Thursday, Mar. 22, 2018

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Question Looms on Don Lucia Return

March 20, 2018 - (0) comments


Is Don Lucia going to resign, or soon be told to move on as Gophers men’s hockey coach? A University of Minnesota source told Sports Headliners recently he didn’t know if Lucia will be back next season.

Lucia’s future has been the subject of speculation among media and fans all winter. Randy Johnson’s Star Tribune story Sunday said Gopher athletic director Mark Coyle wouldn’t confirm last week whether Lucia will return. A fan poll earlier this month reported 84 percent favored dismissing the coach, with 16 percent voting to retain him. While talking with several hockey sources in recent weeks, none dismissed the possibility of Lucia’s 19th season being his last.

Minnesota’s record of 19-17-2 (10-12-2 in the Big Ten) wasn’t deserving of an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Two of the last three years the Gophers haven’t qualified for the 16-team tourney that results in four schools qualifying for the Frozen Four in early April and ends with a national champion.

Mark Coyle (photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications)

Coyle and staff members are concerned about fan apathy. Seeing the vast number of empty seats this season at 3M Arena at Mariucci has been startling for a program referred to in the past as “Pride on Ice.” Tickets that either aren’t sold or go unused represent lost revenue to the Athletic Department. Apathy impacts multiple revenue streams including parking, concessions, arena signage and sponsorships.

“There’s concern right now with the lack of interest in Gopher hockey,” former U captain Casey Hankinson told Sports Headliners yesterday. “That’s more troubling to me than whether they make the postseason, or don’t make the postseason. Of course we always want that to be the case, but the old saying ‘Pride on Ice’ doesn’t seem to be there. I think all of us need to figure out how we get that back.”

Lost revenue isn’t something administrators can take casually in the financially challenged Athletic Department. The 25 sports with over 700 male and female student-athletes are highly dependent on just three financially profitable programs—football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey.

The Athletic Department knows the transition of Minnesota from the WCHA to the Big Ten Conference in 2013 was and continues to be unpopular with Gopher fans. Rivalries were impacted and scheduling of games, times, and TV coverage has become less attractive to many fans.

“…Games used to be on TV like clockwork every Friday and Saturday night,” Hankinson said. “Same time, same channel. Easy. Now they (the Gophers) are just too hard to find. There are just too many other things that are on top of people’s minds to go try to find them.”

The Gophers might have the highest priced tickets in college hockey and sometimes aren’t delivering a product justifying the cost. A program accustomed to competing for national championships hasn’t won an NCAA title since 2003. The Gophers’ record this season was two games over .500. A year ago Minnesota finished three games over .500.

It’s a grind being a head college hockey coach and at 59 maybe Lucia will ponder in the days ahead if he has had enough. The Grand Rapids, Minnesota native has been a head coach dating back to his start in 1987 at Alaska-Fairbanks where he stayed for six seasons before moving on to Colorado College in 1993. His first season with the Gophers was 1999-2000. Along the way he’s made a lot of friends and earned a reputation as an outstanding coach and classy person.

Lucia has one season remaining on a contract that officially ends April 30, 2019. That’s not a tenable spot for any coach when he or she deals with recruiting athletes and answering questions about a program’s future. Coyle can dismiss Lucia “without just cause” with 90 days prior written notice, according to the coach’s contract, and the University must pay a $315,000 buyout. It appears no final decision has been made by the University about Lucia who received a contract extension from Coyle in October of 2016.

Lucia is Minnesota’s all-time winningest coach with 457 victories. His 2002 and 2003 teams won consecutive national championships. His teams have won eight regular season conference titles and four postseason championships. He is a four-time conference coach of the year.

This past season ended badly for the Gophers who lost four games on consecutive weekends to Penn State, placing their NCAA Tournament hopes in some jeopardy. Then a couple of days ago the most improbable of developments occurred when six other teams won games that ended Minnesota’s hopes of qualifying for the tournament.

The surprise news about no postseason opportunity added to conversations about the program’s future. Lucia’s future is reportedly discussed even at Northern Michigan where fans are worried about losing Grant Potulny. The former Gopher captain and assistant coach under Lucia led the Wildcats to their most wins since 2006 this winter.

If Coyle decides to make a change it seems likely with the Gophers’ great hockey tradition there will be a push to hire someone with ties to the program like Potulny. Longtime assistant Mike Guentzel, who also is a former Gopher captain, will surely be considered, too, if there is a change. But for now it’s unknown as to who coaches Minnesota hockey next season and beyond.

Whether it is Lucia, or someone else, expectations will rightfully be high. “This should be a top four program nationally,” said a college hockey authority who asked that his name not be used. “It’s the best job in the country to recruit to.”


Wolves Owner Fine with Wiggins

March 18, 2018 - (0) comments


After reading news media reports this month about Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves fans might be wondering about both the past and future of the team’s high-potential 23-year-old guard-forward.

Multiple websites last week reported Wiggins is unhappy about being a “third option” on the team after forward Jimmy Butler and center Karl-Anthony Towns. Until Butler was injured and sidelined in February, Wiggins was less a part of the offense than in the past when Butler was playing in Chicago for the Bulls. Speculation Wiggins might ask for a trade next summer is part of the “third option” story.

Wolves’ owner Glen Taylor spoke to Sports Headliners Friday about Wiggins. “He said he didn’t say it, and that’s the end of it for me,” Taylor said.

1500 ESPN reported on the “third option” story, and also earlier this month said there was reason to believe Taylor wouldn’t allow Wiggins to be included in the 2017 trade that sent Butler to the Wolves for Minnesota’s first round draft choice and guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine. Station talk show hosts were critical of the possibility the owner overruled his basketball authorities in not allowing Wiggins to be included in trade discussions.

Taylor said he didn’t “recall” Wiggins’ name came up in conversations with Chicago. “If they asked for Wiggins, it probably never even got to me,” Taylor said.

Taylor has owned the Wolves since 1995 and watched a lot of basketball. He has his opinions about players. Would he nix a trade, or other potential personnel move the front office is promoting?

“Yeah, and I have in the past,” Taylor said. “…Sometimes coaches and GMs (general managers) fall in love with a guy and we really don’t need that guy.” (As an example, Taylor said there have been instances where he differed in acquiring a player because the skill set didn’t match the roster’s future needs.)

Wiggins is in his fourth season with the Wolves. A former overall No. 1 NBA draft pick, he is often targeted for criticism by media and fans who question the consistency of his effort during games, but not his talent. “I want him to play as hard as he can.” Taylor said. “Do I think that he can play better? I certainly do. He’s got a lot of potential. My expectation is he should do that (play hard) during the whole game.”

Taylor, though, didn’t single out Wiggins when first asked about effort, and he spoke about how coach Tom Thibodeau talks about the need for better work ethic by all his players throughout games. “It appears sometimes that they rest a little bit, they’re tired or something,” Taylor said. “If you’re going to be an elite player, there’s very little time to do that during the game. It’s kind of between games that you’re going to do that (rest).”

There’s opinion throughout the Wolves organization and elsewhere in the NBA that Wiggins’ basketball skills are so exceptional it’s difficult to define his limits. He is an extraordinary athlete and capable of becoming an all-star offensively and defensively.

Wiggins is averaging 17.9 points per game, third best on the team. He is often guarded closely and Taylor believes that creates the possibility of more offensive efficiency, emphasizing that his young star should drive more to the hoop. “I’d rather see him go to the basket and kind of open up that space,” Taylor said.

The Timberwolves made a mega commitment to Wiggins last offseason with a contract extension reported as five-years, $148 million.

Worth Noting

Butler had meniscus surgery on his right knee February 25. He was the team’s best all-around player, and fourth quarter closer, before injured. There are 12 games remaining on the Wolves’ regular season schedule and the team is trying to make the payoffs for the first time since 2004. When will Butler return?

“I don’t think I have anyone on the medical staff who has given me a date,” Taylor said.

Nemanja Bjelica, Butler’s replacement, has at times been impressive including 13 fourth quarter points in last week’s win against the Wizards. Bjelica becomes a restricted free agent in the offseason. Taylor is an admirer of the Serbian, but cautions, “We only have so much money, and we know we have Karl coming up,” he said.

Center Karl-Anthony Towns becomes a restricted free agent during the 2019 offseason. A potential top five player in the NBA, Towns will command a mega contract.

That was former Timberwolves assistant coach Eric Musselman, now head coach of Nevada, on live TV using the f-word in the locker room in celebrating his team’s opening NCAA Tournament win over Texas Friday afternoon.

Isaiah Washington (photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications)

It seems likely Gophers coach Richard Pitino will use his one remaining scholarship on a point guard. Theoretically that person could be a graduate transfer, junior college or high school player. Heading into next season Isaiah Washington is the replacement for Nate Mason at point guard, but Washington was unsteady as a freshman. Even if Washington improves, the Gophers need depth at the position.

It’s timely to follow Courtney Ramey, the five-star prep point guard from Missouri who decommitted from Louisville earlier this winter. He had been recruited by Pitino’s father, former Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and could be interested in the Gophers.

Gopher women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings can achieve the biggest win in her four years at Minnesota tonight if the Gophers can upset Oregon in their second round NCAA Tournament game on the Ducks’ home floor. Minnesota is seeded No. 10 in the Spokane Region, Oregon No. 2. The Gophers have never won a second NCAA Tournament game under Stollings.

Stollings once told Sports Headliners she had simple tastes in celebrating a Gopher win: A trip to Taco Bell and a Mountain Dew.

Good news for the Shake Shack location at Mall of America? New Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins reportedly had a postgame win ritual of stopping at a Shake Shack in the Washington D.C. area, according to


Fans to Put Cousins in Hot Seat

March 15, 2018 - 1 Comment


All the elements are in place for Vikings fans to put more pressure on Kirk Cousins than probably any quarterback in franchise history. An announcement is expected today that the Redskins’ free agent quarterback has signed a reported three-year $84 million contract with Minnesota making him the highest paid at his position in the NFL.

That kind of money—reportedly guaranteed—commands attention and expectations. He’ll get plenty of both from Vikings fans who anticipate immediate success from their new quarterback and old team. Cousins, while regarded as the best free agent QB in the NFL class of 2018, has a losing record against winning teams while playing six seasons in Washington. His leadership skills have also been questioned.

Cousins, though, has produced some of the best individual passing stats in the NFL in recent seasons. At 29 and healthy, he could give the Vikings one of the league’s best quarterbacks for years to come, but he will have to earn his way into the hearts of Minnesota fans.

Case Keenum (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

The majority of fans were fond of Cousins’ three predecessors who departed this week to play quarterback for other teams. Many loved Teddy Bridgewater, and they also liked Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. There were a lot of purple hearts that hoped a couple of them would remain on the roster for next season.

If Cousins starts poorly in the first couple of games—and the Vikings are losing— fans at U.S. Bank Stadium and on social media will be hyper critical. One of the loudest stadiums in the NFL will turn into a boo-box. Cousins likely is experienced enough to handle the emotional drama and remain confident. The potential jeering could be similar to the beat down this fan base gave Christian Ponder in his early and formative seasons. The vote of no confidence didn’t contribute anything positive to Ponder’s development and early washout to his career.

Cousins inherits a team that was one win from the Super Bowl. Most of the coaching staff and personnel are back for the 2018 season—another way of stating expectations are skyscraper high. The Vikings haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 1977, although they’ve had close calls including in 1999 and this year.

In this town passion runs deep for the Vikings. Those emotions include frustration and the fan base doesn’t want to go through any more disappointing seasons or rebuilding projects. Not with how long fans have waited for success, and not when gameday customers at U.S. Bank Stadium are paying premium prices for tickets and concessions. Win now, and win big, is the mentality.

Quarterback is the most important position on an NFL team. Welcome to Purple Land, Mr. Cousins.

Worth Noting

P.J. Fleck said on WCCO Radio Sunday morning he’s been impressed with the leadership qualities of redshirt sophomore quarterback Seth Green, but a position switch is a possibility if that’s the best way to get the athletic 6-4, 229-pound player on the field. Potential positions are on both offense and defense including tight end.

Former Gopher football player Jim Brunzell said via email longtime friend and pro wrestling icon Ric Flair, who spent part of his youth in Edina, is feeling much better after almost dying last year. “He’ll never have a drink again,” Brunzell wrote. ranks incoming Gopher freshman Daniel Oturu the third best prep center in the country. In Pitino’s five years at Minnesota he’s never had a player ranked that high in a position category.

Pitino writing in his March 12 blog about scheduling: “Let’s face it. There’s nothing better than a quality opponent in your building on national TV. The Miami environment (Nov. 29 at Williams Arena) was one of the best crowds since I’ve been here. We have to be able to reward our season ticket holders.”

Dave Stead’s last day assisting with the transition role of Executive Director at the Minnesota State High School League is April 2. “I didn’t want to leave on April Fools’ Day,” joked Stead who has been helping replacement Erich Martens learn the job of Executive Director.

Stead was director for 30 years and will be available as an advisor to the MSHL in the future. Stead was principal at New Ulm High School when he first met Martens who was a student there. Martens, who was the principal at Sauk Rapids High School before joining the MSHSL, is the organization’s seventh Executive Director in its history.

Stead said there is a waiting list of about 2,000 for all-sessions tickets to the Boys’ Class 2A Hockey Tournament held annually at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Gopher athletic director Mark Coyle will be pulling for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament because of his relationship with Wildcat head coach John Calipari. They formed a friendship years ago when Coyle worked in the athletic department at Kentucky and they have stayed in touch.

John Lindahl, who with wife Nancy have been hall of fame benefactors for Gopher athletics, said $2.75 billion has been raised for the $4 billion fundraising campaign by the University of Minnesota scheduled to end in 2021. The Lindahls are co-chairs for “Driven: The University of Minnesota Campaign” raising monies for scholarships, research and other endeavors.

Walt Jocketty, the Minneapolis native who graduated from Marshall-U High School, is executive advisor to Cincinnati Reds CEO Bob Castelleni. Jocketty has been in executive positions since 1980 with the A’s, Cardinals, Reds and Rockies. He was president of the Cardinals from 1994-2007 and held the same title with the Reds from 2008-2016.

Walt’s brother Peter Jocketty, who played hockey for the Gophers and later coached at Washburn, is retired from a career that included working for the Minnesota North Stars.

The Twin Cities Dunkers saluted longtime club administrator Sandy Olson with a luncheon Wednesday at Interlachen Country Club. Almost all the program chairs from Sandy’s 20 years with Dunkers were able to attend the event organized by Dave Mona.


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