Flip Saunders had so many friends and admirers in Minnesota. Many of them must be thinking the same thing that is going through my mind as the Timberwolves await their season opener in San Antonio tonight against the Spurs:
Flip would not be happy with the state of the franchise he rebuilt before unexpectedly passing away at age 60 on October 29, 2015.
The Wolves are a mess and an embarrassment three years after Flip had started a process to try and position them for annual playoff runs and perhaps one day an NBA championship. He had been hired by franchise owner Glen Taylor to resurrect the franchise in 2013 and by the fall of 2015 the roster was young but promising led by high potential talents Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, plus promising youthful role players like Tyus Jones.
Now the Wolves have an older, less promising and seemingly disgruntled roster, mostly because of Tom Thibodeau, who wields similar power to what Flip had. Thibodeau traded for temperamental Jimmy Butler in 2017—sending away LaVine, Kris Dunn (2016 first rounder, fifth pick) and a 2017 first round draft choice to the Bulls. After one season in Minnesota, Butler wants out and is willing to do and say extreme things to agitate Thibodeau and Taylor enough to trade him away.
The Bulls thought enough of LaVine, 23, to sign the shooting guard to a four-year, $78 million new deal during the last offseason. Dunn, 24, improved in his second season in the NBA, averaging 13.4 points and 6 assists as the Bulls’ point guard. Chicago used the first round draft choice to acquire Lauri Markkanen, a forward who was one of the NBA’s best rookies last season.
Bulls fans could be chuckling over the trade with the Wolves because their team added young potential in Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen. The deal allowed the Bulls to move on from Butler who reportedly was high maintenance in Chicago, too. Thibobeau gambled on a high quality two-way talent in the 29-year-old Butler who reportedly wants out of a Timberwolves uniform because the organization hasn’t shown him enough appreciation.
Butler didn’t participate in any preseason games as he dramatized his desire to be traded, but tonight he is expected to play in the regular season opener before the Wolves come home to meet the Cavs on Friday at Target Center. He is part of a roster that Thibodeau has reshuffled to make more experienced, not only with Butler but also Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and Anthony Tolliver, who are all 33 years old, and Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, who are both 30. Those are all starters or key contributors off the bench.
Flip had a vision of stockpiling young talent and taking a patient approach. It appears Thibodeau has been intent for awhile on a commitment to win as soon as possible. If Flip had a five year plan, Thibodeau’s win now approach seems more like five months.
The problem is things are going in reverse with Butler being critical of Wolves teammates and wanting out. He reportedly expressed his desire over the summer to move on, and if true Thibodeau should have traded him awhile ago rather than put the franchise through the current drama.
We will know before long what kind of future Butler has with the Wolves—if any—and the type of season the team will experience in 2018-19, hopefully adding value to the roster by trading him. Butler is a top 15 NBA player and he was the difference maker last season in the Wolves making the playoffs for the first time since 2004 but it’s nearly impossible to believe he will be on the roster when the league’s trading deadline comes up on February 7.
During this preseason, without Butler and with all the negativity surrounding the club, the Wolves didn’t look anything like a playoff team. At times they appeared downright disinterested and awful like in their final preseason game last Friday night in Milwaukee when they gave up 84 first half points to the Bucks.
Flip would have been upset watching that. He had invested so much of his basketball life into Minnesota’s professional team. His first round of duty with the Wolves started in the mid-1990s when he was hired in the front office but soon he became head coach. He marched the sidelines during the franchise’s best years and was unfairly dismissed as coach during the 2004-05 season.
When Flip came back to the Wolves about eight years later he was in a power position as president of basketball operations. I think if Flip had lived he would have eventually put together a group of investors, perhaps including Kevin Garnett, to buy the team from Taylor. Flip was a part-owner of the franchise at the time of his death.
That move would have been the ultimate step in Flip’s basketball life. The former University of Minnesota point guard was a basketball grinder as a player, executive and coach. He worked his way up through the lower levels of the game and even when living away from Minnesota kept a home here.
Flip loved the people and basketball in this state, including the Gophers and Timberwolves. He was always ready to do whatever was needed, whether it was Xs and Os, college scouting, NBA trades, pitching potential owners, or marketing his team to the fans and media with public appearances and news gatherings.
Flip had a long term plan to finally make the Timberwolves great but there is doubt whether those who have followed him, primarily Thibodeau, are up to carrying on his legacy.
A Monday notes column including results of time spent yesterday at U.S. Bank Stadium asking about Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen.
Griffen has been on leave since last month because of mental health issues. His whereabouts are a closely guarded secret, as they should be as he receives professional consultation. This is a serious situation with one Vikings source telling Sports Headliners, “He’s got a lot of demons.”
The Vikings come off of a bye week when they play the NFC North Division leading Bears on November 18, and there’s some opinion Griffen could return for that game.
However another source close to the organization said, “He might not ever be back.”
Ever, as the saying goes, is a long time, and Griffen is only 30 years old and an important part of the defense. He finished fourth in the NFL last season with a career-best 13 sacks and was named second team All-Pro.
Griffen is an emotional player and there is an upside to that with a source saying the Vikings not only miss his physical skills, but also “the goofy leadership” of the nine-year pro. That same source, a person with decades of experience in the NFL, said Griffen’s replacement, third year pro Stephen Weatherly, has been better than the team expected.
The Vikings’ top performer now at defensive end is Danielle Hunter. The 23-year-old is becoming a star and has learned from Griffen and others. “We all miss him out here. As a defense, we hope he is doing good and we hope to see him soon,” said Hunter.
The coaching staff of the Cardinals team the Vikings defeated yesterday includes Steve Heiden from Rushford, Minnesota. The assistant offensive line coach began his coaching career in the NFL at Concordia in St. Paul in 2012 after 11 seasons in the NFL.
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim from the Gophers was announced this morning as the Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his 157-yard performance last Saturday in Minnesota’s loss to Ohio State.
Word is the 2019 St. Thomas-St. John’s football game will be played at the Minnesota United’s new Allianz Field. The 2017 game at Target Field had announced attendance of 37,355, a Division III record crowd.
The storied rivalry went to another level last Saturday when the Johnnies paid tribute to their legendary coach John Gagliardi, who died earlier this month. The Johnnies ended the Tommies’ 31-game conference win streak in a matchup between two of Division III’s best football teams.
MIAC Commissioner Dan McKane on Gagliardi’s legacy: “There will never be another John Gagliardi. He was a pioneer in the way he approached his craft and it made him a household name in the world of college football. More important than his success on the field, however, was the impact he had on literally thousands of young men and women over the years. …Everyone who was fortunate enough to cross paths with John was better for it and his light in our world will be deeply missed.”
Interesting future dates on the calendar? If the Timberwolves trade Jimmy Butler to the Heat, they won’t see him at Target Center until near April Fools’ Day. The Heat comes to Minneapolis for an April 5 game, and the Wolves play in Miami on December 30.
Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino hosts his annual reception to raise awareness and fight cancer from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. November 4 at Interlachen Country Club in Edina. Pitino said he has raised a “couple hundred thousand dollars” in the past. “It’s been a fun event to be a part of,” he said.
More information, including about tickets and sponsorships, is available at coachesvscancerminnesota.org.
Tickets for the April 6 Final Four and April 8 NCAA title game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis will be hard to come by but Final Four Friday on April 5 will offer free admission to see how the facility has been modified for basketball and also watch the teams practice.
It could be quite a homecoming for Minneapolis area basketball players if Athlon magazine nails its 2019 Final Four prediction of participating teams—Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Gonzaga. Geno Crandall and Reid Travis now play for Gonzaga and Kentucky respectively, but in high school attended DeLaSalle. Tre Jones of Duke is a former Apple Valley Eagle.
Eric Musselman, son of former Gophers and Timberwolves coach Bill Musselman, has turned Nevada into a national power, with Athlon placing the Wolf Pack No. 5 in its preseason national rankings after Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas.
Minneapolis and U.S. Bank Stadium events promoters have ongoing interest in bringing the college football national championship game to Minneapolis.
Former Twins second baseman Brian Dozier has struggled at the plate since joining the Dodgers and is hitting .133 in his last 30 games. Dozier has limited plate appearances in the playoffs this fall, with four at bats and one hit.
University of Minnesota volleyball head coach Hugh McCutcheon will be inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame on Nov. 10 in Holyoke, Mass., the location of the sport’s birthplace. Among his many achievements are coaching the 2008 U.S. men to the Olympic gold medal, and the 2012 American women to the silver.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” yesterday that Maturi Pavilion, where McCutcheon’s teams play, will have air conditioning installed next year.
Among those on the University of Minnesota Presidential Search Committee to find a replacement for Eric Kaler is former Gophers football player and Minneapolis businessman Mark Sheffert who is renowned for his leadership and organizational savvy.
There’s been talk for awhile that Richard Pitino will pursue the right opportunity to move on from his position as head basketball coach for the men’s program at the University of Minnesota. It’s been gossiped that he doesn’t like this area and welcomes the thought of moving out East to live and coach.
Pitino’s hometown is Boston. He attended high school at St. Sebastian’s in Needham, Mass. After college at Providence he had assistant coaching experiences at Northeastern, Duquesne, Louisville and Florida before becoming, at 29 years old, head coach for Florida Atlantic. Family and friends in the East live a long way from Minneapolis.
This fall Pitino begins his sixth season at Minnesota with a contract that runs through 2022. What does he say about rumors he wants to move on if given the opportunity to head East?
“I’ve signed two extensions since I have been here. I’d sign another one right now if (athletic director) Mark Coyle would offer it to me,” Pitino told Sports Headliners during a one-on-one interview this week. “I am from back East but I consider Minnesota home. I’ve had two children born here. I am ingrained into the community. My wife (Jill) and I love it here. We’ve met some great friends.”
To Pitino’s pleasure, he has witnessed major changes in the athletic department since he was hired as Minnesota’s head coach in 2013. The new $160 million Athlete’s Village, with all its amenities including for basketball, is a dramatic difference maker for impressing recruits and serving his players. Upgrades have been made to historic Williams Arena and Pitino has experienced how that building can give his team a special home court advantage in big games.
After working for two previous athletic directors, he’s seen stability come to that position with the hiring of Coyle who has been on the job since 2016. Pitino knows he benefits, too, from having the only Division I basketball program in Minnesota, and that the state is turning out high school recruits coveted across the country.
For those reasons and others Pitino said his job “checks all the boxes” for a place he wants to be. That checklist includes strong academics at the U and Pitino made it clear during the interview how he values the kind of student-athlete experience the coach said he wants for his players at Minnesota.
Add up all the positives and Pitino describes himself as “fortunate” to have the Gopher job. “I am here forever long as they’ll have me,” he said.
In the years ahead Pitino expects his teams to compete for Big Ten championships. “Yeah, now that we’ve got all the pieces (resources),” he said. “Two years ago we finished fourth (in the standings). I thought last year, if we had stayed healthy, we could have won it. So I think we’ll bounce back this year, have a really good team.
“The biggest thing is …it’s a fine line between the top of this league and the middle and the bottom. It can be a lucky free throw here, a bounce there, a lucky call by the ref.
“I’ve been here five years. I really thought for four years we had as good of a chance to be at the top of it as any. Certainly my third year we were really rebuilding, but we’ve been close (other seasons) and I think we’ll be back there this year.”
The Gophers started last season at 13-3 and were nationally ranked. By January, though, injuries to key players and the suspension of center Reggie Lynch had the Gophers in big trouble and headed toward a final Big Ten record of 4-14.
“Last year was hard because we felt that could be a special team,” Pitino said. “The rug was pulled out from underneath us with a lot of things that we couldn’t control. The biggest thing you learn is just keeping coaching those guys. Every day there is something you can do to make them better. Make them stronger.”
The Gophers play their first and only exhibition game November 1 when Minnesota Duluth comes to Williams Arena. After that there will be challenging nonconference games including a home test against Utah November 12. There are two Big Ten regular season games in December and then after January 1 it’s all conference play until hopefully qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in March.
Pitino has talent and experience to work with including four players returning who have been starters in the past, plus promising newcomers. The roster includes senior forward Jordan Murphy who was named by a media panel yesterday to the All-Big Ten preseason team. Pitino likes the potential of his team and knows a successful season can lessen pressure on him and the program. After five seasons the results have been very mixed.
The Gophers won 25 games in Pitino’s first season of 2012-13. The success included winning the NIT title. The 2017 team had a surprising 11-7 regular season Big Ten record and finished fourth in the conference, the best the Gophers had done since 2005. As a result, Pitino was voted Big Ten Coach of the Year by media and coaches. Program lows during the Pitino era include off-the-court problems with players and a 2-16 Big Ten record in 2016 (8-23 overall) that made the 2017 season such a surprise to almost everyone.
Pitino believes he is a better coach than when he arrived here as a 30 year old. “I would think that every year I get a little bit better,” he said. “I am more…confident every year that goes into it. I believe we can compete with everybody in this league. We got some hall of fame coaches…Tom Izzo (Michigan State), John Beilein (Michigan), and then you’ve got some younger guys who are really good as well.
“So I humbly say that I am confident as I’ve ever been going against those guys. (With) the players that we have right now, we’ve got some young guys that are really good. We’ve got some veterans who are ready to go, so I feel good about it.”
What does Pitino consider his greatest strength as a coach? “An understanding of young athletes in today’s world,” he answered. “I am 36 years old. I get what they’re dealing with.
“I think that I have a really good connection with our guys. I think they like playing for me, playing for what we’re trying to do. I think if you look at three years ago (the 2015-16 season), we won eight games and we had some embarrassing things happen at the end of the season and nobody transferred.
“That says a lot about our program—and that’s probably, as sad as it sounds, one of the more proud moments for me was that…they believed in me, their families believed in what we were doing, that we’re going to hold them accountable, make them better, tell them the truth.
“There’s not a lot of B.S. to me. I am going to tell you exactly where I think you stand, where we can get better together. I am probably going to say that’s my greatest strength.”