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Kill: U Facilities Project Nearly Set

July 31, 2015 - (0) comments

 

Gophers football coach Jerry Kill predicted this morning on the Big Ten Network that work will soon start on a long anticipated new football complex at the University of Minnesota.  The complex—which is expected to include an indoor practice facility and coaches offices—is part of a $190 million athletics project to upgrade facilities for Gophers men and women student-athletes.  The entire project’s start date was delayed in June but Kill expressed no concern today when asked if it will be completed.

“Just got out of meetings…three or four days ago.  We’ll be starting at the latest probably late September, early October,” Kill said from Chicago at a news conference for Big Ten football coaches.  “We’ve already got a finish date where it needs to be finished.

“The hold up there (on the overall project) was probably football a little bit because we wanted to make sure everything we had in there, and what we wanted, was right before you take it any farther.  We want it to be the state-of-the-art.  We don’t want to do something and do it over again.

“It will be started and hopefully part of it will be finished at a year and a half, maybe even quicker.”

Jerry Kill

Jerry Kill

Kill didn’t elaborate on what parts of the athletics facilities project will start first but the implication from his remarks today and in the past about the importance of the football complex leave no doubt about it being at the top of the construction list.  Kill has often referred to the importance of facilities to his recruiting and continued success at Minnesota.

The Gophers existing football complex has long ranked toward the bottom among Big Ten facilities.  Iowa is the latest Big Ten program to move into a new facility.  “The impact it’s had on recruiting has been exciting,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said yesterday.

The Gophers were 5-3 in Big Ten games last season, the program’s best league record since 2003.  There are a lot of predictions the Gophers won’t match last year’s conference record that was part of an overall 8-5 record.

“We keep improving and keep getting better,” Kill said today.  “Last year I said we’d have a better team (than) we had a year ago.  We firmly believe that we’ll be more athletic and a better football team this year.

“But there are lot of other people that are here today that can say the same things but we feel good about our football team and the talent.”

Worth Noting 

Colorado State, the Gophers second opponent of the season, was picked by the media on Wednesday to finish third in the six-team Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference.  Rams wide receiver Rashard Higgins, an All-American candidate, was chosen as the conference’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

Among the storylines at this weekend’s 3M Championship at the TPC in Blaine is whether Tom Lehman can become the first Minnesotan to win the nationally televised senior tour event.  David Graham, a 2015 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame, was asked yesterday about the Alexandria, Minnesota native.

“I think he could very well win,” Graham said.  “He’s one of the dominate players on the Champions Tour.  I would think that if he got off to a good start—which you have to do in any tournament to get into some kind of a rhythm and some kind of a flow—he would certainly be somebody who is more than capable of winning.  No question.”

David Shama & David Graham

David Shama & David Graham

At age 56, this could be the time for Lehman to make a strong run at winning the 3M Championship.  Graham said it’s proven golfers from 51 to 54 years old are the most likely to win on the Champions Tour.  “Statistically, when you get to 55 or 56 you start to go down a little bit,” he said.

Admission and parking are free at this year’s event that includes a promotion with golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.  Graham, too, is playing in the Greats of Golf Challenge on Saturday.  The Champions Tour event here has donated over $23 million to charity since 1993.

Men and women participating in the University of Minnesota’s 23 sports averaged an impressive spring semester GPA of 3.27.  The highest GPA was women’s track at 3.49.  The football team, with the largest number of athletes in any of the 23 programs, had a GPA of 3.04.

The Vikings organization receives keys to the new downtown covered stadium on July 29, 2016.  Shortly after that the team will play two preseason games in U.S. Bank Stadium, a facility boosters are predicting will be the best in the NFL.  Although no preseason dates or opponents have been determined, don’t be surprised if the Vikings play their first two exhibition games on the road and then host a rivalry opponent like the Packers in the preseason home opener.

There will not be a major college baseball team in the country playing in a billion dollar stadium like the Gophers.  Starting in 2017 the Gophers will play early season games in the projected $1.1 billion dollar U.S. Bank Stadium.  Other college baseball teams from the state will use the stadium too.

Timberwolves forward-center Gorgui Dieng is expected to play for Team Africa tomorrow against Team World in the first NBA game ever in Africa.  Dieng, a native of Senegal, is part of an NBA roster of players from Africa that also includes former Wolves forward Luc Mbah a Moute (Cameroon).  The Team World roster includes NBA stars and brothers Marc and Pau Gasol.  The exhibition game from Johannesburg will be televised on ESPN starting at 8 a.m. Minneapolis time.

The 11th annual Little League Wood Bat Tournament is a charitable event for Little League teams ages 10-12.  The tourney began Thursday and 23 teams from the metro area are playing at Lakeview Terrace Park and Lee Park in Robbinsdale, and Isaacson Park (Honeywell Fields) in Golden Valley.  Games are from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. today (Friday) at all three playing sites.  The tournament, which goes through Sunday and exclusively uses wood bats, benefits Baseball in Benin.  The goal is to bring a team from Benin, a small country in West Africa, to participate in next year’s Wood Bat Tournament.  More at BaseballinBenin.org.

That was former Minnesota Daily sports editor Marshall Tanick, for decades a prominent Minneapolis attorney, explaining in an opinion article for the Star Tribune that there is precedent for considering revocation of Bill Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him by George W. Bush.  Tanick, writing in the July 28 Star Tribune, cited examples of organizations that have withdrawn honors in the face of controversy including the 2014 Chicago Little League Baseball team which had its national championship taken away.  Tanick suggested President Barack Obama should consider revocation of Cosby’s honor in light of revelations about the famous comedian’s conduct toward women.

 

Kill Ranks High in Big Ten, More to Do

July 29, 2015 - (0) comments

 

Jerry Kill will be in Chicago late this week for the Big Ten’s annual media days.  After 21 years in coaching, including four-plus at Minnesota, where does he rank compared with the other 13 head coaches in the Big Ten?

The opinion here is that’s an easy question.  Urban Meyer has won national championships at Florida and Ohio State.  Rank him No. 1 in the Big Ten, if not the country.  Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has taken a program that failed for decades and turned it into a national power.  He deserves the No. 2 ranking.  Jim Harbaugh, now at Michigan, pulled off miracles at Stanford, and then revived the NFL’s 49ers.

Give Kill the No. 4 spot among the Big Ten’s coaches.  He has an overall record of 152-99 in five head coaching jobs including Minnesota.  He has won championships and coach of the year awards.  Peers admire his character and would send their sons to play for him.

And yet Kill will be the first to tell you there’s a lot more to accomplish.  He enters his fifth Big Ten season with a below .500 record in conference games, 13-19.  He wants to win a first West Division title and then a Big Ten championship.  Then win some more.

Jerry Kill

Jerry Kill

Those trophies will further elevate Kill’s status among the nation’s better football coaches.  Top 25 rankings of coaches right now are not likely to include Kill.  That’s because there are many superb college head coaches, and most are at schools with more resources and potential to win than Minnesota, and those coaches have won  more games on bigger stages than Kill who came to Minneapolis from Northern Illinois.  The head coaching position here isn’t easy and Minnesota isn’t a sexy name to national authorities who rank the country’s best coaches and may start their lists with Meyer or Alabama’s Nick Saban, and end with Arkansas’s Bret Bielema or Arizona State’s Todd Graham.

The right head coach in the right place at the right time is a huge difference maker in college football.  Hire the wrong guy and even Michigan—the winningest program in college football history—can struggle.  Make a near perfect hire and the ugliest of programs like Baylor emerges as top 10 teams.

Get a guy who can put a staff together, recruit, coach X’s and O’s, motivate, raise money and charm the public, and all of a sudden the change at a losing program is more than cosmetic.  That’s what Kill has done at Minnesota.  His staff is not only good but has been together longer than just about any in recent major college football history.  Kill and staff have identified and recruited talent that has played better than early evaluations predicted.  Part of that success has come from the teaching of fundamentals and techniques, and then on gameday coming up with strategies to maximize success.

In 2013 and 2014 the Gophers had consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2004-2005.  Minnesota’s conference record was 5-3, the best since 2003.   The Gophers had four players selected in last spring’s NFL Draft, the most since 2006.  And the 1950 NFL Draft was the last time the Gophers had four players picked in the first five rounds.

But there’s more to the success story than those numbers.  Kill has insisted players excel in classroom work, and not only behave away from the football field but contribute in the community.  Kill took over a program in 2011 with academic problems and now has many players earning degrees.  Instead of making news because of police reports, the Gophers are publicized for GPA’s and community work.

Kill has become the face of the athletic department.  Big money donors want to help him for projects including his quest to build a new football complex.  Without that facility, it’s unlikely the Gophers can keep him at Minnesota long-term.

Another step forward on the field in 2015 will be huge for Kill and the program.  He and the team are popular but they still struggle for attention following decades of low beam awareness of Gophers football.  The home opener against national championship contender TCU on September 3 isn’t even sold out.  The Gophers public season ticket total has been tracking similar to last season when Minnesota didn’t sell out a single game in 52,525 seat capacity TCF Bank Stadium.

Kill, who has overcome cancer and controlled epilepsy, is a tireless promoter of the football program, the University and charitable causes.  He wills himself through long days and keeps a schedule that few others could manage.  Wherever he goes in the state people tell him how much they like him and his team.  And yet many who applaud him at a banquet or a welcome luncheon don’t show up on Saturdays to watch the Gophers.

That’s not going to change until the Gophers win the Big Ten title or pack their bags for the Rose Bowl, or cement a place in the national rankings of the country’s best teams.  Then more fans will make the Gophers a priority in their sports/entertainment budgets.  Then many will leave their cozy spots in front of HD televisions to watch the Gophers on a cold and windy day late in the season when another Big Ten West Division title is an opportunity to be realized.

Kill knows there’s plenty of work yet to do including stopping that 11-game losing streak against the Badgers, and winning his first bowl game at Minnesota.  Also, push his Big Ten record over .500 before too long, and some day win Minnesota’s first Big Ten championship since 1967.

Do all that and watch Kill’s name land on everybody’s national list of the country’s best coaches.  Those who have had Kill ranked there all along will say, “Welcome to the bandwagon.”

Worth Noting 

BTN and BTN2Go will air live coverage of the Big Ten Conference football coaches’ press conferences on Thursday and Friday.  Kill’s press conference is scheduled for Friday when BTN coverage starts at 8 a.m. Minneapolis time.  The Gophers’ first practice will be August 7.

Lindy’s National College Football Magazine offers its opinion on the nation’s 22 best head coaches and the publication includes four from the Big Ten.  Urban Meyer from Ohio State is No. 2 after No. 1 ranked Nick Saban of Alabama.  Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is No. 5, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio No. 6 and James Franklin of Penn State is No. 18.  Kill didn’t make the list.

How much job pressure and turnover is there in Big Ten coaching?  Kill is about to start his fifth season at Minnesota and among the league’s 13 other coaches only Dantonio, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald have longer tenures at their schools.  Indiana’s Kevin Wilson and Maryland’s Randy Edsall—like Kill—are entering fifth seasons as head coaches at their schools.

News tip: don’t be surprised if the Vikings and Minnesota State announce this week the NFL team will extend its agreement for three years to keep training camp in Mankato.  This is the 50th consecutive year the Vikings have been on the school’s campus for preseason camps.  Only the Packers, who have been at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin for 58 years, have held an NFL training camp at the same location longer.

Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer

Adam Thielen was an obscure college recruit coming out of Detroit Lakes and few Vikings fans thought much about him when he signed with the team as a free agent in 2013.  But Thielen, who played college football at Minnesota State, made the 53-man roster last year as a wide receiver and special teams player.  He has won the admiration of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.  “I think Adam does a lot of great things and he’s a guy that cares an awful lot.  It’s important to him.

“He’s a smart guy and I think he’s continued to improve. …It’s really a tribute to his hard work, his dedication and his determination.”

Zimmer was asked what he learned about training camp last year—his first as a head coach in the NFL.  With his background as a defensive coordinator, Zimmer was initially more in tune with the defense.   “I took notes last year on a lot of different scenarios and I wrote them in a book.  I kind of tried to continue to do that.  Honestly, I feel so much more comfortable (now) with the team, especially the offensive guys and the special teams guys. …

“The other thing that really helps is that basically we have the same coaching staff back for another year.  So the meetings that we have as coaches are a little bit shorter, just because we already know (what) the practice schedule is going to be like.  We might change something here and there, but we don’t have to sit there and discuss a lot of different things. We’re able to get it going and go from there.  I feel more confident about the way we’re doing things.”

 

Joe Mauer Push to .300 Will Be Telling

July 27, 2015 - (0) comments

 

The Twins pursuit of their first year in the playoffs since 2010 will be a major storyline between now and the season’s end October 4, but controversial Joe Mauer’s final batting numbers will be news, too.

Mauer hit .277 last season, the lowest average of his big league career.  After yesterday’s game against the Yankees, he is batting .277 with six home runs and 43 RBI.  What’s encouraging for the Twins’ top paid player is that during his last 30 games the batting average is .327.  He has hit safely in 16 of his last 17 games.

“When the smoke clears I think he’ll be close to that .300 and get his 80, 90 runs driven in,” said Jim Rantz who years ago scouted Mauer for the Twins.  “I don’t know where he’ll be with the power numbers.  He’ll get his doubles (and singles).  Obviously we’re all looking for some extra power, the home runs and so forth.”

With 64 games remaining on the schedule, Mauer will have to hit about .333 the rest of the season to pull the final average up to .300.  A reason for optimism is although Mauer’s career has frequently been impacted by injuries—including his famous concussion in 2013—he is healthy this season, according to various sources.  “I think that concussion stuff is in the past,” said Rantz, who retired in 2012 after several decades as an executive in the Twins farm system.

Mauer came into this season with a lifetime batting average of .319.  That was the seventh highest among players in major league baseball since 1950.  Before switching over to first base last season, Mauer could be mentioned in the same breath with baseball’s greatest catchers ever.  He is the only catcher to win three batting titles and the only one ever among American Leaguers.  He won the 2009 American League MVP Award and also received three consecutive Gold Glove awards for his work behind the plate.

But at 32 and coming off his struggles in 2014 and this year, doubts persist about Mauer’s best days being over.  His slugging percentage used to routinely better .400 and even .500, but it’s now under .400 for a second consecutive season.  His onbase percentages are way down from the glory days, too.  Rantz referred to Mauer’s lack of power, and for sure his six home runs aren’t what is expected from the No. 3 hitter in a major league lineup, and from someone who commands one of baseball’s highest salaries at $23 million per year.

Maybe Mauer is just an old 32 with diminishing reflexes.  His 63 strikeouts already this season are trending way higher than his three batting championship seasons.

Could Mauer have more high level production left than skeptics believe?  Rantz has admired the Minnesota native’s “sweet swing” since Mauer was in high school.  “He’s got the potential to be that hitter like he was,” Rantz said.

Perhaps there is a year or two coming where Mauer can duplicate what his buddy and ex-teammate Justin Morneau did last season with the Rockies.  Morneau, too, has a concussion history and after three consecutive disappointing seasons with the Twins won the National League batting title playing for the Rockies in 2014.

Whatever happens with Mauer in the near future, the results will be newsworthy.

Worth Noting 

Rantz will participate in this weekend’s reunion of the 1965 Twins World Series team.  In 1965 the St. Paul native and former Gopher had just finished managing the Twins’ St. Cloud minor league club when he was asked prior to the World Series to help the Twins public relations department.

“That was (a) pretty good time to join them,” he laughed.  Rantz was the club’s assistant public relations director for a few years before moving to the Twins farm department as an executive.

Reunion activities will be attended by many players who were part of the 1965 club that won the American League pennant before losing to the Dodgers in the World Series.  Activities will include a ceremony on the field prior to the Twins-Mariners game Saturday.  Maria Versalles, granddaughter of 1965 Twins shortstop Zoilo Versalles, and Rick Oliva, son of Twins outfielder Tony Oliva, will sing the National Anthem at Target Field prior to the game.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Twins make a deal soon for 38-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski from the Braves.  The club needs catching and hitting help.  Pierzynski, a former Twin who is hitting .286 with six home runs and 30 RBI, is affordable with a reported one year contract paying him $2 million in 2015.

Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks is a quiet success story, hitting safely in 13 of his last 17 games for a .339 average.  He is hitting .271 after batting .192 and .215 in his first two seasons with the Twins.

Jerry Kill

Jerry Kill

Bob McNamara, an All-American halfback for the Gophers in 1954, died last July and his legacy in Minnesota included fundraising.  Among his endeavors for many years was an annual luncheon in Minneapolis where sports legends helped him raise money for the St. Anthony Athletic Club.  Tonight the Bob McNamara Memorial Legends Dinner will be held at TCF Bank Stadium with proceeds benefitting the Gophers football scholarship in his name.  Former Wayzata player Brandon Lingen, now a tight end with the Gophers, is this year’s scholarship recipient.  Jerry Kill will receive the Bob McNamara Memorial Legends Award because the Gophers head coach exemplifies qualities that characterized McNamara including work ethic, loyalty and generosity.

It’s a common prediction among publications that the Gophers’ football record in the Big Ten this fall will be 4-4 but Collegefootballnews.com projects 5-3.  In its Big Ten predictions last Thursday the website forecast an overall record of 8-4 with a nonconference loss to TCU and league losses to Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Jessica Plant

Jessica Plant

Gopher swimmer Jessica Plant has been selected as the Big Ten Conference co-honoree for the 2015 NCAA Woman of the Year.  The award recognizes graduating female student-athletes for excellence in academics, athletics, community service and leadership.  Plant, who is the Big Ten’s honoree along with Kimberly Dinh from Wisconsin, completed her undergraduate career at Minnesota with a 4.0 GPA and earned degrees in both art history and classical civilizations.  She plans to pursue graduate work at Cornell University in art history and archaeology in the fall.  She was a three-time All-American for the Gophers.  The NCAA Woman of the Year national finalists will be announced in late September with the winner to be recognized on October 18 in Indianapolis.

City Council President Barb Johnson said Minneapolis hopes to have a deal in place for a soccer stadium in the Farmers Market area by sometime in August.  The deal would be with the Bill McGuire ownership group and involve privately financing the stadium.  The plan might include a commitment by the city to ask the state Legislature next year for property tax and sales tax exemptions involving the stadium.

Johnson also told Sports Headliners she and other leaders from the city have been talking with Hennepin County representatives about helping with a stadium deal.  The county, like the city, has a vested interest in tax revenue growth and is a big supporter of the rail system in the area.

 

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