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Zim Talks Division, but Goals Bigger

December 09, 2017 - (0) comments

 

A Saturday notes column kicking off with the Vikings.

Linebacker Ben Gedeon told Sports Headliners Mike Zimmer has talked to the Vikings this week about how the team can clinch the NFC North Division title and a playoff spot by winning Sunday against the Panthers, but then the coach added, “There are a lot bigger goals than just winning this week.”

Gedeon said the team reacted to Zimmer’s words by being quiet and professional. A steady approach reflects their coach. “I think that’s one thing you see with him is he is pretty consistent week to week and I think the message every week has been, ‘We haven’t done anything yet and…not looking too far ahead in the season,’ ” Gedeon said.

The Vikings have won eight consecutive games and with their 10-2 mark have the opportunity to finish the 16-game schedule with the best record in the NFC. They could have home field advantage throughout the payoffs and advance to the Minneapolis Super Bowl on February 4.

Mike Zimmer

Zimmer was asked why some teams are better able to handle success than others. “I think it’s human nature. Some guys get full of themselves and go from there. Everybody is telling them how good they are and they listen.

“But it goes the other way, too. Everybody tells you how bad you are and you listen. It’s really human nature to back off of things.”

Defensive end Brian Robison, now in his 11th pro season, said he’s not surprised by the Vikings’ success. The team knew during the offseason the things that needed attention but realized the potential was present for success, he said. Included on the to-do list were how to handle “critical situations” in games.

A big year could have been derailed by the loss of starting quarterback Sam Bradford early in the season, but Case Keenum has impressed not only his teammates but NFL followers from coast-to-coast. Robison said he isn’t surprised by the performance of Keenum who came into the NFL in 2013 and has been with multiple teams before signing with Minnesota as a free agent this past offseason.

“I’ve known Case for awhile and I thought he’d been a good quarterback for a long time going back to his Houston days and even when he was in St. Louis,” Robison said. “I just think Case got caught up in a situation where he never really got that real opportunity and he was able to do it this year. He’s a smart player and he’s done some things for us this year that have helped us win ball games.”

The Vikings have used the same caterer for Friday locker-room buffets during their winning streak.

Vikings fans have been turning out in large numbers at away games this fall including in Landover, Maryland where a team spokesman estimated there were 5,000 to 10,000 cheering for Minnesota. The Skol chant prompted boos from Redskins fans in Landover. Historically, there have been large turnouts of Vikings fans for away games in Arizona and Florida.

“Get Inside the Game,” the interactive fan experience scheduled January 27-February 3 at the Minneapolis Convention Center as part of Super Bowl week activities, will charge admissions of $35 for adults and $25 for children 12 and under. Fans can experience NFL games via virtual reality technology, run a 40-yard dash against NFL players on a giant LED screen, obtain autographs from NFL players and learn football skills at clinics.

Twins general manager Thad Levine told Sports Headliners he doesn’t believe the franchise’s experience with Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a factor in negotiating with other Japanese players. Nishioka came to the Twins directly from Japan and failed with Minnesota before returning home. Now the Twins have interest in standout pitcher Yu Darvish, the native of Japan who is a free agent.

Levine said to his knowledge Darvish and his representatives won’t be affected by Nishioka’s experiences with Minnesota. He also said he didn’t think the history with Nishioka impacted the thinking of Shoehi Otani who eliminated the Twins and other teams before committing to the Angels.

Otani, often described as the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball, is both a hitter and pitcher. Levine referred to him as a “significant prospect” who compares favorably with the best pitchers to come out of Japan.

Gopher junior Jordan Murphy, who has started the season with 10 consecutive double-doubles, isn’t projected to be selected in the two rounds of the 2018 NBA Draft, according to a mock listing by Nbadraft.net. Gary Trent Jr., the freshman at Duke and ex-Apple Valley star, is projected as the No. 15 selection in the first round. J.P. Macura, who played at Lakeville North and is a senior at Xavier, is predicted as a second round selection and the No. 55 pick.

Paolo Uggetti, writing December 6 for Theringer.com, said the Timberwolves starting lineup through 19 games logged more minutes than any other NBA team. Coach Tom Thibodeau used his starters 484 minutes, or 145 more than the No. 2 Pistons. Thibodeau, dating back to his first NBA head job with the Bulls, has long been known as a coach who likes to use his regulars for max minutes.

Dick Jonckowki said sportswriters LaVelle E. Neal and Charley Walters, along with ex-Gopher Jim Carter and former North Star Lou Nanne, will roast ESPN 1500 talk show host and Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse on January 26 at Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul. The luncheon is sponsored by the Minnesota Minute Men and Jonckowski will emcee.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Lynx star Lindsay Whalen, 35, is thinking of retirement after next season. The Minnesota native could be considering her post-playing career options. She will serve as a Timberwolves analyst for eight games on Fox Sports North starting with Tuesday night’s telecast of the 76ers game.

Whalen’s coach, Cheryl Reeve, speaks to the CORES lunch group January 11 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bloomington, 1114 American Blvd. Reeve has coached the Lynx to four WNBA championships in the last seven years. More information, including reservations, is available by contacting Jim Dotseth, dotsethj@comcast.net. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

Dorothy McIntyre, the former executive with the Minnesota State High School League, has a new book called Two Rings: A Legacy of Hope. She co-authored the novel with Marian Bemis Johnson. McIntyre previously helped write a book about the early years of girls high school basketball in Minnesota.

 

Here’s Your College Football Finale

December 07, 2017 - 1 Comment

 

The University of Minnesota season is over but my college football notebook has unfinished business. Here’s an offering of year-end thoughts about not only the U, but also the Big Ten Conference and national scenes.

Many Gophers fans remain open-minded after one season of the P.J. Fleck era—disappointing as it was at 5-7, ending with just two league wins and outscored 70-0 by the final two opponents. That’s the fair approach because it’s too soon to judge Fleck and his staff.

The 37-year-old coach has big ambitions for Minnesota and will mostly either realize them or fail based on the talent of his players. Minnesota’s 2018 recruiting class is No. 31 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings. If that impressive ranking sticks through Signing Day on December 20, the Gophers will have their highest ranked recruiting class since 2008 and head coach Tim Brewster.

A prominent businessman, U alum and big-time Gopher booster thinks Fleck is going to be a coaching star. He told me this fall Minnesota will be on its way as soon as Fleck’s second season. The view from here: with so many inexperienced and new players in 2018, that’s not likely.

Fleck needs to not just eventually breakthrough with a couple of winning seasons, but more importantly develop a program with continued success. Can he do it?

That’s the golden question in Dinkytown. He has only been a head coach for five years. At Western Michigan he had one knockout season, his last one in 2016 when the Broncos were 13-1 and a damn good team. His first season at Western, in 2013, the record was 1-11, then came two 8-5 years.

Fleck’s combined record as a head coach is 35 wins, 29 losses. Certainly circumstances, including resources available, have much to do with a coach’s record but it’s interesting the Broncos program he left behind was just 6-6 overall and 4-4 in Mid-American Conference games this past season. Maybe the Broncos missed Fleck’s leadership that much, or perhaps he left a program still not built for sustained high level success.

The Mid-American has long been an incubator of coaches going on to big-time jobs—from Ara Parseghian to Urban Meyer. The league has also produced its share of Big Ten coaching busts including Darrell Hazell who was a one-season hit at Kent State before piling up the losses at Purdue over four years. Brady Hoke used some brief success at Ball State to move on to San Diego State for two seasons before he failed at Michigan.

Gophers’ athletic director Mark Coyle is all in on Fleck, having hired him for more than $3 million annually last January. This fall Coyle proposed extending Fleck’s original five-year contract through the 2022 season (pending Board of Regents approval next week).

The opinion here is the first attribute an athletic director needs is the skill to identify and hire the best coaches. How is Coyle doing?

It’s too soon to judge Coyle who was hired at Minnesota in 2016. However, it’s interesting that Fleck isn’t the only ex-Mid-American head coach with limited experience and success that Coyle has hired. As Syracuse’s athletic director he hired Dino Babers who coached at Bowling Green where he was 18-9 in two seasons and won the 2015 MAC championship. Babers has coached Syracuse for two seasons with 4-8 overall and 2-6 ACC records both years.

Among the best things that have happened to Gophers football this century is being placed in the Big Ten’s West Division. The power in the conference rests in the East where bullies Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are usually better than most teams in the West—or is that all except for Wisconsin?

Mike Riley was the wrong coach for Nebraska but his presence in Lincoln was a plus for the Gophers who beat his team 54-21 this season. New hire Scott Frost looks like instant improvement for “Big Red” and leaves the West Division with only one apparent coaching soft spot, at Illinois where Lovie Smith is 5-19 (2-16 Big Ten) in two seasons.

The coaching scene in the West Division looks like it’s really settling in except for some drama at Minnesota and with the Illini. Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who turned UCF from a 0-12 team in 2015 to an undefeated one this fall, looks like a perfect fit in Lincoln. Northwestern, with former Wildcat All-American linebacker Pat Fitzgerald heading the program with success since 2006, is already the West Division’s legacy model fit.

As head coach, Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez resurrected Badgers football in the 1990s. As athletic director, he remains the CEO of the program. Now with Madison native and Alvarez disciple Paul Chryst as head coach the Badgers keep winning division titles, and it’s “On Wisconsin” every year.

It’s not easy to win at Iowa but head coach Kirk Ferentz has made an 18-year career as the Hawkeyes boss. Here and there Iowa has known glory including the 2016 Rose Bowl and the day this fall when they embarrassed Ohio State with a 55-24, beat down in Iowa City. Things remain stable at Iowa with Kirk’s son, Brian Ferentz, seemingly a solid bet to one day succeed his dad as head coach.

Jeff Brohm’s first season as Purdue head coach gave long suffering Boilermaker fans some bright moments including a 31-17 win over the Gophers. Purdue, with an overall 6-6 record and 4-5 in the Big Ten, will play in its first bowl games since 2012. A year ago Purdue finished 1-8 and 3-9 under Hazell. With his offensive pedigree, Brohm could be the right guy at a school that years ago was referenced as “Quarterback U.”

The Gophers are the opposite of “Quarterback U.” Minnesota’s last All-American quarterback was Sandy Stephens in 1961. The NFL last drafted a Gophers quarterback in 1972 when Craig Curry was an eighth round pick.

Quarterback Victor Viramontes, the junior college transfer from California expected to sign with Minnesota December 20, is already a social media fave of Gophers fans. He was even interviewed on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” last Sunday before going to church.

Perhaps Viramontes, who has drawn comparisons to former Florida Heisman winner Tim Tebow, can emerge as a starter next year and also a star. The Gophers will need box office appeal not only because of this year’s record. The home schedule is not exactly a who’s who of college football—New Mexico State, Fresno State, Miami (Ohio), Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern.

Speaking of college football’s elite, the Big Ten was left out of the four-team playoff to determine the national champion. The selection committee may well have put the best teams in the field—it’s hard to vote for the Big Ten champion Buckeyes after the debacle in Iowa City—but the playoffs do have a provincial look. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma collectively cover a small part of America geographically.

The prediction here is that won’t happen in a few years because the playoff will likely be expanded from four to six teams. Champions from the five Power Conferences, plus a wild-card team would ensure more geographic balance and lessen second-guessing about who gets in the field. The motivation for going to six teams will also be to create more TV viewers and advertising revenues.

In case you didn’t notice, TV is king. The guy who spends $100 per ticket at the stadium isn’t as important as all those folks sitting at home in their recliners watching the endless parade of TV commercials. The ticket buyer is fortunate if he or she is provided more than six-days notice regarding the start time for the next game.

Meanwhile, the viewer at home may be sitting in his pajamas and enjoying all the game action up close on an Ultra HD TV. Commercials? Whoever invented the mute button is a genius.

 

Vikings Spielman Shows the Skeptics

December 05, 2017 - (0) comments

 

It looks like Rick Spielman’s critics will have to rethink their second-guessing of the Vikings general manager. Skeptics said this summer the 2017 Vikings might struggle to make the playoffs, but with a 10-2 record the club is one of the NFL’s elite teams and headed toward a postseason run that could end in the Minneapolis Super Bowl.

The Vikings rank third in the NFL in yards given up per game at 289.1 and have made a statement offensively ranking fifth and averaging 370.4 yards. Mike Zimmer, in his fourth season leading the Vikings, is an advanced defensive teacher and strategist. In his first full season as offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur has impressed with varied schemes, play calls and tempos. But without gifted players the Vikings wouldn’t be on an eight-game win streak and in the company of the NFC’s best teams.

Before the season there was speculation Spielman’s job could be on the line this fall. General managers, like coaches, are subject to constant scrutiny—especially those who have been making personnel decisions with the same organization for a long time. Spielman has been out front on Viking scouting, drafting and trading since 2006. During that time the Vikings have won three division titles and advanced to the playoffs four times.

The Vikings have one playoff win in the Spielman era and from season-to-season often struggled to maintain success. The 2015 team’s record was 11-5 and the club won the NFC North title. Last season was a disappointment with an 8-8 record and no playoff appearance. A major source of misery was the offensive line and the Spielman critics faulted him for not drafting an o-lineman in the first round for five years, 2013-2017.

The line is part of the success story this fall, though. During the offseason Spielman signed free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. He drafted center Pat Elflien who as a rookie moved into the starting lineup joining Reiff and Remmers. As of late Remmers has been injured but Rashod Hill has been an effective sub. The Vikings added Hill to their practice squad about a year ago when the Jaguars let him go.

It was a great 2017 offseason for Spielman who also signed Case Keenum as a backup quarterback to Sam Bradford. Keenum has emerged as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, with both observation and analytics testifying to his high level of play. Bradford, acquired by Spielman before the 2016 season after future franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was sidelined for the year, turned in a career season for the Vikings despite the awful performance of the offensive line. Bradford, though, has a history of knee injuries, and has only played in two games this season. Keenum was a journeyman quarterback until this season but Speilman looks prophetic in acquiring the five-year veteran who was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November.

Keenum is one of several players on the roster worthy of NFL postseason honors, including Pro Bowl consideration. Spielman and his staff found wide receiver Adam Thielen as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and the Minnesota native heads any list of offensive players along with Keenum. Other names include these Spielman draft choices: linebacker Anthony Barr, wide receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Everson Griffen, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. There is also defensive tackle Linval Joseph who Spielman acquired as a free agent in 2014.

The presence of Keenum, 29, is particularly significant for Spielman and the Vikings. Criticism has been targeted at the general manger for years regarding the quarterback position. Brett Favre was a short-term fix in 2009 and Spielman hoped he had a long-term solution with 2011 No. 1 draft choice Christian Ponder. The Ponder experiment didn’t succeed and the Vikings started over with the drafting of Bridgewater in 2014, only to see him sustain a career threatening knee injury last year.

During the Spielman era there have admittedly been personnel moves that didn’t work out. The Leslie Frazier hire as head coach in 2011 didn’t succeed either but it’s difficult to know how much authority Vikings ownership played in that decision—and perhaps even the hiring of Zimmer.

What is known is that without assembling a talented roster and winning on the field, general managers can’t maintain job security. It looks like Spielman will be around for awhile.

Worth Noting

Bob Lurtsema

Bobbleheads of Vikings legends Jerry Burns and Bob Lurtsema, costing $40 each, will be on sale this weekend at Southtown Shopping Center as part of Triple Crown’s Sports Card & Bobble Show. Lurtsema will be at the show from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, while Burns is there from 1 to 4 p.m. Show hours Saturday are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. More information is available from Joe Florenzano, vikingstwinsman@gmail.com.

Mary Hardin-Baylor, the school that defeated St. Thomas 24-10 last Saturday in a Division III quarterfinal playoff game, started its football program in 1998. Until playing the Tommies, the Crusaders had never been held under 150 yards of total offense, or less than 10 yards rushing. St. Thomas limited MHB to 143 yards on 55 plays, including minus 16 rushing yards on 30 carries.

St. Thomas graduated four defensive All-Americans from the 2016 team but this season still achieved historic statistics. The Tommie defense allowed only 21.6 rushing yards per game—something no NCAA team in Division I, II and III has done in the last 16 seasons. St. Thomas gave up 0.7 yards per rushing attempt, ranking with the best seasons by an NCAA defense. Eight of 13 opponents were held under 15 net rushing yards (six gained one or less total yards).

Darrell Thompson, the Gophers all-time career leading rusher and now head of the Bolder Options nonprofit, hosted a thank you event for his youth mentoring organization last night at Cambria Gallery in downtown Minneapolis. Bolder Options celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018.

The No. 14 ranked Gophers basketball team will be 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 2013 with a win tonight in Lincoln against the Cornhuskers. Minnesota is 8-1 overall and 1-0 in league games, while Nebraska is 6-3 and 0-1.

Statistics as of yesterday showed Gophers forward Jordan Murphy leading the conference in scoring at 21 points per game and rebounding at 12.9. Center Reggie Lynch led the nation in blocks per game with 4.8.

Sunday’s home attendance of 11,097 for the Rutgers game was disappointing after last week’s sellout crowd of 14,625 for nationally ranked Miami. The Scarlet Knights aren’t a strong draw, plus the Vikings and Timberwolves had games on Sunday.

Jim Bruton, who has authored books with Jerry Kill, Lou Nanne and Fran Tarkenton, is working on a book coming out next year about Dick Jonckowski, the former public address announcer for Gophers basketball and funny man storyteller who has made a career of emceeing and speaking at events.

 

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