Friday, Oct. 28, 2016

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Vikings Could Even ‘Limp’ into Playoffs

October 24, 2016 - (0) comments


The Vikings had a dismal performance in losing to the Eagles yesterday but with a 5-1 record they are positioned to qualify for the playoffs, and possibly a repeat title in the NFC North.

Mistakes on offense and special teams resulted in the team’s first loss of the season in Philadelphia, 21-10. The Vikings’ patchwork offensive line was exploited by the Eagles—creating the possibility quarterback Sam Bradford would sustain a serious and even season-ending injury.

Sam Bradford (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

Sam Bradford (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

Bradford is okay but perhaps the Eagles discovered something schematically other teams can use against the Vikings’ offense. Possible, but Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer would be expected to make schematic adjustments, too, and perhaps with personnel changes. Evident for certain yesterday was the Eagles played at a high level defensively. Philadelphia has given up only 23 total points in three home games this season.

A weak Bears team likely helps the Vikings to a sixth win when the two teams play next Monday night in Chicago. The 1-6 Bears have the worst record among the remaining teams on Minnesota’s schedule. The Vikings close the regular season with the Bears in Minneapolis January 1.

The Vikings also have two games remaining against the Lions (4-3), another division rival. The other opponents are the Cardinals (3-3-1), Colts (3-4), Cowboys (5-1), Jaguars (2-4), Packers (4-2) and Redskins (4-3).

With their remaining schedule (five home, five road) and superb defense, the Vikings figure to win at least five or six more times. Even playing .500 football—and the Vikings should do better than that—gives Minnesota a regular season record of 10-6 and probable spot in the playoffs. Last season the Vikings’ 11-5 record won the NFC North. In 2008 and 2012 Minnesota had 10-6 records, good enough to win the division one year and finish second the other season. The Vikings qualified for the playoffs both years. …

Former Vikings linebacker Jeff Siemon will (for a fee) sign memorabilia and pose for photos on Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. at Southtown Shopping Center in Bloomington. His appearance is part of the two-day Saturday-Sunday Triple Crown Sports Collectibles show. Show hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.  …

Gophers redshirt sophomore running back Rodney Smith was announced as the Big Ten’s Offensive player of the week this morning. He had 257 all-purpose yards in Minnesota’s win last Saturday against Rutgers. That was the most for a Gopher since Troy Stoudermire had 290 against Iowa in 2008. Highlights for Smith included a 94-yeard kickoff return for a touchdown. …

Gophers hockey coach Don Lucia didn’t bring up the subject but told Sports Headliners his uncertain contract status earlier this year cost the program at least one future recruit. He wouldn’t specify a number.

Lucia ended last season with just one more year on his contract. It was thought an extension could be finalized last spring or summer but an agreement for an additional two years wasn’t announced until earlier this month.

“I don’t know why it took so long, to be honest,” Lucia said. “Nothing changed from June when we talked, so it just took that long to get everything back from the University and get it all signed.”

When asked about the delay’s impact on recruiting, Lucia said, “It didn’t help. Let’s put it that way.”

Lucia, 58, has been leading the program since 1999 and is the Gophers’ all-time winningest coach. He is comfortable with the new contract that takes him through the 2018-2019 season. “It’s fine. It’s like anything. In some ways when you coach at this level, you’re always year to year. You do enough, and they want to keep you around. If not, they go in a different direction.

“I still love what I do. I know I am fortunate to be working here. It’s hard to believe this is my 18th year, 30th year as a head coach. It’s nice to be able to go to work and say I really enjoy what I do. I love the kids. This is a fun team to be around. They want to work.”

Lucia and other coaches in the athletic department were reporting to an interim athletic director during the past school year. That negated contract talks for Lucia until new AD Mark Coyle arrived last spring. It also impacted recruiting, although the Gophers do have multiple verbal commitments in place for next season.

Lucia is trying to get the Gophers back in the NCAA Tournament after failing to qualify last season—although Minnesota did win the Big Ten championship. The Gophers’ 6-11 nonconference record was the team’s undoing for the NCAA’s.

This season Minnesota is 2-2 in nonleague games. The Gophers won two games in Alaska against Anchorage and Fairbanks, but were swept last weekend by St. Cloud State. …

Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones

Rumors about the Timberwolves trading Tyus Jones to the Sixers makes sense for guard-desperate Philly. Jones could reunite with boyhood friend and ex-Duke teammate Jahlil Okafor.

Sports Illustrated’s NBA Preview issue predicts the Timberwolves will just miss qualifying for the playoffs, finishing ninth in the 15-team Western Conference. The magazine picks the Warriors to defeat the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Basketball authorities, including the NBA’s general managers, are optimistic about the Timberwolves who were 29-53 last season and haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2004. The league’s GMs said in a survey Minnesota will be the NBA’s most improved team.

The survey named Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns the player most general managers want to start a franchise. They also chose point guard Kris Dunn as most likely to be Rookie of the Year, and the second biggest steal in the draft. It’s a popular view Dunn, selected No. 5 overall in the first round, was the best player in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Sports Illustrated quoted an anonymous NBA scout as saying former Wolves forward Kevin Love wasn’t happy with the Cavaliers last season and likely would have been traded over the summer if the club hadn’t won the league championship in June. …

Greg Eslinger, the former Gopher All-American center inducted last week into the M Club Hall of Fame, weighed close to 300 pounds in college but has lost about 75 pounds and is running marathons. Eslinger has a sales career in Fargo.

Steve Fritz bobblehead (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

Steve Fritz bobblehead (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

Athletic director Steve Fritz is the cover subject of the current University of St. Thomas magazine. A bobblehead photo of Fritz, who coached the 2011 UST men’s basketball team to a national title, is on the cover with the headline “Steve Fritz Is the Ulitmate Tommie.” He is in his 50th school year, arriving at St. Thomas in 1967 as a student and basketball player, and after graduation staying on as an employee in various positions during his career.

Minneapolis-based Taste of the NFL founder Wayne Kostroski said via email that tickets are on sale for the 2017 event in Houston Saturday, February 4. The 26th annual party dedicated to hunger relief in America will be held at the University of Houston and be even more appealing to Minnesotans if the Vikings are playing in Houston’s Super Bowl the next day. More at


Pitino Not Dwelling on Job Security

October 21, 2016 - (0) comments


Richard Pitino sat in his office this week and talked to Sports Headliners about the future and past, including why he doesn’t give much thought to his job security as men’s head basketball coach at Minnesota. He was calm and upbeat speaking about his team that will have an intrasquad scrimmage open to the public at Williams Arena tomorrow following the Gophers’ football game against Rutgers.

Pitino’s Gophers play Bemidji State in a home exhibition game November 3 and then the nonconference schedule begins November 11 at Williams Arena against UL-Lafayette. “I can’t wait for the season to get started,” Pitino said Wednesday.

The beginning of any season is usually anticipated positively, but the months ahead present an unusual opportunity for Pitino, his staff and players to upgrade their collective image and brand. The last couple of years have been that troubling on the court and off.

The 2015-2016 team had a 2-16 Big Ten Conference record, the worst in program history. The season before, a group that stirred anticipation about qualifying for the NCAA Tournament lost too many close games and finished with a 6-12 Big Ten record. The program has also been embarrassed by off-court incidents and player suspensions including the sex video scandal earlier this year. Those details only begin to document the troubles Pitino has seen in two of his three years as head coach.

After Pitino’s team won the NIT Tournament in his first season of 2013-2014, fans expected more big victories but the coach said on Wednesday he knew year three would be difficult because of a roster short on experience. Heading into this fall and winter the Gophers are building a more veteran roster and everyone agrees the talent has been upgraded.

New players to the roster bring a welcome mix of experience and skills. Those players include senior transfer guard Akeem Springs, junior transfer center Reggie Lynch, and three freshmen—guard Amir Coffey, and forwards Eric Curry and Michael Hurt.

Minnesota’s roster consists of four freshmen, five sophomores, five juniors and two seniors. That’s more experience than last year’s team that mostly relied on freshmen and sophomores. “The way that you win in this league is old,” Pitino said. “You gotta be old, and you gotta be experienced.”

The offseason was spent doing more than practicing basketball. Pitino arranged for “seven or eight” speakers to talk with players about non-basketball subjects including sex education, how to handle the pressures of being student-athletes, and job skills to make them hirable after college. Players were also involved with community service work, and Pitino said his guys want to have “people talking good about Gophers basketball again.”

Among the motivational speakers were former Gophers Walter Bond and Richard Coffey (Amir’s dad). Other alumni reached out to help, too, including U alum and NBA player Kris Humphries who hosted the players at his house to talk about his experiences. Pitino said the Gophers were engaged as they listened to presenters. “To their credit they didn’t just go through the motions. They were taking notes. They’re eager to learn. They’re eager to grow and I think they did that this summer.”

Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Pitino won’t talk about a number of wins he expects his team to have. “We’ve been in more close games than a lot of teams, and now we gotta go win them,” he said. “We gotta be disciplined and we gotta work our butts off to do it. It’s (the Big Ten) one of the toughest basketball conferences in college basketball. We’ve gotta do our very, very best to hold it down at home, (and) steal a few on the road.”

The following is a Q&A with the Gophers’ 34-year-old head coach who had a busy offseason in multiple ways including adding a baby daughter to the family with wife Jill, and attending weddings of two siblings.

Q—Are you worried about job security?

A—You try not to worry about those things as a coach. You try to lock in on the things that you can control because there is so much that goes into coaching in today’s world because of social media. There’s so much scrutiny into everything that you do that you try to narrow your focus to your family, your friends and your team. I think I do a pretty good job of that.

Q—What does new athletics director Mark Coyle expect from you?

A—I think he expects us to do things the right way. Work our butts off. Be as transparent as we possibly can with him about where we think we’re going, what we may need from him. He’s been nothing but supportive. He’s been great. I’ve loved working with him.

Q—What was the off-season like for you personally?

A—I think the most challenging thing you go through is an off-season when you don’t have a good year. It weighs on you mentally, big time. You lose a game during the season, you go right back to work. But when you end not the way you want to, it takes awhile to get over.

For me it’s exciting to get back to work, and to get back into that fight. I think our guys are eager, too. We don’t like to let our words do the talking. We like to let our actions speak for them. I think we’re that type of program. I am not a boastful guy but we’re quietly very excited about where we’re at.

Q—The Gophers’ overall record last season was 8-23. What was learned?

A—I think more than anything you learn, you grow, you evolve as a person and as a coach. I think you learn more from losing than you do winning. I thought we’d take a step back in year three (inexperienced roster). We probably took a bigger step back than we needed to but we were young. …There were a lot of young guys playing a lot of big games.

My biggest thing was to keep the players positive. Don’t let negativity and doubt creep into their minds. I thought we did a pretty good job of that. I thought we were playing pretty well at the end (of last season). We just needed to win some close games, and hopefully we break through this year.

Q—Part of the disappointment in 2016 were off-court incidents involving players. What was learned in regard to that?

A—They’re young kids. You’ve got to hold them accountable if they make a mistake and you’ve also got to educate them. I believe we did. We even had to sacrifice some losses in doing that (suspended players), and it was difficult but I believe it was the right thing for them. I believe it was the right thing for the program. I think moving forward they learned from it.

We did a lot over the summer. It’s important for people to look at this program in a positive light. Regardless of wins and losses, it means a lot to me that people value the type of character that we have in this program. We really worked hard over this summer to improve that. They did a great job in the classroom. They did a great job in the community. We brought some speakers in here to educate them.

So that’s our job to do that, and to stick by them. To not abandon guys when they make mistakes, and hopefully our program is stronger from it. I think our guys are very, very eager to show people what they’re all about off the court as well as on the court.

Q—Did you misjudge the character of recruits?

A—You can always get better. It’s not an exact science. You’re always trying to evolve, trying to gather as much information as you possibly can in recruiting. We’ll continue to do that. If we gotta get better, we’ll do it. We don’t have all the answers, we try to find them. We’ll exhaust every option to do that.

Q—Is it realistic to think one day you can lock down the state regarding all the best high school players in Minnesota?

A—I am encouraged (for 2015-2016) because we got the two best players out of the state in Amir Coffey and Michael Hurt. …Reggie Lynch is (also) a local kid and transferred from Illinois State. He was one of their better players (but)…he wanted to come home and play for the state. It really had nothing to do with me.

I am encouraged by (guard) Jarvis Johnson, even though he hasn’t played yet (because of a medical issue). We recruited one of the best players out of the state (in Johnson, a freshman in 2015-2016).

…I love where recruiting is going. It’s important to recruit the state. It’s also important to recruit the best fit for your team at the time.

Q—Williams Arena opened in 1928. Does the building need to be renovated or replaced?

A—The Barn is an iconic building that I would never touch. When I got here we updated the locker room, (and) the players’ lounge. Things like that you can always improve.  The building is terrific.


Vikings QB Cautions about 5-0 Starts

October 19, 2016 - (0) comments


The Vikings are 5-0 and ranked near the top of everybody’s NFL power rankings but the players insist they’re not high on themselves. They know how fast things can change in the NFL because of misfortune including injuries.

Shaun Hill is the No. 2 quarterback on the Vikings, and he was also a reserve in 2003 when Minnesota started the season 6-0. “I’ve been in this situation and I understand that there’s a lot of work yet to be done,” he told Sports Headliners.

The 2003 Vikings didn’t have a defense comparable to the 2016 version and the club lost four consecutive games after starting the season unbeaten. “I just know we led the division until the last play of the game that year, and didn’t do enough to make it to the postseason,” Hill recalled. “It doesn’t matter what your record is this week, it’s a…weekly (challenge), and really, you gotta go into every game as if both teams are 0-0.”

Wide receiver and kick returner Cordarralle Patterson said wherever he goes strangers and friends are hyped about the undefeated Vikings who play the 3-2 Eagles in Philadelphia Sunday afternoon. Patterson said he hears comments at gas stations, in taxis and on airplanes about how great the team is, but he knows fans are fickle.

Here’s what Patterson said fans tell him, and what his perspective is about the praise. “Oh, man, you all so good—5-0, man. We can’t believe it and all this. But two weeks from now (if the Vikings are losing), they be like, oh, man, ya all suck. I thought you all way better than you all was.

Cordarrelle Patterson (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

Cordarrelle Patterson (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

“I am like, duh. Just last week you said how good we is, and now you say we suck. So you can’t really pay attention to what people say. …”

Patterson is convinced teammates are focused and competitive, realizing there are 11 more games to be played before the playoffs. “There’s no selfish guys in this locker room. Everybody wants the next guy to be better than what they is. We like to compete. If you’re not competing, you’re not trying.”

Those comments will resonate with Hill. “I guarantee you this, they don’t hand out any trophies in October,” he said.

Worth Noting

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer talking about former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz who as a rookie has started every game for the Eagles: “…It seems like he understands where the ball is going quickly. He has done a nice job of avoiding pressure in the pocket and using his athletic ability, and he has got a great arm. He looks very accurate to me. He has got a great deep ball. So, he has been impressive.”

Wisconsin lost in overtime Saturday night to Ohio State, 30-23, but Joel Stave told Sports Headliners he believes if the teams played 10 times in Madison, the Badgers would win half the games. Stave, the Badgers starting quarterback last season and now on the Vikings practice squad, attended Saturday night’s game in Madison and watched on the field.

Badgers coach Paul Chryst had the undefeated Buckeyes guessing as to what was going to happen next when Wisconsin had the ball. “I think he’s the best play caller in the country,” Stave said.

For the second consecutive week, players with state of Minnesota ties have been named Big Ten Players of the Week. Badgers junior linebacker Jack Cichy, a native of Somerset, Wisconsin who attended Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, was announced Monday as the Defensive Player of the Week for his career-high 15 tackles (11 solo) against Ohio State. Last week Purdue running back Brian Lankford-Johnson from St. Paul was Freshman of the Week after rushing for 127 yards against Illinois. Johnson signed with the Boilermakers after playing prep football in Palm Bay, Florida.

Former Gophers offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, now an assistant at Michigan, might be among the candidates Purdue considers to fill its head coaching vacancy. A stronger possibility could be former Purdue assistant Brock Spack, now head coach at Illinois State where his wins this year include an upset of Northwestern.

It will be interesting to hear Saint John’s head football coach Gary Fasching speak to the C.O.R.E.S. lunch group Thursday, November 10. The Johnnies are not only nationally ranked and chasing the MIAC title, but Monday it was announced the St. Thomas-Saint John’s game next year will be played at Target Field. The lunch will be at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bloomington, 1114 American Blvd. More information is available by contacting Jim Dotseth, C.O.R.E.S. is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

Patrick Mahomes, the Texas Tech quarterback and son of former Twins pitcher Pat Mahomes, leads all FBS players in total offense at 455.2 yards per game.

Jerry Kill

Jerry Kill

Ex-Gophers quarterback Phil Nelson, now at East Carolina, ranks 19th in the country with 311.8 yards per game. Nelson first left the Gophers for Rutgers and later transferred to East Carolina where he is in his first and last season of eligibility. Former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill helped Nelson transition to East Carolina because of Jeff Compher, the Pirates’ athletics director. When Kill coached at Northern Illinois, Compher was the Huskies’ athletics director and the two built a friendship and mutual admiration.

“At the end of the day that’s how he (Nelson) got there, and that’s how it all worked out,” Kill told Sports Headliners. “Jeff was good enough to believe what I said and took the chance on Philip. He talked a lot about it. The reason Philip is at East Carolina is because of Jeff Compher and what kind of person Jeff Compher is.”

Wide receiver True Thompson, formerly of Armstrong High School, suffered a concussion in August while with the Iowa Western Community College football team, but he has resumed practicing with the team. Thompson, the son of ex-Gophers running back Darrell Thompson, is redshirting this year.

Home court might be the difference tomorrow night when the WNBA Finals are decided at Target Center. The Lynx and Sparks are tied at two wins in the best of five series but Target Center has been a favored place for the Minnesota team. The Lynx is 16-3 this year in its home arena, including playoff games. With a victory the Lynx can win its second consecutive WNBA title and fourth in franchise history.

Owner Glen Taylor told Sports Headliners last month the franchise will have its most profitable year ever, coming in between $1 million and $2 million. Now with the club hosting three games in the WNBA Finals the bottom line should look even better.

Former Gophers All-American LeonardBuddyEdelen, who became the first man to run a marathon faster than two hours and 15 minutes in 1963, is among those selected for the 2016 USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame Class. Edelen, who passed away in 1997, will be posthumously inducted during the second annual Black Tie & Sneakers Gala in New York on November 3.

A native of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, Edelen was a two-time All-American and a two-time Big Ten champion for the Gophers competing for the cross country and track teams in the late 1950s. In 1963 he ran 2:14.28 to win Britain’s Polytechnic Marathon. He finished sixth in the marathon at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.


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