A Thursday notes column including summer optimism about Gophers basketball.
Count former Gophers Big Ten championship coach Jim Dutcher among those who expect a memorable 2017-2018 basketball season for Minnesota. “At a minimum they’re an NCAA (Tournament) team, with a great chance to win the league,” Dutcher told Sports Headliners.
Minnesota returns all but one key player (guard Akeem Springs) from last season’s surprise team. The Gophers, who had a 2-16 league record in 2016, won 11 of 18 conference games last winter. Dutcher looks at a roster that includes 2017 All-Big Ten guard Nate Mason, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch, and Amir Coffey, who was named to the All-Freshman team, and sees an improved win total next year.
“I would think they gotta be in the 12, 13 range in minimum wins, and could even be better than that,” Dutcher said.
National media have the Gophers included in top 25 rankings for next season. Sportingnews.com put Minnesota at No. 10 in a listing in the spring, and that’s not too high for Dutcher who sees the Gophers and Michigan State as the favorites to win the Big Ten championship. The Spartans are a consensus top five team heading into next season.
It might be over 20 years since offseason optimism has been so high about Gophers’ basketball. In the summer of 1996 Minnesota returned all five starters, including all-time great guard Bobby Jackson. Minnesota won the Big Ten title during the 1996-1997 season and advanced to the Final Four—with those achievements and others later erased by the NCAA after an investigation involving academic fraud.
Summer optimism about coach Richard Pitino’s program also extends to recruiting for his class of 2018. Three high profile state of Minnesota high school seniors have committed to Pitino—DeLaSalle’s Gabe Kalscheur, Cretin-Derham Hall’s Daniel Oturu and Orono’s Jarvis Thomas. Dutcher believes landing Coffey, who starred at Hopkins, was a “breakthrough” for the Gophers in state recruiting. Another factor in play is Minnesota’s new basketball practice facility that is expected to open in 2018.
Minnesota’s 2018 class is No. 5 nationally in the composite rankings by 247Sports. That’s one of the highest rankings in program history. Dutcher’s five-player 1978 freshman class was recognized as No. 1 in the nation. The class formed the core of his 1982 conference title team.
Indigo Thompson, the daughter of Gophers all-time leading football rusher Darrell Thompson, is a junior volleyball player at San Diego State. She started her college career at Virginia Commonwealth.
It wouldn’t be surprising if she has talked with her brother Race Thompson about playing basketball at San Diego State. Race, a senior at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School and among the state’s high profile prospects, has verbally committed to Indiana.
Gophers’ offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was dismissed by head coach Tracy Claeys after the 2015 season but Penn State has turned out to be “Happy Valley” for him. Limegrover is in State College, Pennsylvania preparing for his second season as the Nittany Lions’ offensive line coach where he will have one of the best “o-line” units in the Big Ten. Running back Saquon Barkley, a Heisman Trophy favorite, will make Limegrover and the blockers look good on a Penn State team that could repeat as Big Ten champs.
The Vikings are holding their 52nd and last training camp in Mankato this summer before relocating to their new training facility in Eagan. The absence of the NFL team in Mankato is sure to have an economic impact on the city, with sources as far back as 2010 estimating the annual figure at $5 million.
A July, 2010 Mankato Free Press story reported that in 2009 an estimated additional $5 million in local revenue resulted from Vikings training camp, with more than 50,000 visitors coming to Mankato. Those figures have likely increased in the years since, but multiple media reports this summer have still estimated the economic impact at $5 million.
Fans can attend practices between now and the close of camp on August 9, but players have off days August 1 and 8. The Vikings’ first preseason game is August 10 against the Bills in Buffalo. Fox 9 will televise the game that starts at 6 p.m. Minneapolis time.
Although much anticipated Dalvin Cook is a rookie, he isn’t that young for a first-year player. Cook, who declared for the NFL Draft after three seasons at Florida State, turns 23 on August 8. The Vikings know he could be their replacement for Adrian Peterson after making him the third overall running back chosen in the draft.
Vikings single game home tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. today via Ticketmaster.com only. Included was the Green Bay game on October 15.
Controversial baseball umpire Joe West, whose confrontations include the Twins, is featured in a seven-page story in the July 24-31 issue of Sports Illustrated. Peter Thamel writes that West once ejected Ron Gardenhire before the Twins manager could open his mouth.
Hale Irwin, who will be in town to compete in the 3M Championship next week, will speak to the Twin Cities Dunkers group next Thursday morning. Irwin is the all-time leader on the Champions Tour in earnings with over $27 million and tournament wins at 45.
Originally known as the Minneapolis Dunkers, the group had its first meeting in October of 1948. The most famous names in Minnesota sports history have spoken to members over the years—plus some national speakers such as Bobby Knight, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Brokaw and Thomas Friedman.
Minneapolis restaurateur Wayne Kostroski, who founded the Taste of the NFL in Minneapolis for the 1992 Super Bowl, was featured in the July 17-23 Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal. Kostroski, who has started similar events for other high profile sports, comes full circle next year with the Minneapolis Super Bowl.
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said the reality TV show that is billed with his name and debuts next week on ESPNU wasn’t his idea. Speaking at Big Ten Media Days this morning in Chicago, Fleck was asked about the show along with several other questions during a session with reporters televised by the Big Ten Network.
“This wasn’t something that we said, ‘We’re going to have a reality show,’ let’s go find somebody to air it,” Fleck said. “They approached us, which was an honor.
“One thing I am hired to do is bring national exposure, national attention to the University of Minnesota, and that’s what we’re going to do. And the title, I don’t get to pick. You know, ‘Being P.J. Fleck,’ that’s not a title that I would necessarily pick, but I think it’s every head coach’s job and responsibility to bring attention to their institution. That’s not self-promoting, but I think every head football coach in America is self-promoting at some point.
“We’re all selling ourselves. We’re all showing what we’re like. We’re all selling our cultures. We’re all recruiting our cultures. We’re all developing our cultures.
“You’re the front porch of the institution. You’re not the most important thing on campus, but you’re the front porch of nationally of what everybody sees, and you’re representing a ton of people. …
“I have not seen the show. I’ve lived life, so I kind of know what that’s like. But I don’t know what the show is going to be like, so I don’t know if it’s going to be like the Kardashians—if they’re going to spin it that way, or it’s going to be a little bit tamer.
“It will be interesting to see what kind of comes out of the reality show. But…it’s about the University of Minnesota. It’s about ‘Rowing the Boat.’ It’s about our culture and our new program that we brought into the Twin Cities.”
“Being P.J. Fleck” debuts on ESPNU August 2 at 8 p.m. Minneapolis time, and three other 30-minute episodes will air August 9, 16 and 23. Each show will be available on demand via ESPN streaming devices.
Hired as Gophers coach last January, the series follows the 36-year-old Fleck throughout the offseason, and covers him in various settings, including team meetings, hospital visits and motivational speeches around the country. Viewers will have a look at Fleck’s upbringing, including his hometown and hearing from his family, and understanding the impact of two major coaching influences—Mike Nolan (New Orleans Saints linebackers coach) and Jim Tressel (Youngstown State president and former Ohio State coach).
Fleck is the second youngest major college head football coach in the country and a 24-7 package of non-stop energy. “To no surprise, P.J. is all heart, all the time,” said co-executive producer Bo Mattingly in a news release last week from the Gophers. A trailer about the series is available on YouTube.
Fleck was the first of seven Big Ten head football coaches to address the media today. He talked for approximately four minutes with prepared remarks before taking questions, longer than many coaches speak in Chicago but shorter than Indiana’s Tom Allen at five minutes yesterday. Reporters don’t always fill all the time allotted to ask questions of the Big Ten coaches, but this morning there were no gaps or cutting the Q&A short with Fleck.
After Fleck spoke, Big Ten Network studio host Mike Pizzo said to co-host Glen Mason, “If you didn’t have your coffee this morning, ‘Mase,’ before you got to Big Ten Media Day, I think you’re still okay energy wise now.”
“Well, most coaches want to get off the podium,” Mason said. “You get the feeling he’d like to be there all day.”
The Gophers start practices next week and Fleck meets with Minnesota media on Monday. Training camp begins Tuesday.
The Gophers are a popular media choice to finish fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West Division. Among the team’s expected strengths is running the football and Fleck brought Rodney Smith, last season’s top rusher, to Chicago to meet with media.
“He’s kind of the personality of our football team,” Fleck said. “Huge smile. Ton of energy, (and) very charismatic.”
While the Gophers had more than 20 offseason surgeries to players, they had good news in the classroom. Fleck said the team had the highest collective GPA in 25 years of documenting that number.
A recently released local book about the era of the Twins in the Metrodome includes new insights regarding David Ortiz’s departure from Minnesota after the 2002 season. Ortiz created the impression over the years that leaving the Twins was something he welcomed, but quotes from former Minnesota teammates alter that perspective.
Ortiz, who played parts of six seasons with the Twins, became one of baseball’s most feared hitters after joining the Red Sox. The Twins gave up on the DH-first baseman after too many injuries and mixed results in his performance. Ortiz flourished, though, with the Red Sox where one season he hit 54 home runs, and closed his career as a 40-year-old in 2016 with a .315 batting average while hitting 38 home runs and driving in 127 runs.
Last spring the Hall of Fame-bound Ortiz was critical of his Twins experience in his new hardcover book, Papi: My Story. Among his digs at the Twins was Tom Kelly’s fondness for slap hitters, accusing the manager of trying to make the 6-3, 230-pound slugger into a lightweight at the plate to take advantage of the Metrodome’s bouncy artificial surface.
In an online review of the book last May, Sports Illustrated’s Jack Dickey offered this quote from Ortiz regarding Kelly: “So I kissed his ass for a couple of years and became the biggest slap hitter you’ll ever see.”
Dickey also wrote that Ortiz was critical of Kelly for once ordering the team back on the field after a game because of a poor performance. As a manager, Kelly was all in regarding fundamentals. Ortiz considered such post-game instruction inappropriate for professional players.
In Bob Showers’ book The Twins in the Dome, the local author quotes former Minnesota teammates Corey Koskie and Torii Hunter about Ortiz’s feelings toward the Twins after the 2002 season. Koskie was at Ortiz’s wedding in November of 2002 when Ortiz was suspicious he would soon be departing the Twins.
“He started to cry,” Koskie said in the book. “He saw the writing on the wall regarding his future with the Twins. He was sobbing and saying, ‘I am going to miss you guys so much.’ “
Ortiz was released soon thereafter and the move not only bothered him, but also Hunter who said in the book his friend called him expressing surprise and said, “I can’t believe it. I don’t know what I did. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Hunter told Showers he felt “blindsided” about the release of someone he thought was a valuable talent (Ortiz had his best Minnesota season in 2002, hitting .272 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI). “I made a phone call to the front office and we had some words,” Hunter said. “I fought for him but I had no voice. I was only four years (experience) in the big leagues, so I had no voice. I told them he was the best hitter on the team but they didn’t believe me.”
Showers also interviewed Kelly about his years of managing the Twins from 1986-2001. Regarding Ortiz, Kelly talked about injuries, mentioning a broken bone in Ortiz’s hand and also a bad knee. “We just couldn’t keep him on the field,” Kelly said.
Kelly managed the Twins to World Series championships in 1987 and 1991, with Minnesota winning game seven both years in the Metrodome. The 1987 win was a shock to all of baseball and uplifted the local sports environment that hadn’t experienced a world championship since the 1954 Minneapolis Lakers won the NBA title.
Following the first World Series, Kelly received a surprise visit by police officials from Minneapolis and other local communities. “We want to thank you,” they said in Showers’ book. “You don’t understand how much life has improved in our cities this past month during the playoffs and World Series.”
The law enforcement officers cited declines in crime rates and gained Kelly’s attention. “These are things that don’t go through your head, things that don’t register while you’re playing,” Kelly said in the book.
Kelly was touched, too, by the boxes of letters he received from the public. “There had to be at least six or seven letters, mostly from women, describing how better their lives became during the playoffs and World Series,” he said. “They were having troubles in the household or facing possible divorce and the games brought them back together with their spouse. …Those letters absolutely knocked me over.”
The Twins played in the Metrodome from 1982-2009. Those years come alive in Showers’ book that includes interesting quotes from the players and others who were part of that era. Showers not only interviewed a lengthy list of sources, but filled his 275- page book with great photos. There are even pictures of every Twin from the Dome years—starting with Paul Abbott and ending with Delmon Young. The book will stir nostalgia in Twins fans.
Showers will be signing copies of the book from 5:30 to 7 p.m. July 21 in the Delta SKY360° Club at Target Field as part of the Twins’ 30-year celebration of the 1987 World Series. He will be at the stadium’s Majestic Clubhouse Store the next day at a time to be determined. Signed copies of the book are also available at www.itascabooks.com.
Showers is a Bloomington resident who while growing up in Iowa attended his first Twins game in 1971 at Met Stadium. He has also authored The Twins at the Met; and Minnesota North Stars: History and Memories with Lou Nanne.