Enjoy a Friday notes column.
Expectations couldn’t be more intense among Vikings observers to see if the club uses its No. 18 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to select an offensive lineman. There is anticipation, too, about the franchise prioritizing offensive linemen in the subsequent rounds of the draft which will be held in Nashville, April 25-27.
The disappointing performance last year of the offensive line was a major factor in the club compiling an 8-7-1 record and missing the playoffs after preseason hype established the Vikings among Super Bowl favorites. Absence from the 2020 postseason is not an acceptable scenario to much of the club’s fanbase, and likely it’s not for the franchise’s owners who in the next 12 months have to decide about the futures of head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman.
Not surprisingly, Cbssports.com projected on Wednesday that the Vikings will choose Oklahoma tackle Cody Ford with their first round pick. This might be just an okay year for offensive line talent, with the CBS website forecasting four linemen being chosen among the 32 first round picks.
Offensive guard, tackle and center are very demanding positions to learn as NFL rookies. Former Vikings center Matt Birk reaffirmed that to Sports Headliners, but there are rookie exceptions. “It definitely can happen,” he said.
Birk referenced Colts rookie guard Quenton Nelson who has been part of a unit that for five games gave up no sacks. Nelson is the first Colts offensive lineman since 1983 to be named to the Pro Bowl.
Zimmer has had the Vikings more focused on choosing defensive playmakers in recent drafts, however that seems all but certain to change in 2019. The Vikings did have success with rookie tackle Brian O’Neill who they drafted in the second round in 2018.
Birk has been doing live comedy performances for about a year to generate funds for charity. He said working in front of a live audience was somewhat intimidating at first but he enjoys the performances which now total about 10. His next gig is January 19 at Union 32 Craft House in Eagan. More at Eventbrite.com.
Birk will be among the speakers at the annual Minnesota Football Coaches Association Clinic March 28-30 at the DoubleTree in St. Louis Park.
This year is the 150th anniversary of college football and it will be interesting to see what Big Ten marketers, including the Gophers, do to celebrate the milestone. Minnesota had a glorious football history between 1900 and 1970 including seven national championships, with that total still among the best in the country.
The Gophers want to sell more tickets for their high profile sports and yet over the years there are too many scheduling conflicts with Minnesota’s pro teams. Last Sunday the women’s basketball team tipped off at Williams Arena about 30 minutes after the Timberwolves-Lakers game began at Target Center. On the final Sunday in December the men’s team was playing at home the same afternoon as the Vikings and Bears were at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The MLS Draft starts at noon (today) in Chicago and Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright told Sports Headliners his club expects to be active during the league’s four rounds. That could mean a trade for better positioning including during the first round where the United currently has the No. 7 pick.
The United opens its first season at Allianz Field on April 13 in a match against New York. Wright said the club has capped its season ticket sales at 14,500 and has a waiting list of about 5,000 to purchase season tickets. Dates and details for purchase of single game tickets, stadium ribbon cutting and opportunity for the general public to see the new facility will be announced soon.
Wright, the former Timberwolves and Lynx president, grew up in England and has a passion for soccer as a former player, coach and front office executive in the sport. He has been involved with professional sports front office work for about 40 years, mostly with the Timberwolves. He said Minnesota’s MLS franchise is “the right place” for him now. He joined the franchise in October of 2017 but this will be the first draft and offseason where he has been fully positioned to make a greater impact on the club’s future success.
The Wild are home tomorrow night (Saturday) against the Red Wings, a team Minnesota is 6-3-3 against in the last 12 games. Seven of those games have been decided by one goal.
It will be interesting to see if the Rochester John Marshall basketball team can be a surprise entry in the state tournament and showcase its senior front court superstar Matthew Hurt. The Rockets haven’t qualified for the tourney during the Hurt era so most hoops fans have never seen the five-star recruit who ranks among the best basketball preps ever to play in Minnesota.
The Gophers’ lone men’s basketball commit so far for their class of 2019 is Marvin “Tre'” Williams III. The 6-5 guard from Dallas is currently enrolled at Wasatch Academy in Utah in 2019. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino is likely to expect immediate help from Williams, whose mother Kelly is from St. Paul and played basketball at Harding High School.
Between now and the home opener March 28, the Twins front office will probably focus on finding pitching help, rather than position players where the club appears pretty well set.
Anyone want to forecast the 2019 final stats for Twins cornerstones and comeback candidates Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano?
Fred Hoiberg could have a future in Minneapolis, and perhaps not with the Timberwolves like most everyone is speculating.
If Golden Gophers coach Richard Pitino moved on after this season, it doesn’t require much imagination to think athletic director Mark Coyle has Hoiberg’s name on a list of potential candidates who interest him. Coyle, who didn’t hire Pitino, has shown a willingness to change coaches in his department since taking over as Minnesota’s AD in the spring of 2016.
Pitino, 36, has a 33-61 Big Ten record in five-plus seasons, and one NCAA Tournament appearance. Going into this season basketball media considered him a coach on the “hot seat.” Minnesota’s overall record this season is 12-3 and 2-2 in conference games after last night’s home loss to Maryland.
In past years rumors had other schools pursuing Pitino for head coaching jobs. He has East Coast roots and maybe it’s possible an impressive season this winter by the Gophers will prompt a job opening that interests him more than Minnesota.
It’s common policy for athletic directors to maintain lists of potential replacements for coaches leaving their positions. Hoiberg’s qualifications make him a “layup” for the job at Minnesota, if it opens and he is interested.
Hoiberg’s name is known throughout this state for his playing career with the Timberwolves and front office work with the franchise. His first entry into coaching was a huge success at Iowa State, where he made the team a Big-12 power with an up-tempo offense led by transfers from other schools including ex-Gopher Royce White. While at Iowa State, Hoiberg’s name was prominently connected to the Gophers’ coaching opening in 2013 but apparently he wasn’t interested at that time in leaving the Cyclones.
Iowa State was a homecoming for the Ames native who had been a legendary player for the Cyclones. He won about two-thirds of his games (115-56) in five seasons before leaving for the NBA’s Bulls. He never got the Bulls into the playoffs and in December was terminated because the club was playing so poorly. His supporters argue he never had the personnel to turn the Bulls into a winner.
Hoiberg told ESPN on Monday he prefers to pursue college or pro coaching opportunities, rather than work in an NBA front office. Zach Lowe wrote that Hoiberg’s passion is with coaching, and that he isn’t prioritizing either the NBA or college coaching for his next stop.
Hoiberg also has the name recognition, appearance, charm and communication skills to be a TV basketball authority. At 46, he has considerable hoops experience and yet he is young enough to be attractive to potential employers.
“The Mayor,” as he is known in Ames, has options and they’re not in politics. Last I heard he still had connections to Minnesota including a lake cabin in the state. My impression years ago was that he and his family liked living here—a lot. While there are rumors UCLA wants him for its basketball opening, the Midwest seems like home for the “one of us” Hoiberg.
The Gopher job (if it becomes available) is attractive because the state is almost oozing with talented high school players. Keep most of them home and the Gophers could just about be Big Ten title contenders each year. The decades ahead might be special for the program.
At Iowa State Hoiberg had to fight off Iowa and other nearby programs for talent. The Gophers, though, are the only Division I basketball program in the state of Minnesota. That means a leg up in recruiting and support from the public including ticket buyers and donors. The program has a high ceiling in every way including an iconic arena and state-of-the-art practice facility.
Think of the recruiting pitch Hoiberg could make to recruits if he returns to a college program. He can talk about his own playing career, success in college coaching and extensive experience in the NBA. Known for his expertise in player development, Hoiberg could convincingly tell recruits he knows the formula for getting them to the NBA.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor may have deliberately taken a proactive step regarding Hoiberg when he fired coach Tom Thibodeau on Sunday. Taylor has known Hoiberg for about 15 years and I am sure likes him. Both are gentlemen and it’s easy to see how strong their bond could be in working together.
Taylor has to know admirers are already lining up at Hoiberg’s doorstep. It could be the two have already had conversations about a Hoiberg role with the organization. It’s easy to imagine the comfort level and rapport they might have.
Coming back to Minneapolis to work for Taylor and the Wolves is likely appealing to Hoiberg, who would be an expensive hire. He reportedly had a five year, $25 million deal with the Bulls so he’s already established a potential market price on his next job. In either a coaching or front office position with the Wolves, he will need to earn his money and that will be challenging because the team is far from being an NBA champion.
The roster has one future title level piece on the roster in 23-year-old center Karl-Anthony Towns. With his versatile skills at both ends of the court, including outside shooting, he seems like a perfect fit in a running, free flowing offense like Hoiberg would be expected to use.
Hoiberg won’t take a job with the Timberwolves without assurances regarding his authority. He might not have dual titles like Thibodeau had as coach and president of basketball operations, but there is no doubt his word on personnel decisions would be considerable. However, if Hoiberg is coaching he can only do so much, and current general manager Scott Layden, another likeable fellow, might be someone Taylor and Hoiberg want around.
Thibodeau was the Bulls coach before Hoiberg succeeded him in 2015. Now it seems like a strong possibility Hoiberg will again follow Thibodeau’s path, and perhaps soon.
That might be the direction Hoiberg wants to follow, but it appears he could more easily establish a winning team in college basketball where he can identify and recruit talent, rather than being in the NBA system of drafting players, and trying to sign and retain free agents. UCLA or other college programs should make that pitch.
As of this week 32-year-old Ryan Saunders is the Wolves interim coach. Despite his youth and inexperience (Wolves Summer League team was his only previous head job), Saunders has been respected in the organization for years and viewed as an ascending talent. He could turn out to be a “players’ coach” and if he can improve the club’s defensive performances he might get another title, too: “Genius.”
Much to the delight of his supportive players, Saunders won his debut game last night against the Thunder, 119-117.
Never get discouraged while preparing for a road trip.
I followed my own advice late last week. Prior to leaving for Madison, Wisconsin, a friend texted that the Golden Gophers were 10 point underdogs for Thursday night’s game against the Badgers. This didn’t put a frown on my face—perhaps because a few days earlier Jim Dutcher (the ex-Gopher coach) predicted a Minnesota win over Wisconsin in Sports Headliners.
If I was searching for discouragement I needed to go no further than the Gophers basketball record book. A Gopher team hadn’t won in Madison since 2009, although Minnesota prompted cardiac arrest among the most emotional U fans last year by taking the Badgers into overtime at the Kohl Center.
I wasn’t that concerned about history when I set out for Madison with a friend last Thursday morning. Nope, and I didn’t get upset when traffic on interstates 90 and 94 resembled Crosstown 62 in Minneapolis. “Left lane hogs” clogging traffic on the interstates in Wisconsin would have fit right in back home.
During the drive my friend and I dissected the Minnesota sports scene, commenting at length on the Gophers, Timberwolves, Twins, Vikings and Wild. We covered enough detail for three or four Sports Headliners columns, but here’s a tease of minutia:
· Disagreement about what team holds the most promise in 2019, with my vote going to the Vikings and my friend leaning toward (gasp!) Gophers football.
· Consensus that the five greatest all-time Twins are (in order): Kirby Puckett, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and Joe Mauer.
· Lamenting the length of baseball games and how the duration and tediousness is eating at the interest among even the most passionate MLB fans. One possible solution (multiple are needed) is declaring a batter out after a half dozen or so pitches are fouled off.
A first clue that happiness awaited in Madison could have been the balmy and sunny early January weather. It was warm enough to wear a light jacket and a Madisonian was spotted wearing shorts. (Not sure if beer was involved but word is it does powerful things to the mind and body.)
A first time visit to the Kohl Center was part of the fun in making the trip. I am forever curious about stadiums and arenas. I try to visit as many as possible when travelling—regardless of whether there are games going on.
The Kohl Center was built in 1998, making it one of the newer arenas in major college basketball. It’s a comfortable and impressive place. Think of Target Center on a budget.
The building seats 17,287 for basketball, more for concerts and less for Wisconsin hockey. The Badgers had 143 consecutive basketball sellouts from 2003-2011, and UW has been leading the Big Ten in basketball attendance this winter.
“Bucky” does a great job of paying tribute to past UW sports heroes in the building. The concourses are filled with display cases where you might read about football immortal Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, or Bud Foster who coached the Badgers to their only NCAA men’s basketball title in 1941. Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky, who led the Badgers to consecutive Final Four appearances, has his No. 44 enshrined in the rafters.
Want more name-dropping? Well, what’s a Badger game—in Minneapolis or Madison—without an Andy North sighting. The silver-haired golf guru is still offering his words of wisdom on TV, and showing up to support his beloved Badgers.
Before tipoff a University of Minnesota employee approached us at our seats (provided by a good friend and UW alum). “I still like Williams Arena more,” he said.
His opinion about Minnesota’s iconic building nearing a 100th anniversary certainly didn’t surprise, but he offered something else that I quickly categorized as a good omen about the game’s possible outcome. The Gophers, he said, travelled to Madison by bus—the same mode of transportation the football team used in late November when they won at Wisconsin for the first time since 1994.
The basketball Gophers not only hadn’t won in Madison for nine years but had also lost eight consecutive games to Wisconsin going into Thursday’s get together. I was looking for signs of better things to come, and I received encouragement early in the game.
Minnesota’s players looked prepared from the beginning, mentally focused and playing better defense than sometimes executed by Pitino teams. The Badgers, because of Minnesota’s defense and their own poor shooting, got stuck on six points for a long stretch in the first half in front of a reported crowd of 16,687.
By halftime the Gophers held a 29-14 lead. Junior guard-forward Amir Coffey had been terrific, making field goals, slashing to the basket for scores and playmaking. He looked, as Dutcher said earlier in the week, like one of the Big Ten’s most versatile players.
During halftime I turned to my friend and predicted the first several minutes after intermission would tell a lot about whether the Badgers came back in the game. Well, once in awhile I am right. Within a few minutes the Gophers put themselves in foul trouble and the Badgers reduced the lead to single digits.
Minnesota, though, never let Wisconsin get closer than four points while earning a significant 59-52 road win that made the Gophers 2-1 in the Big Ten, and left the top 25 ranked Badgers with the same record. While Coffey scored just six points in the second half, and season leading rebounder and scorer Jordan Murphy fouled out of the game, the Gophers got some heroics from guards Brock Stull and Dupree McBrayer.
Stull, a senior transfer who has mostly played limited minutes this season with minimal production, made consecutive three pointers in the second half. Those unexpected six points had Pitino exhilarated on the sidelines and helped turn back a Badger run.
McBrayer, also a senior, turned two consecutive loose balls by the Badgers into points for the Gophers near the game’s end. Those points pretty much did in “Bucky,” although the Badgers still had a chance to tie or win even with 25 seconds to play.
In the closing minutes a lot of Badgers fans vacated their seats and headed for the exits. That was surprising, and so, too, were the boos that reined down on the Badger players and coaches during parts of the game. Maybe some Wisconsin fans are spoiled after so many Big Ten titles and trips to the NCAA Tournament during the last 20 years.
I am not encouraging booing college athletes but the frustration of Badger fans was understandable. Their Badgers made only seven of 17 free throws during a night their fans could have pleaded, “Is their shot doctor in the house?”
The Gophers held Wisconsin to an uncharacteristically low 22.7 percent on three pointers. The Badgers made just five of 22 attempts. D’Mitrik Trice, who entered the game converting more than 50 percent of his three point shots, made two of seven. Badgers star center Ethan Happ bedeviled Gophers defenders with his low post moves and shots but made just one of seven free throws on a night when he scored 17 points.
Guard Brad Davison and forward Nate Reuvers, both Minnesota natives, played 30 and 32 minutes respectively. Davison, whose image was on the game tickets, had an off night, scoring four points with two assists. Reuvers, whose photo was on the game program, helped lead the Wisconsin second half comeback. He scored 12 points with five rebounds.
Badgers fan don’t like losing to their “border rival” but none uttered a negative word to us as we made our way out of the Kohl Center and to the parking ramp. Not even my companion’s Gopher jacket could prompt a look of disdain or curt remark from our border neighbors.
In return I offer my red outfitted friends the following advice: Don’t get discouraged either at home or on the road. “Bucky” will be back.