2,777, a stark contrast to many prior years when the total was thousands of tickets more. Student sales aren’t a significant source of revenue, but it’s interesting that part of the rationale in building an on-campus stadium (opened in 2009) was the argument it would increase attendance by undergraduates.
The U reported 19,170 public season tickets are renewals from last year, meaning close to 90 percent of customers decided to purchase tickets again. The total of new public season tickets is 2,519.
Included in the new sales total is a U innovation this year, The Gopher Pass, which for $199.96 guarantees entry to all seven home dates—even if it’s a standing-room-only space because a game is otherwise sold out. Billed as the “most flexible ticket ever for Gopher football fans,” the U sold 673 of the all-mobile passes.
Marketers are using a strategy of affordability and flexibility in their attempts to attract fans. Public season tickets were promoted this year with prices starting at $35 per game. Mini Plans allowed fans to choose from multi-game ticket packages starting as low as $60. Those sales resulted in 3,310 tickets being sold.
When single game sales were announced in July, the entry price point promoted was $20. The flash sale implemented a week out from the August 29 opener provided even more aggressive single game sales pricing, and although nothing has been announced it could be the U will offer a $10 ticket for a Big Ten game this fall.
With more creativity on flexibility and pricing than ever before, the U is responding to a ticket selling challenge that has been going on for awhile. Football interest has declined since popular head coach Jerry Kill resigned during the 2015 season. The Gophers sold 27,885 public season tickets in 2015, a year when Kill quit after seven games because of health issues. The public season ticket totals in 2016 and 2017 were 22,785 and 22,131 respectively.
A winning team, of course, can bring customers to campus in greater numbers and with more efficiency than discounted tickets and varied marketing efforts. The last two seasons Minnesota’s Big Ten records have been 2-7 and 3-6. The Gophers, however, won two of their last three conference games in 2018 including taking Paul Bunyan’s Axe from Wisconsin. Dating back to 2018 Minnesota has won five of its last six games, with coach P.J. Fleck expected to have his best team in three seasons.
Gaining the public’s attention and attendance is a challenge in this overcrowded sports marketplace with professional sports franchises in baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer. There’s not enough time, interest or money to constantly fill every local venue for those teams, plus Gophers basketball and hockey. That’s why in an age of new and aggressive marketing the time-tested approach is still the best: “Just win, baby!”
The 1904 Gophers, 13-0, are No. 127 on the list of college football’s 150 greatest teams of all-time, per a Tuesday story on ESPN.com. The 1941 Minnesota team, 8-0, is No. 141.
In an August 15 ESPN.com story the Gophers are ranked No. 27 among the 50 greatest college football programs ever, with St. John’s (Collegeville) No. 18.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on how rookie center Garrett Bradbury performed in his first regular season start against the Falcons last Sunday: “He had some ups and downs. They got him a few times backdoor and things like that. But I think for the first time out, it was a good experience for him. I think he’ll continue to get better. He had some really good plays, and then he had some plays that he needs to correct.”
Tim Knudsen, from Maple Lake High School, won his 100th career football game last week with his team’s 20-7 win over Rockford. His career record is now 100-105 in 21 seasons as the head football coach at St. Cloud Cathedral, St. Cloud Apollo and Maple Lake.
Twins rookie Luis Arraez had two hits last night in the team’s loss to Washington and extended his hitting streak to nine games. His longest streak this season is 12 games.
Patrick Klinger, the former Twins marketing executive, runs his own St. Paul-based marketing company and clients include KLN Family Brands of Perham, Minnesota. The third-generation family-owned business is run by former Gopher baseball player Charlie Nelson, who still holds the program’s all-time stolen base record. Two of KLN’s products, Wiley Wallaby Gourmet Licorice and Nutrisource Pet Foods, are official partners of the Yankees. KLN is also a large donor to the Pinky Swear Foundation, a Minneapolis-based non-profit that provides financial and emotional support to kids with cancer and their families.
Klinger said via email he will again host Pinky Swear Day on September 21 at Yankee Stadium. Over 200 pediatric cancer patients, their families, donors, supporters and Yankees fans will occupy three party suites at the stadium for the Yankees game against the Blue Jays. Guests will enjoy food and beverages along with visits from former Yankees and gifts from KLN, the team and Pinky Swear Foundation.
“It’s my favorite day of the year,” Klinger wrote in his email. “To treat kids dealing with cancer and their families to a day at the ballpark is pretty special. The Yankees do an exceptional job making sure it’s a memorable day for all involved.”