Enjoy a Wednesday notes column:
In one of the most anticipated prep football games in years, 12-0 Lakeville North will play 10-1 Eden Prairie for the Class 6A state championship Friday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Because of past results and reputation, many high school football observers are predicting North will win, and that’s fine with EP head coach Mike Grant.
“We’d like them to think that they should win, (and) that they have the trophy all locked up. …But we don’t feel that way,” Grant told Sports Headliners yesterday. “We just feel like it’s another game.”
Grant refers to the Panthers as a “great team,” and his Eagles lost to them 14-0 in a September game. North has many outstanding players including on the offensive and defensive lines. Bryce Benhart, the 6-9, 300-pound offensive tackle headed to Nebraska, is a marquee name on a huge offensive line. The Mostaert twins, Will and Eli, are forces on the defensive line and verbally committed to North Dakota Sate.
The Panthers totaled five first teamers on yesterday’s Star Tribune All-Metro offensive and defensive units. The Eagles had one, linebacker Collin Penn, although maybe quarterback Cole Kramer, named to the second team, should have been included, too. “With Cole Kramer, we’ve got the best quarterback in the state,” Grant said.
Grant, whose team is the defending 6A champion, knows his players need to be emotionally ready Friday night. “(Otherwise) it will be a quick night for Lakeville North, because if you don’t bring the passion, they’ll steamroll you.”
Grant will try Friday to win his 12th state championship at Eden Prairie. Part of the success formula is making adjustments in games. Grant said, “When we go in (to the game) everyone says what are you going to do? Well, it depends on what they (opponents) do. Because they’re going to make a decision on how to play us and we’ll make a decision on how we’ll attack what they’re doing.”
Asked how he has become so proficient at making in-game adjustments, Grant joked, “Well, I am old. There’s no book on it. Trust me.”
Grant grew up in a football household being around his famous dad, Bud Grant. In college he played for the legendary John Gagliardi at St. John’s. He learned about many things relevant to coaching including flexibility.
“We’re not a textbook team,” Grant said. “We don’t even have a playbook. We’re not a script team. We’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants by design, because I never understood how people scripted. What if they (opponents) lined up a certain way (other than expected)?”
Border numbers: The Packers, who play in Minneapolis Sunday night against the Vikings, are 0-5 in road games this season. The Golden Gophers, who play at Wisconsin on Saturday, haven’t won in Madison since 1994.
A writer could predict more foolish things than the Lions, 4-6, upsetting the NFC North Division leading Bears, 7-3, tomorrow in Detroit. If the Vikings, 5-4-1, defeat the 4-5-1 Packers Sunday that will tighten up the division race and calm the Purple hysteria following Minnesota’s loss last weekend to the Bears.
Most played rivalry in college football? Minnesota and Wisconsin is the answer with game No. 128 coming up Saturday.
It’s being kept quiet but a local group is working to bring the National Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament to Minneapolis next May. The five-day tournament will include dozens of prelim bouts in various weight classes for men and women. All championship bouts would be at the Minneapolis Armory. The city hasn’t hosted the tournament since 1977.
The historic Armory, whose boxing legacy includes appearances by such great fighters as Sugar Ray Robinson, will be the site of four nationally televised boxing events in 2019. That includes a February 23 date featuring Minneapolis welterweight Jamal James, and April 13 match showcasing Osseo middleweight Caleb Truax.
James, who is friends with Twins legend Tony Oliva, will do his heavy bag work and prefight training at a northern Minnesota location. That’s similar to the north woods training preference of the late Scott LeDoux, the well-known Minnesota heavyweight. James is a boxing historian and honors Minnesota fighters of the past with tributes like his training location.
Premier Boxing Events and Fox Sports have included the Armory on a short list of national venues to host world-class bouts in 2019. PBC promoter Al Haymon’s group is said to have a bigger influence over boxing than Don King once held.
The Wild will host a free, open-to-the-public outdoor practice on Saturday at the Recreation Outdoor Center (3700 Monterey Drive) in St. Louis Park. The Wild’s practice is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. and last approximately 45 minutes. Fans are encouraged to arrive early as space is limited. Caribou Coffee, the official coffee of the Wild, will provide free coffee and hot chocolate to spectators.
Phil Esten, who takes over as the University of St. Thomas athletics director in January, will be in town next week to watch the November 30 Tommies-UW-River Falls basketball game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Esten first met Tommies men’s coach John Tauer when the two were students at St. Thomas.
Esten, 46, was a highly regarded administrator at the University of Minnesota years ago when he worked for athletics director Joel Maturi. Esten told Sports Headliners Maturi impressed him with his commitment to “putting values first” regardless of what was popular or easy to do.
Esten’s name has been mentioned in inner circles over the years as a candidate to be the Gophers athletics director. He has been a top administrator in athletic departments at Minnesota, California and Penn State most recently where his duties have included overseeing the football program.
Esten has Midwest roots, growing up in Wisconsin where his dad was a Division III cross country coach who won a national title and numerous conference championships. His grandparents were original Green Bay Packers stockholders and he, too, owns stock.
Esten will succeed Steve Frtiz, who is departing after 27 years as AD at St. Thomas. Esten praised Fritz for “doing a fantastic job” in helping to shape one of the most successful Division III athletic programs for men and women in the nation.
Condolences to family and friends of Ron Simon who passed away earlier this month. The former Gopher tennis player, Minneapolis attorney and pioneer sports agent was a terrific person. I helped research his 1993 book The Game Behind the Game: Negotiating in the Big Leagues. That book told compelling stories about his clients including Kent Hrbek, Kevin McHale and Paul Molitor.
Enjoy a Monday notes column:
The Vikings had the offensive linemen available they wanted for last night’s game against the Bears in Chicago where first place in the NFC North was on the line. Health has been an issue this fall but last night the Vikings started tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill, guards Tom Compton and Mike Remmers, and center Pat Elflein.
The result? Not so good.
“We couldn’t run the ball worth a lick,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said on KFXN-FM after the game.
Minnesota had 22 net yards rushing in the 25-20 loss that sent the Vikings 1.5 games behind Chicago in the division race. The team’s leading rusher was Dalvin Cook with 12 yards.
The offensive line, scrutinized and criticized for years, had minimal push in trying to move a Chicago defensive line and linebackers that are among the best in the NFL. Those defenders also created pressure on Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins when he tried to pass, which was most of the time.
Give the Vikings credit for making adjustments that gave them a chance after trailing 14-0 at halftime. The Vikings were able to contain scrambling quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the second half after he did a reasonable impression of Minnesota legend Fran Tarkenton during the first two quarters. The Vikings went to a no huddle offense that slowed the Bears pass rush in the second half and was a major factor in Minnesota scoring 22 points.
The Vikings’ defense did enough, including causing turnovers, to turn the game’s outcome in Minnesota’s favor. The offense certainly did not and was unable to respond to opportunities. Among the most glaring failures were Cousins missing a wide open Stefon Diggs for a first quarter touchdown, and throwing a second half interception returned for a touchdown.
The Vikings, 5-4-1, haven’t defeated a team with a winning record this season including Chicago at 7-3. There are six games remaining on Minnesota’s schedule including two against teams with winning records—the 7-3 Patriots next month and a season ending rematch with the Bears. The other opponents are at .500 or near that mark.
Gophers senior linebacker Blake Cashman was named the Big Ten’s Co-Defensive Player of the Week this morning. His 20 tackles in Saturday’s loss to Northwestern was not only a TCF Bank Stadium record but the most in a Big Ten regular season game since 2013.
Before Saturday’s Minnesota-Northwestern game at TCF Bank Stadium a street vendor was hoping to sell tickets at $15 each on face value tickets about four times that amount. He was thinking about asking $5 each for the 11 a.m. game where the temperature was 23 degrees at kickoff—the fifth lowest in the stadium’s history.
The announced attendance of 32,134 was the second lowest since the facility opened in 2009. Minnesota announced a crowd of 31,068 for the Purdue game on November 10. Two Sports Headliners sources reported actual attendance was 14,000 to 15,000. If so, it’s certain the actual attendance for last Saturday’s game was similar.
There’s no question cold and rain have made Minnesota home attendance less in recent seasons than if the Gophers played indoors like they did for more than 25 years in the Metrodome. I asked athletic director Mark Coyle last week if he might consider scheduling the last game of the home schedule at U.S. Bank Stadium in future years.
Coyle said he and his colleagues hadn’t discussed the possibility. Then he offered, “…Never say never.”
Jax Café, the Northeast restaurant operating since 1933, was not running buses to the last two Gophers games because of too few customers, according to a sportswriter who has used the service.
For several months Gophers fans were excited to have Jason Bargy as the program’s only four-star recruit in coach P.J. Fleck’s 2019 recruiting class. Bargy, though, quit his high school team this fall and has academic issues that could have prevented him from qualifying for entrance to Minnesota, according to recruiting authority Ryan Burns. News reports also have Bargy involved with a domestic battery charge.
Bargy won’t be coming to Minnesota. With football National Signing Day next month, the Gophers are under pressure to find another quality defensive lineman like Bargy, who has been listed among the best players in Illinois. Burns, publisher of Gopherillustrated, told Sports Headliners the Gophers are talking to potential replacements including Darius Robinson from Michigan and Rashad Cheney from Georgia.
Cheney is a four-star recruit who has turned down Alabama and Georgia. Among interested schools Minnesota will have to beat, Burns believes, are Mississippi and Penn State. “I think Minnesota has a legitimate shot,” Burns said.
Not sure what it says about Les Miles who won a national title at LSU but needed almost two years to land another head job. I am told he aggressively pursued the Gophers’ football coaching job after Tracy Claeys was fired in late December of 2016 and now he is the new head coach at football-pitiful Kansas.
Give Gophers coach Richard Pitino credit for switching to a second half zone defense to help his team win last night’s late game against Texas A&M, 69-64. The Aggies were too easily driving to the basket for scores before Minnesota went to the zone, a defense seldom used by Pitino.
Matthew Hurt, the class of 2018 five-star Rochester basketball recruit, reportedly will wait until next year to choose his college destination but a source I respect believes Kansas is the front-runner.
The Twins may have made MLB history in hiring a coach directly from a college position, with no previous big league experience. The hiring of new pitching coach Wes Johnson from Arkansas is a Twins’ franchise first.
With front office bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine around, it’s a good guess that ex-manager Paul Molitor didn’t have full authority over who he hired as coaches. Maybe new manager Rocco Baldelli is in that spot, too.
If Joe Mauer had decided to play one more season, he could have provided a 2019 Twins marketing theme for selling tickets. A farewell season for the Minnesota native would have appealed to season and single game ticket buyers.
Interested in a Christmas gift suggestion? Twin Cities-based freelance writer Patrick Borzi, with bylines that include the New York Times, offers a fun read in his new book, Minnesota Made Me—a sports anthology with bios of 38 Minnesota athletes (32 are still alive). The theme: How growing up or living in Minnesota shaped them as athletes and people.
Borzi, who is married to Star Tribune sportswriter Rachel Blount, interviewed all the subjects in his book including Minnesota natives like Matt Birk, Tyus Jones, Adam Thielen and Lindsay Whalen, and other fan favorites such as Lou Nanne and Tony Oliva who flourished in the state after coming here.
There are recurring values written about in the book including strong Minnesota character. You read about Thielen using his initial pro football earnings to pay off his student loans, or Whalen’s work ethic including rising before 6 a.m. in her hometown of Hutchinson.
The foreword of the 296-page paperback is written by Sid Hartman, the soon to be 99-year-old Star Tribune columnist who probably would tell you he is “close personal friends” with most of those profiled by Borzi. “Growing up here toughened me up and helped me survive all these years in a very tough business,” Hartman wrote.
More, including order information, at pressboxbooks.com/titles/minnesota-made-me/
In a telephone interview Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said disgruntled Jimmy Butler misled him and he regrets trading for the former Chicago Bulls star. Taylor, though, wouldn’t criticize the man who recommended the 2017 trade—Tom Thibodeau, his president of basketball operations and head coach.
Butler’s childish antics at an expletive-laced practice last month and refusal to play in early season games were centerpieces to his strategy of forcing the Wolves to trade him, which they did several days ago acquiring three players and a future draft choice from the 76ers. It was a difficult trade process for the Wolves and one that Taylor advised Butler about, saying he should play in the games instead of opting out here and there.
“I said it was just necessary for him to do that even if he wanted to be traded,” Taylor told Sports Headliners. “That if you wanted to be traded, you want to put yourself in the best light. Other teams can see your behavior here. And it certainly slowed down the process for us and hurt us in negotiating with other teams in that they were concerned if that behavior would continue on with their team.”
The Wolves’ longtime owner said Butler indicated to him he would play in the games, saying he planned to play with heart while inferring it would be business as usual. Instead, Butler’s theatrics, including his infamous October practice where he reportedly yelled at teammates and Wolves brass, created a drama that became a national story.
“It (the weeks of unpredictable behavior) was certainly something that shouldn’t have happened,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing positive about it at all. I think you just have to assume that type of action by anybody affects the other people on the team. It’s not consistent with team play.”
Upon joining the 76ers this week Butler pronounced himself “an incredible human being.”
Taylor’s reaction? “I probably don’t want to comment,” he answered.
The Wolves had a losing record of 4-9 while Butler was with the team. Minnesota qualified for the playoffs last season and the team’s early record was a disappointment to Taylor who gave up promising guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, plus the No. 7 first round pick in the 2017 draft, to acquire Butler.
“I would say it would never have occurred to me to give up those talented three young men that we did…if we were only talking about a year or two,” Taylor said. “I knew that he (Butler) was under contract for a couple of years and assumed that we would renew that contract.”
Butler was a controversial talent in Chicago who had played part of his career for Thibodeau. Should Thibodeau have known—or had assurances—that in acquiring one of the NBA’s best all-round players he was obtaining a talent who wasn’t making long-term promises of staying in Minneapolis?
“Maybe it just never really occurred to us to ask him that,” Taylor said. “Maybe we just made some assumptions that we shouldn’t have.”
Butler reportedly didn’t like his teammates and didn’t feel appreciated enough by the organization. A one season run was all the loyalty he cared to send Minnesota after the trade that brought him here.
Apparently Thibodeau and Taylor initially had other assumptions but the owner didn’t criticize his basketball leader. “Well, I probably shouldn’t point the finger at anybody else,” Taylor said. “Maybe I should have been as responsible for that as he.”
Taylor didn’t become a billionaire by being sidetracked with problems but he admitted to feeling some relief these days. “Well, I am much better now that it’s concluded (the trade),” he said. “During this whole last seven weeks it was time consuming and also unnerving in the sense that you didn’t know exactly what was going to be the final result.”
Worth Noting on Gophers & Vikings
It’s the City of Lakes versus the Windy City this weekend with the Gophers playing in Minneapolis on Saturday against Northwestern, and the Vikings in Chicago for a Sunday night assignment with the Bears.
Both the Gophers and Vikings were about three point underdogs earlier this week. That’s changed with the Gophers and Northwestern, and the game is now seen as closer to a tossup with wagers perhaps concerned about injuries taking a toll on the Wildcats.
The incentives for the Gophers and Vikings goes beyond Minnesota pride. The Gophers, with a 5-5 overall record, need a sixth win to earn bowl eligibility. The Vikings, 5-3-1, are trying to repeat as NFC North Division champions and four of their remaining seven games are against division rivals including two meetings with the Bears.
The question for the Gophers is what defense will show up at TCF Bank Stadium tomorrow? The unit that gave up 646 yards in a 55-31 loss to lowly Illinois? Or the group that limited explosive Purdue to just 233 yards in a 41-10 Minnesota win last Saturday?
It’s Senior Day tomorrow and among the Gophers playing his last game will be Eden Prairie’s Blake Cashman. His performance against Purdue has to be one of the most impressive ever by a Minnesota linebacker. The coaching staff graded him with a remarkable 58 points, the most ever during head coach P.J. Fleck’s nearly two seasons at Minnesota.
Former Gopher head coach Glen Mason, talking on the Big Ten Network this week, predicted Minnesota will defeat Northwestern and Wisconsin in its last two games of the season.
The Bears have lost three of their last four games against the Vikings but the 2018 Chicago team is revitalized with new or improved players. The Bears are 6-3 and whether the Vikings can leave Chicago late Sunday night in first place could come down to which quarterback is best late in the game.
The nationally televised game is a potential showcase for Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, playing in his first season with the Vikings, and Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky who at 24 is having a breakout season. Cousins has made some pressure plays already this year for the Vikings but in his previous seasons with the Redskins was 4-19 against winning teams. He is 0-2 with the Vikings after losses to the 9-1 Saints and 8-1 Rams. Trubisky, this week’s NFC Offensive Player of the Week after last Sunday’s career best 355 passing yards, talked this fall about the importance of the Bears developing a “killer instinct.”
The game’s outcome could turn on one play including special teams. Three years ago in Chicago Marcus Sherels ran a punt back 65 yards for a touchdown as Minnesota won 23-20. Sherels, 31, along with defensive end Everson Griffen, are the longest tenured players with the club after joining the Vikings in 2010.