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Claeys: U Football in Place to Win

June 30, 2016 - (0) comments


Tracy Claeys sat in his office last week and pronounced the Gopher football program as “very close” to competing for Big Ten titles every year.  Claeys believes that more than five years after head coach Jerry Kill and his assistant coaches arrived in Dinkytown, the resources are in place to challenge for championships in the West Division and advance to the conference’s title game in Indianapolis.

Claeys can look out his office window and see the construction of the Athletes Village project that will include much needed new football facilities.  Better places to practice indoors, train and develop players, and impress recruits with a state-of-the-art work place was the last impediment to overcome in rebuilding a program that hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967, Claeys said.

Officially known as the Football Development Center, there will be two buildings when construction is finished—the indoor practice facility and the performance center, with the latter offering locker room space, team meeting rooms, strength and conditioning equipment, and a recruiting room.

Tracy Claeys

Tracy Claeys

The Gophers already have other major resources in place, including one of college football’s newest stadiums.  The roster of players, Claeys said, has improved over the years because of better recruiting.  Recruiting resources include the vibrant Minneapolis-St. Paul area and fan loyalty because the University is the only major football program in the state.

Claeys joined up with Kill in 1995 as an assistant coach at Saginaw Valley State, handling the defensive line.  When Kill resigned for health reasons as Minnesota’s head coach during the 2015 season, Claeys was promoted from associate head coach-defensive coordinator to interim head coach.  Soon after that the University administration made him the permanent head man with a three-year contract.

With all those years working with Kill, it’s no surprise that when Claeys was asked by Sports Headliners about his vision for the program, he quickly referenced his former boss of more than two decades at various schools including Minnesota.

“Really, it’s just what we’ve been doing with coach Kill,” Claeys said.  “I think that’s why I was with him for so long, for 21 years.  We both had a lot of the same goals and the same principles.  We both wanted the opportunity to coach college football at the highest level that (it) was played, and so we got hired here at the University of Minnesota.  That was kind of both our goals.

“You can ask the kids now (about differences between Kill and him).  There’s a couple personality things they’d probably tell you is different, but for the most part we feel good on the base that we’ve set.  I believe in everything we’ve done with coach Kill.  We’re on the path of what we need to do to be able to compete for a Big Ten championship.  I believe that.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to compete for the Big Ten championship, especially now with the new facility.  That’s the one piece I think we were missing, whether people understand that or not.  The Twin Cities are great.  The school—you  get a great education—and the stadium is tremendous.  We just didn’t have as good a facilities (in the past) where the kids spend 70 to 80 percent of their time day to day—and  we’re going to have that.

“Everybody can argue who has the best (facility) or is going to have the best.  At least we’ll be up there and we’ll have as good a facilities as anybody.  So that should pay huge dividends for us to consistently be able to compete for a Big Ten (title).”

The 2014 Gophers team had a 5-3 Big Ten record, the best at Minnesota since 2003.  Last season things got off track because of injuries and other factors.  The Gophers  were 2-6 in conference games (6-7 overall), but several prominent players return on offense and defense this year including Mitch Leidner who has drawn offseason mention as a senior quarterback prospect for the 2017 NFL Draft.

Claeys wants his teams, starting with the 2016 group, to be in the “discussion” at the end of November each year for a division title and path to Indy for the league’s championship game against the East Division.  “Eventually we gotta get it done, every now and then,” he said.  “Two years ago if we beat Wisconsin in the last game of the season, we go to Indianapolis and play Ohio State.

“I don’t think we’re that far off from where we want to be.  This last season there was a lot of strange things that happened.  I mean injuries were one of them, but then with what happened to coach Kill.  I mean I thought those kids did a tremendous job, and so we didn’t finish out the year in a position that we wanted to be, but you lose seven games and six of those teams win 10 games or more.  That’s a pretty good schedule that you played.  A lot of those games in the fourth quarter we still had opportunities…to win, and so we gotta finish some things better and play better at certain times. …”

Iowa and Wisconsin certainly stand between the Gophers and more success in the West Division.  The Hawkeyes won the division last season, the Badgers the year before.  Minnesota’s record against Iowa since 2000 is 5-11 and the Gophers are winless in Iowa City.  Dating back to 1990, the Gophers are a dismal 5-21 against Wisconsin including 12 consecutive losses beginning in 2004.

Visions of winning Paul Bunyan’s Axe back from the Badgers have turned into nightmares for Gophers fans.  The argument can be made the series between the two programs isn’t even a rivalry any more.  Claeys is annoyed too about all the losing to Wisconsin.

“They made decisions to advance their football program farther, earlier, than what the University of Minnesota did…but I feel like we’re making progress,” Claeys said.  “The first time we show up and play four quarters, and play better than they do for four quarters, than we’ll get that axe back and deserve to win.

“We haven’t been able to do that since we’ve been here.  It bothers the hell out of me.  We’re on our way to try to get that back to where it’s a rivalry.  We gotta win sooner or later for it even to be considered a rivalry anymore.”

There is one trade-off Claeys will make that would have the Gophers continuing to lose games against the Badgers.  “I can also tell you this…I’d sleep pretty good at night if that’s the one game we lose and we still go play for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis.  But there’s no question that for the fans and everybody…it’s always fun to win the rivalry games, and we need to get back on top of that one.”

Worth Noting

Big Ten teams will each play nine conference games this season, not eight as in the past.  Schools in the West Division will play four at home, five on the road.  East Division teams have five at home, four on the road.  That scheduling flips next year, and Claeys suggests the unbalanced home and away games will factor into final results.

Almost all of the Gophers’ players had recruiting rankings of three stars or less coming out of high school.  “People think we don’t try and recruit four and five-star players,” Claeys said.  “That’s not true but there has to be an interest both ways.  You recruit the kids that want to be here.”

True Thompson, formerly of Armstrong High School, plans to play football this fall as a wide receiver for Iowa Western Community College.  True is the son of Gophers’ career leading rusher Darrell Thompson.

Race Thompson, who will be a junior this fall at Armstrong, is an outstanding 6-8 basketball player who has received scholarship offers from multiple schools including Minnesota and Marquette, according to his dad.

Former Gophers football player Jim Brunzell, who made a career as a professional wrestling star, will sign copies of his Matlands book at the St. Paul Saints baseball game July 17.  “I’m also throwing out the first pitch!” Brunzell wrote via email.  “I’ll do my best impression of Ryne Duren, flame-thrower from the Yankees, early 60’s.”


100th Birthday Humbles John Kundla

June 28, 2016 - 1 Comment


Former Gophers basketball players and family paid tribute to John Kundla yesterday at his assisted living residence in northeast Minneapolis.  The former Gophers and Minneapolis Lakers coach turns 100 on July 3.

Kundla played for the Gophers in the late 1930s and coached at his alma mater from 1959-1968.  Ex-Gophers Paul Presthus, Bill Davis, Don Linehan, Al Nuness and Larry Overskei presented the coach with a No. 100 Minnesota jersey.  “We celebrated the 100th birthday of our coach, friend and a true gentleman,” Presthus said.

Kundla has lived a remarkable life.  He coached the Lakers to five professional basketball championships from 1949-1954.  Only Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach have won more titles.  Kundla’s players included center George Mikan, who is often recognized as the greatest basketball player during the first half of the 20th century.

While coaching the Gophers, Kundla led teams to second and third place finishes in the Big Ten but never a championship.  He helped pioneer opportunities for black players at Minnesota and in the Big Ten.  Kundla’s 1964-65 team had three African-American starters—something that was unusual in the 1960s.  Those starters were Lou Hudson and Archie Clark, who both became outstanding NBA players, and Don Yates who was another athletic contributor for Kundla.

Kundla’s son Tom said yesterday his dad spoke out against segregation in the 1950s when he was with the Lakers.  “I couldn’t have had a better role model,” Tom said.

Overskei, Davis, Presthus, Nuness, Linehan, Wilson surround the coach.

Overskei, Davis, Presthus, Nuness, Linehan, Wilson surround the coach.

Coaches are known for a “my way or the highway” mentality, but that wasn’t Kundla’s personality.  He coached with a caring manner and his demeanor is recalled with fondness by former players.

A native of Minneapolis, Kundla attended the old Central High School on the city’s south side.  He was a starting forward for the Gophers in the late 1930s.  After college he coached at DeLaSalle High School and St. Thomas before becoming the Lakers coach in 1948 for an annual salary of $6,000.

A June 2nd  online issue of the New York Times included a lengthy story about Kundla, referring to him as the oldest living hall of famer in any of the four major American sports.  Louie Lazar’s article said the former coach is still active despite being in a wheelchair and having hearing aids.

Kundla lives now at the Main Street Lodge, and he has almost come home again.  He is only six blocks from the apartment building he lived in when he first coached the Lakers.

Able to dress and cook breakfast for himself, Kundla plays bingo and cribbage.  He credits being a gym teacher with forming good health habits.  “I still to this day ride the (exercise) bike to stay in shape,” he said yesterday.

Karen Rodberg, Kundla’s daughter, joked (I think) that if yesterday afternoon had been a bingo day her dad wouldn’t have been available for the party.  Yes, Kundla’s competitive nature is still on display when enjoying bingo or cribbage.

Jim Kundla, another son, lives near his dad’s residence and the two play cribbage every day.  The older Kundla said the game is good for his mind.  “We enjoy playing and it also kills time,” he said.  “Jim is a great cribbage player and I learned a lot from him.”

The soon to be centenarian wouldn’t boast about his cribbage and bingo skills.  Not bragging and giving credit to others is a trait that goes back to coaching days with the Lakers and the Gophers.  It was the players that deserved credit, not the coach.

“He doesn’t pat himself on the back,” Presthus said.  “He taught us a lot of life lessons.”

Presthus played for the Gophers in the mid-1960s and as the years have passed he has come to appreciate his former coach more than ever.  “He did things the right way,” Presthus said.

That included encouraging players to give best efforts and attend classes.  But there was something else that was part of Kundla’s “DNA” and it makes an impression on Presthus to this day.  “Family was always No. 1,” Presthus said.  “Faith, family and friends.  Those are the three things (with Kundla).”

Kundla’s wife Marie died several years ago but his children share major roles in his life.  They now have the opportunity to give back to the father they admire so much.  “I couldn’t have had better parents,” Tom said.

The group at the party included not only family and ex-Gophers players but former U trainer Jim Marshall and ex-basketball student manager John Bell Wilson.  Yesterday there was reminiscing, photo taking and cupcakes with the number “100” on each of them.  There were also a lot of smiles and congratulations in the room.

“It was pretty nice of them to come,” the old coach said.  “I sure appreciate the honor.  I never thought it would be a hundred years.  What a break!”

Worth Noting

Gophers coach Richard Pitino will headline Thursday night’s “Post Time” fundraiser at Canterbury Park.  The event is open to the public and is organized by the Golden Dunkers organization that has supported Gophers basketball for more than 40 years.  Fans can learn more about an evening of basketball conversation, horse racing, and food and beverage hospitality at

Jimmy Williams was one of the most effective recruiters in the history of Gophers basketball.  After he left Minnesota in 1986 his coaching stops included Nebraska, and while with the Cornhuskers he recruited and instructed Tyronn Lue who now is head coach of the 2016 NBA champion Cavs.

It looks like almost $100 million in fundraising has been committed for the University of Minnesota Athletes Village project.  That’s about two-thirds of the necessary total for the project that is already under construction.  Part of the project is the new football facilities which the Gophers are likely to occupy by 2018.

Former Gophers and Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz is rebuilding his Orlando home that was struck by lightning last year.  Holtz, 79, coached the Gophers in 1984 and 1985 and still has friends in Minnesota.

Among those Minnesota friends is Minneapolis businessman Harvey Mackay who wrote about the late Muhammad Ali in his syndicated newspaper column last week.  In a story headlined “Lessons Learned from The Champ,” Mackay referenced the “1,000 megawatt smile” of Ali.  “He knew smiling was the universal language,” Mackay wrote.


Mantle Made 1956 Year for the Ages

June 24, 2016 - (0) comments


The Twins play the Yankees tonight in New York but there is something else going on in Yankee Stadium more important to me.  The Yankees are giving away 18,000 Mickey Mantle Triple Crown Bobbleheads to fans.  It was 60 years ago, in 1956, that Mantle won the American League’s Triple Crown, achieving the rare distinction of leading his rivals in batting average, home runs and RBI.

This is a timely day to pay tribute to The Mick.

Count me among the millions of adolescents who idolized the Yankees superstar centerfielder while growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s.  I had heroes like Willie Mays, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and a handful of Gopher greats including Bobby Bell and Sandy Stephens.  But no one was bigger to me—and much of America’s youth—than the incomparable Mantle.

Mickey was a god to us.  He was 5-foot-11 and weighed about 200 pounds.  Baseball people said he was built like “concrete” and moved faster than light.  I can’t remember who—maybe it was Billy Crystal or Bob Costas—who also said no ball player ever filled out a uniform like Mantle wore his.  With bulging forearms and a sculpted body, when No. 7 walked toward the plate fans were in awe.

Crystal and Costas—just like the John Q. Publics of the world—revered Mantle who was small town handsome with his blue eyes, blonde hair and impish smile.  I read that to this day Costas, now 64, carries a Mantle baseball card in his wallet.  My best Mantle cards are in a safe deposit box and I probably have lots of company on that.

In 1956 The Mick was at a tipping point in his career.  He joined the Yankees in 1951, not yet 20 years old.  The hype was already starting about this phenomenal talent from small town Commerce, Oklahoma who might just become the greatest Yankee of all time.  More heroic some day than Babe Ruth.  More loved than Lou Gehrig.  A better all around player than Joe DiMaggio.

Mantle was going to make a habit of hitting 500 foot home runs.  He was going to break Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs.  Not only would he be the greatest switch hitter in baseball history, he would run to first base faster than anyone in the game.  He would steal bases with ease, and run down sure doubles, triples and home runs in center field where he replaced the graceful and sure-handed DiMaggio.

By the spring of 1956 The Mick was damn good but he wasn’t Superman.  He had led the American League in home runs in 1955 and three times helped the Yankees advance to and win the World Series.  He was a regular on the American League All-Star roster, but not the greatest player in the game on his way to being the best ever.

Nope.  Not yet, and maybe never.

Frustrated Yankees fans—with dysfunctional expectations—sometimes greeted Mickey’s plate appearances with boos.  The shy kid from Oklahoma was more mortal than Ruthian, and in the early Mantle years the paying customers in at Yankee Stadium weren’t happy.  In 1956, however, the Bronx boo-birds went bye-bye.

That year the 24-year-old Mantle apparently decided to ease up on himself and all the pressure he had felt in the past playing under the biggest of microscopes in New York.  The results were amazing and they fulfilled the daydreams of hero worshipping fans.  Mantle hit 52 home runs, drove in 130 runs and batted .353.

It was and remains one of the greatest seasons ever for combining power and batting average.  His slugging percentage was a career-high .705.  Mantle excelled in the field and on the bases, too, making big plays for a Yankees team that won the American League pennant and World Series.  Mantle won the first of his three career AL MVP awards, and his 1956 season was so admired he was honored with national athlete of the year awards.

Many who saw Mantle in 1956—ballplayers, writers and probably even little kids—will swear to this:  “Nobody ever played baseball better than Mickey Charles Mantle that year.”

In 1956 The Mick was the epitome of the five-tool player: run, hit for average and power, field and throw.  It was his greatest of 18 seasons in the major leagues, and even inspired him after retirement to write a book about that year—My Favorite Summer 1956.

Mantle would go on to have several other worthy seasons including 1957 when he hit a career high .365.  But there would only be a single other “one for the ages” summer for the great hall of fame slugger.  That came in 1961 when Mantle and teammate Roger Maris chased Ruth’s home run record.

By then Mantle was worshipped even by the impossible to please Yankees fans.  It was Maris that was greeted with boos at Yankee Stadium, not The Mick.  The gods of baseball, the fans thought, should let Mantle break Ruth’s record, not Maris who had played for two other big league organizations before joining the Yankees and was viewed as unworthy of comparisons to Mantle and The Babe.

The left-handed hitting Maris, having a career season and with a gifted ability to pull the ball toward the short right field foul pole at Yankee Stadium, broke Ruth’s record by hitting 61 home runs in 1961.  An abscessed hip hospitalized Mantle late in the season and slowed his chase of Ruth and Maris.  The Mick finished the season with 54 home runs, and left much of America disappointed that it was the Hibbing-born Maris who was baseball’s new home run king.

Mantle’s career was characterized by bad luck and physical frailties.  Even prior to reaching the big leagues he was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone.  In Mantle’s rookie year of 1951 he badly hurt his knee on a play in the outfield during the World Series. Severe knee issues dogged his entire career.  He also had hamstring problems and other challenges including a drinking problem and carousing.

Who knows how great Mantle might have been?  He had almost constant problems with his body, at times wrapping himself in so much athletic tape he looked like a mummy turned ballplayer.  He likely believed the boozing helped him deal with the pressures and insecurities of his fame.  Then, too, there was a family history of males dying young from cancer.  That made The Mick want to party and live for the day—even at the expense of playing at his best.

But that wasn’t the stuff we heard much about back when Mantle was a magazine cover boy and Teresa Brewer was cooing a record in 1956 called “I Love Mickey.”  Writers covered up the problems and demons afflicting sports heroes back in the 1950s and 1960s.

That made it easier for a little kid in south Minneapolis to worship No. 7.  I wanted to be just like Mantle.  I became a switch hitter, and I loved the good fortune that my nickname from birth was Mik.  In a schoolyard, out in the street or in the backyard, I tried to be Mickey.

When Mantle and the Yankees came to town to play the Twins starting in 1961, the series brought more excitement than Christmas.  Mantle, Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard and all the rest.  This was baseball’s greatest dynasty led by baseball’s greatest hero.  Elvis and The Beatles were big—Mantle and the Yankees were bigger.

I collected every Mantle baseball trading card I could find.  Still own them all.  Maybe a couple dozen Mantles from the late 1950s and 1960s.  Even now there is so much enjoyment in looking at The Mick and recalling how great he was—and how much more he might have been.

Wouldn’t trade the cards or the memories for anything—not even a Triple Crown Bobblehead.


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