Enjoy a Tuesday notes column focused on the NFL Vikings and NHL Wild.
This week’s NFL Draft will be the first for Gary Kubiak to have influence in his role as Vikings assistant head coach/offensive advisor. Few NFL assistants have the resume of Kubiak, who has 24 years of coaching experience in the league including 10 as a head coach with a Super Bowl win to his credit.
General manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer brought Kubiak to Minnesota to improve a faltering offense. Even the most casual of Vikings fans knows the team needs a major upgrade in offensive line talent, but how will the club prioritize its draft choices including their selection at No. 18 in the first round?
Kubiak has made his career specializing in offensive coaching. Zimmer’s background is on defense and in his four seasons as Minnesota’s head coach his coaching direction has been all over the defensive unit. In prior drafts Zimmer’s voice has certainly been heard, as it should be at franchise headquarters, but might Kubiak cast a “second shadow” over Spielman starting Thursday night? Certainly ownership and front office leadership didn’t bring Kubiak to Minnesota expecting him to be a wallflower.
At Spielman’s news conference today about the draft he acknowledged that Kubiak and the other offensive coaches want skillsets in their players that match their schemes. “There are traits that we’re looking for,” Spielman said. “As we talk about each one of these players, some players would be very good players, but they may not be very good players for what we’re going to require them to do.”
Spielman said the depth of talent is impressive in the 2019 draft. He singled out the offensive and defensive line prospects as collectively being “one of the strongest I’ve seen in awhile.”
Some draft forecasters are thinking the Vikings will add a tackle or guard to their roster in the first round. The latest issue of Sports Illustrated offers a mock draft including the prediction Minnesota will use its first round choice on Alabama lineman Jonah Williams, a talented tackle in college who the magazine thinks will transition to guard for the Vikings.
“The Tide got 5.3 ypc (yards per carry) running to Williams’s gap in 2018,” S.I. reported. “That’s an improvement on almost every gap on Minnesota’s front five last year.”
The Vikings likely would welcome Williams falling to them at No. 18, or Florida tackle Jawaan Taylor or Washington State tackle Andre Dillard—all of whom might be drafted before Minnesota finalizes its first round choice. But to be contrary with maybe a nod toward Zimmer, what happens if a stud like Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver or Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker is available when the Vikings draft? Does a scenario like that set up an interesting dilemma for Zimmer, Kubiak and Spielman?
Players like Oliver and Baker are likely to be gone when the Viking select at No. 18, but what if Minnesota moves up on the draft board?A Spielman specialty is making trades during the draft and the possibility is real the Vikings could choose higher than No. 18 on Thursday night.
Because the draft is deep in offensive linemen, the Vikings may not use their first round pick on a tackle or guard. It seems likely the club will take multiple offensive linemen in the draft.
Vikings fans want an offensive lineman chosen in the first round and Spielman offered humor when asked about the angst among Purple supporters. “She (my wife) said, if I draft another corner(back) don’t come home,” the GM said.
In the later rounds the club could end up with Apple Valley alum Trey Pipkins, a Division II All-American tackle who played collegiately at Sioux Falls. His NFL Draft & Combine page projects him as a fourth round draft choice and future practice squad player. At about 6-feet-6 and over 300 pounds, Pipkins has size, length and athleticism but needs to improve technique, according to NFL.com/prospects.
There will also be other Minnesota natives to follow over the three days of the draft. Former Gophers walk-on Blake Cashman has opened eyes in the last four months, with projections changing for him from potential free agent status to possibly being a mid-round draft choice.
He produced some of the best results of any linebacker at the NFL Combine last winter in Indianapolis. He tied for third among linebackers in the broad jump, was fourth in the 40-yard-dash and 20-yard shuttle, tied for fifth in the vertical jump and tied for seventh in the three-cone drill.
At a minimum, Cashman could provide an NFL team with immediate special teams help. The same is likely to be true of Cashman’s former teammate at Eden Prairie, Ryan Connelly, who was a standout linebacker at Wisconsin.
Other Minnesota names to watch include Iowa safety Amani Hooker from Park Center High School and E.J. Ejiya, the linebacker from North Texas and Spring Lake Park alum. Hooker has made solid improvement at Iowa and projects as a safety and special teams player in the pros with attributes that include his football intelligence. Ejiya ranked among the nation’s leaders in tackles for loss in 2018 and seems more likely to be a possible training camp invitee as a free agent rather than draft choice.
Spielman fought back tears in announcing at the news conference that his friend and Vikings college talent evaluator Scott Studwell will be retiring from the organization. Studwell, who played linebacker for the Vikings from 1977-1990, has been in the front office since 1991 and will retire at the end of May when his contract ends.
Spielman said he likes the progress of cornerback Mike Hughes who is recovering from ACL injury, and is now doing some running.
Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter had been a candidate but now is not one of the three finalists for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. “It is disappointing (news),” Wild owner Craig Leipold told Sports Headliners yesterday.
The trophy is presented annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. It is named after the late Bill Masterton from the Minnesota North Stars.
Leipold has a high regard for Suter, referring to him as a “super person” and great family man who is dedicated to hockey. “He is so into working out,” Leipold said of his 34-year-old star. The two men, Leipold said, may get together for a sushi lunch in St. Paul this summer.
Leipold signed both Suter and forward Zach Parise, 34, to $98 million deals in 2012. While Suter finished the season healthy, Parise was troubled by a foot injury. Leipold hopes Parise will rest the foot in coming months, while noting it’s positive the Minneapolis-born star played last season without a problem with his back.
There is speculation Leipold will create the position of president of hockey operations overseeing general manager Paul Fenton, but not so, according to Leipold. “Never been discussed,” the owner said in refuting the rumor.
Former North Stars general manager Jack Ferreira was named an advisor to Fenton last year and Leipold said he expects Ferreira’s work to continue with the franchise. “I know Paul has a lot of confidence in Jack,” Leipold said.
In a telephone interview with Sports Headliners, Richard Coffey was vehement concerning what he said are untrue rumors that his son Amir Coffey hates Golden Gophers head basketball coach Richard Pitino. Amir, a junior, is in the process of deciding whether he wants to skip his senior season at Minnesota and enter the NBA Draft.
“It’s amazing how people hear something and they just run with it,” Richard said about comments his son dislikes Pitino. “First of all, we don’t use the word hate in our family. We don’t hate anything, or anybody. That upsets me, when people use that word because there is so much hate in our country, and hatred only divides. I didn’t raise my kids to hate anyone, or to use that word. It upsets me when people read something or see something and then take it as truth.
“I live in Minnesota. I love the University of Minnesota. I love this state. If they want to know the truth about something, they should stop me and ask me—instead of taking the word of someone that has not spoken to me, has not spoken to my son, has not spoken to anybody in my family.”
Richard said if Amir decides by late May not to enter the 2019 NBA Draft, he will return to college basketball and guaranteed his son will play for the 2019-2020 Gophers. “So stop speculating on it,” Richard said.
In two of Amir’s three seasons Pitino’s Gophers have earned their way into the NCAA Tournament. They also won the NIT Tournament in New York in 2014. “Pitino is the coach of the University of Minnesota. We respect that,” Richard said. “Pitino has been here for six years and been to three postseasons. That’s a pretty good record.”
Amir remains enrolled at Minnesota and is attending classes this spring. When not pursuing academics, he is training for a pro career that could begin after the June 20 NBA Draft. The Coffeys are being assisted in the fact-finding process about how NBA teams regard Amir by Excel Sports Management based in New York.
A select number of potential NBA draftees are invited to the NBA Combine where in mid-May in Chicago they are closely evaluated by representatives from the league’s 30 franchises. Those Combine invitations have yet to be sent out and Amir doesn’t know if his name will be on the invitation list. Under NBA and NCAA policy, underclassmen like Amir have until May 29 to retain their college eligibilities and play next season.
Amir, 6-foot-8 and about 205 pounds, was a third-team All-Big Ten selection last season and was at his best in March, often making key plays in important games. The Gophers’ leading scorer, he was among the league’s most versatile players both offensively and defensively. He played point guard and wing for Minnesota while averaging 16.6 points and starting every game.
Richard has a lot of basketball expertise, having been a four-year starter for the Gophers from 1986-1990, including being a terrific effort front court player and rebounder on two NCAA Tournament teams. He also played professionally including for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He said the training and evaluation his son is receiving now will make him an improved player in either the pros or with the Gophers.
“Oh, for sure it’s going to make him a better player,” Richard said. “He’s spending a lot of time working on his weaknesses, trying to get better at those things, trying to become a better basketball player. You (also) continue to work on your strengths to help them continue to be your strengths.”
The Gophers lose four seniors from this year’s tournament team, and the likelihood for a successful season in 2019-2020 could well be predicated on a Coffey return. “We haven’t really thought about that (Amir’s importance),” Richard said. “At this point we are in a process of trying to find out from professionals their opinion on Amir. When we get that information we are going to use it to make a sound, intelligent decision on whether Amir comes back to school, or whether Amir stays in the draft.”
NBAdraft.net, in its April 18 mock draft, didn’t include Coffey among the players it projects being picked in either the first or second rounds. The website predicted Maryland center Bruno Fernando being the first Big Ten player drafted with the Timberwolves using their first round selection at No. 10 on him.
Bryant Pfeiffer, the Minnesota United’s chief revenue officer, said the club’s new Allianz Field can potentially be expanded to a seating capacity of 25,000. The United played its first match ever in the privately financed facility earlier this month before a standing room only crowd of 18,796.
There are no immediate plans to expand the stadium but the United has 5,000 people on a waiting list for season tickets, Pfeiffer told Sports Headliners. The club capped its season tickets at 14,500 this year to leave room for single game and group sales.
A career sports marketer, who lives in Minnesota but prefers to speak anonymously, predicts the Twin Cities will have another men’s Frozen Four in six to eight years, and men’s basketball Final Four in 10 to 12.
He doesn’t think the Super Bowl will return to Minneapolis for a long time, and it’s unlikely the college football national championship game will ever be played here. Those games are played in January and February when the Minneapolis winter weather makes it difficult and even impossible to stage the kind of auxiliary outside events promoters require and prefer.
“Behind the Game,” the Twin Cities cable TV show with co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson, has a current interview with longtime Pioneer Press sports columnist Charley Walters. The former Edison High School athlete had a brief career with the Minnesota Twins and it was 50 years ago this month he made his Major League debut.
Condolences to family and friends of Bill Ferril who passed away last week. Bill, formerly of Wayzata, was a successful businessman and dedicated booster of Gophers basketball.
I attended a breakfast club gathering a couple of weeks ago to hear guest speaker Jim Nantz. The voice of CBS sports, in town for the Minneapolis Final Four, charmed his audience at the Minneapolis Club, just like he has done for decades providing play-by-play of America’s more important basketball, football and golf events.
And I am reminded how favorite broadcasters become part of our lives. At least the great ones do, and we revel in their calls of games that even become lasting moments and sounds in American culture (Russ Hodges: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”)
I wasn’t old enough in 1951 to hear Hodges as he described Bobby Thomson’s home run that beat the Dodgers in their famous playoff game, but there are many words and phrases I have witnessed and heard from well-known sports broadcasters. Here are a couple that are memorable for me:
“And we’ll see you tomorrow night,” said Jack Buck after Kirby Puckett’s heroics lifted the Twins to a Game Six 1991 World Series win over the Braves.
“Hide the women and children,” said Keith Jackson when a herd of college football players were stampeding and throwing their girth around on a fall Saturday afternoon.
The first play-by-play voice earning my affection was Chick Hearn. Minneapolis businessman Bob Short moved the Lakers from Minnesota to Los Angeles after the 1959-60 season, and Hearn became the broadcast voice of the NBA team. When the Lakers were in the playoffs in the early 1960s Short arranged to have games televised back to Minneapolis, and that was my introduction to the exciting voice and words of Hearn.
“(Elgin) Baylor yo-yoing the ball at the top of the key,” Hearn might have said. “He fakes the defender into the popcorn machine and shoots from 23 feet.”
To an impressionable youth who loved the Lakers of Baylor and Jerry West, these weren’t clichés. Instead, Hearn’s words were inspiring descriptions of heroes and a great team lost when the Lakers moved west. I even wrote a long letter to Hearn gushing over his Lakers broadcasts, but never received a reply back. Maybe my correspondence ended up in the popcorn machine.
Hearn was part of a “Mount Rushmore” group of play-by-play guys who blessed the airwaves of southern California in the last century. Hearn with the Lakers, Ralph Lawler with the Clippers, Dick Enberg with the Angels and Vin Scully with the Dodgers.
What a hall of fame foursome!
Scully is a personal favorite and perhaps America’s all-time favorite play-by-play man. He had a 67-year run doing Dodgers games, dating back to the franchise playing in Brooklyn before moving to L.A. He also worked the national scene for awhile doing golf and NFL games. It was the velvety voiced Scully who called the Joe Montana to Dwight Clark touchdown that gave the 49ers a famous NFC playoff win in 1982.
I can’t let a roll call of national names go by without writing about Bob Costas. Great voice, smart, prepared and honest. With some guys you know there’s going to be a lot of bull, but not with Costas. He entertains but doesn’t forget he is a journalist. Besides that, he has carried a Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet for years. That alone scores points with me.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote that Kevin Harlan is the best play-by-play guy to ever work in this town for any of the pro teams or the Golden Gophers. He was the original radio voice of the Timberwolves and now has been on the national scene for years calling NBA and NFL games. From the beginning I liked his voice, intelligence, passion and cockiness (without being obnoxious).
Turns out Harlan and broadcast partner Tom Hanneman were practical jokers off the air, per Bill Robertson. “If you went on a (Timberwolves) road trip, your luggage could be missing for awhile,” said Robertson who was the team’s media relations man back in the 1990s.
My preference for Harlan drew comments from a couple of friends after I published my opinion. Somebody asked about Ray Scott, and another person brought up Ray Christensen. Let’s take them one at a time, while getting sidetracked by Halsey Hall.
Anyone who brings up Scottie has my immediate respect. I have never cared for guys full of themselves who can talk from sunrise until dusk. Scott was “Mr. Brevity” and he understood that doing play-by-play on TV wasn’t the same as on radio where more words are needed to describe what’s happening.
“Starr…Dowler…touchdown!” That was the efficient style Scott used to describe a Green Bay Packers touchdown pass from quarterback Bart Starr to wide receiver Boyd Dowler long ago.
Scott was part of the Twins broadcast crew in the 1960s and worked with perhaps the most loveable radio-TV character in the history of this state, Halsey Hall. He was a color commentator on Twins games and although he didn’t do play-by-play it’s impossible to leave him out of this column. He was just too entertaining to not write about today.
Halsey was a Minneapolis newspaper man for decades and it’s said his desk drawer might have contained a month’s old sandwich. He hated air travel because he thought it was risky. The standing joke was he would approach the airline counter and say, “Give me two chances to Chicago.”
Halsey’s passions included baseball, adult beverages and onions. He liked to carry a flask in his coat pocket, fearing that during his travels he might encounter a place where alcohol was prohibited. Recollection is he enjoyed onions so much he chomped on a whole one like most of us would attack an apple.
Halsey was a peerless storyteller including baseball tales. He was so entertaining in the 1960s and 1970s I used to welcome rain delays during Twins games. To fill air time until play resumed, Halsey told stories and they were marvelous.
Part of the joy in listening to Halsey was his infectious laugh. He often roared with laughter early on and throughout the telling of his tales. His own amusement and chuckling could get the tears rolling down your cheeks as you joined in.
I have heard or read more than a few Halsey stories over the years but a new one was offered recently by Robertson, who grew up in St. Paul and has spent much of his adult life in Minnesota. Halsey and another iconic Twins broadcast voice, Herb Carneal, were on the air years ago when they noticed Minneapolis Tribune writer Tom Briere had a problem. Somehow the Twins beat writer had caught his necktie in his typewriter.
As Briere kept punching keys trying to solve his dilemma, Carneal watched with amusement and Halsey roared with laughter. “Halsey was hysterical for about a minute and a half,” said Robertson who has listened to the segment on a Twins commemorative cassette.
Not that Halsey couldn’t stir up his own incident. One time Halsey was smoking a cigar in the press box and flicking his ashes. The ashes ignited paper on the floor, setting off a small fire. Halsey’s sport coat, hanging on a chair, caught fire. Twins catcher Jerry Zimmerman later quipped, “Halsey Hall is quite a guy. He can turn an ordinary sport coat into a blazer in nothing flat.’”
Ray Christensen? There will never be anyone like him to generations of Gophers fans. He did U play-by-play football for 50 years, and basketball almost as long. A private and proud man, he liked working the basketball games without a broadcast partner. Perhaps the reason was he thought basketball games moved too fast to interject another voice into the reporting.
Ray had an authoritative voice that greeted listeners with, “This is Ray Christensen.” The opening words to his broadcasts commanded attention and were almost imposing but certainly not threatening. You thought maybe the Lord himself helped him perfect his familiar welcome to listeners.
Ray was sometimes partial toward the Gophers when seeing the action on the field or the court with a maroon and gold bias (just the way most fans like their local broadcasters). But he didn’t over dramatize things and become whiny. He was too intelligent and classy to ever let his work spiral into embarrassment. Yet you could hear the passion in his voice, and his affection for the Gophers.
Ray was a kind man and I never recall him saying a bad word about anyone on or off the air. He remembered the names of so many people including those he didn’t see very often. Always treating others, including his broadcast audience, with respect.
Ray passed away in 2017. Jim Nantz would have liked and admired him.