Next winter Bob Lurtsema could wear a hat with this message: “I told you so.”
The former Vikings defensive lineman from the 1970s thinks his old team has better than a 50 percent chance of playing in the 2017 Super Bowl. “I really sincerely believe, that they’re going to win 11, 12 (games),” Lurtsema told Sports Headliners. “They have a great opportunity—legitimate opportunity for the Super Bowl.”
Lurtsema, who played on Vikings Super Bowl teams during the 1970s, is close to the organization. He attends practices not open to the media, and he talks with players and coaches.
Lurtsema’s past predictions have been impressive. Prior to the 2014 season he forecast an 8-8 record. The Vikings finished 7-9. Before last season, when talk was the Vikings wouldn’t make the playoffs, Lurtsema predicted a 10-6 record and participation in the postseason. The Vikings finished 11-5 during the regular season, won their first division championship since 2009 and hosted a home playoff game against the Seahawks, losing 10-9.
Almost any conversation with Lurtsema about the Vikings starts with his admiration for head coach Mike Zimmer who he likens to Bud Grant, the legendary coach who led the Purple to four Super Bowls. “I can’t say enough good things about coach Zimmer, because he has so much Bud in him,” Lurtsema said. “If a player makes a mental mistake, he’ll cut him. He’ll give a second chance, but you make mental mistakes, you’re gone.”
Lurtsema believes coaching is about “65 percent” of the formula for success in the NFL. He not only likes Zimmer but also the staff of assistants that includes three former head NFL coaches.
When the Vikings open training camp later this month, Zimmer and most of his assistants will be preparing for their third season with Minnesota. Their experience working with each other and the players is part of why Lurtsema is so optimistic about the Vikings. “The coaches have enough history on the players to know their strengths and weaknesses,” he said.
Lurtsema said there is “no reason” why the Vikings won’t win the NFC North for a second consecutive season. He believes the Packers are Minnesota’s main rival for the title, dismissing the likelihood of a championship from the two other teams in the division, the Bears and Lions.
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will draw focus from fans during training camp and in early season games. Entering his third NFL season, Bridgewater boosters believe he is among the NFL’s most underrated quarterbacks. Count Lurtsema as an admirer. “Teddy has all the talent in the world,” Lurtsema said.
Tickets for the Vikings’ first-ever regular season game in U.S. Bank Stadium on September 18 range in price today from $270 to $2,600 on Stubhub.com.
The Vikings play the Packers in that game, and then play the Pack starting at noon December 24 (Christmas Eve) in Green Bay’s outdoor stadium. From a weather perspective that kind of scheduling is a head-scratcher but the TV ratings for the holiday game figure to be extraordinary.
As of Monday, approximately 700 of the original 49,700 seat licenses in U.S. Bank Stadium for Vikings season tickets were available.
Radio play-by-play announcer Paul Allen will call his 300th Vikings game when Minnesota plays the Lions November 6 in Minneapolis. Allen became the voice of the Vikings in 2002.
The Big Ten Network will televise the news conferences from Chicago next Monday and Tuesday of all 14 Big Ten Conference football coaches. Gophers coach Tracy Claeys will be among seven coaches making comments and answering questions about his team between noon and 2 p.m. CDT Monday.
Rick Pizzo and former Gophers head coach Glen Mason will be in the BTN studio offering analysis of the news conferences.
Minnesota native Tyus Jones reinforced his fan-friendly image last week in Las Vegas when he signed autographs in the arena concourse following an NBA summer league game. The Timberwolves point guard made a statement with his play, too, being named the Samsung NBA Summer League MVP.
A guess is the Lynx will play its games at Xcel Energy Center next year while Target Center is renovated. The WNBA franchise has scheduled a news conference this afternoon at Xcel but hasn’t announced the topic. The Gophers’ Williams Arena isn’t air conditioned and Mariucci Arena is a hockey-first building.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association will announce its new women’s commissioner to the media this afternoon at the league’s Edina office. The WCHA, an eight team league that includes the Gophers, has won a record 16 national championships in 17 years since its inception in 1999. During that span the WCHA has six Patty Kazmaier Award winners, 86 All-Americans and numerous Olympic and international team participants.
Connor Nord, the former St. Thomas two-time All-MIAC basketball player who played professionally in Germany last season, left for Las Vegas Tuesday with the Minnesota Heat 17 and under AAU team he is coaching. Nord has decided to end his basketball playing career and pursue coaching, including assisting Guy Kalland at Carleton. Nord told Sports Headliners he will live in Eden Prairie with his parents and commute to Northfield for his new job at Carleton.
Former Gopher Cory Laylin is the head coach of USA Hockey’s Under 17 team that will compete in the Five Nations Cup tournament. The Hamline men’s head coach will lead USA in a round robin tournament in Frisco, Texas from August 9-13. Other tournament teams are the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland.
Before baseball’s All-Star break last week the Twins’ record was 32-56, a winning percentage of .363. Since their schedule resumed last Friday the Twins earned one victory in a three-game series at home against the Central Division leading Indians.
But even though the club has an awful record, Twins president Dave St. Peter has ambitious expectations for wins and losses before the season ends on October 2. Asked about a hypothetical guarantee by the baseball gods that the Twins will win half their remaining games, St. Peter didn’t buy in. “No, I would never take .500,” he told Sports Headliners last week. “I think we’re capable of being better than that. I am not ready to settle for .500 baseball.”
At least .500 was what the Twins were expected to do with their 2016 schedule after last season’s 83-79 record. What happened? St. Peter listed multiple reasons including lack of offense at the beginning of the season, injuries to key players like All-Star closer Glen Perkins, and also inconsistent bullpen and starting pitching.
St. Peter said the club “dug ourselves a mighty hole” but he is encouraged by the “high quality young players in our system.” Although he didn’t list names, those players surely include the likes of outfield prospects Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, both already with the Twins, and pitcher Jose Berrios at AAA Rochester.
For the Twins to perform a lot better the rest of this season—and beyond—the organization will need to focus on improving the pitching. Not only is the roster of pitchers and position players being scrutinized, but St. Peter also said the organization’s decision makers will soon be reviewed.
The baseball department is led by Terry Ryan, a longtime favorite of management and ownership. He has been working for the Twins identifying and developing personnel since 1986. He is in his second assignment as general manager after coming back as personnel boss in 2011.
Ryan has fought off cancer in the past and baseball insiders may wonder how much longer he wants the demanding job of rebuilding the Twins who had four consecutive years of 90-plus loss seasons from 2011-2014. St. Peter said a mutual evaluation of Ryan’s future will be made near season’s end.
In talking to St. Peter the message is that everything and everyone will be analyzed. “It’s an ongoing evaluation. I can assure you that,” he said.
No final decision for 2017 has been made about manager Paul Molitor. The Minnesota native and Hall of Fame player managed for the first time last season. His efforts were applauded but with such an awful record this season Molitor and his coaches are on the spot like others in the organization.
St. Peter said he’s “very pleased” with Molitor’s overall work as Twins manager but that’s “not to say he and his coaches don’t accept some responsibility” for the club’s record this season. “There is no doubt in our minds we continue to be big believers in Paul Molitor,” St. Peter said.
The manager and coaches have helped lead the team through a difficult start but the club has won eight of its last 12 games. The Twins also made some progress in June, going 5-5 in the last 10 games.
Molitor didn’t panic when the season nosedived. Molitor is known for his high baseball I.Q. and St. Peter said his manager is also a leader with “tremendous poise every single day.”
One change that for sure won’t happen in the organization in 2017, according to St. Peter, is the return of Joe Mauer to catching. Because of concussion symptoms, the former All-Star catcher moved to first base starting with the 2014 season. Mauer admitted last winter to at times having difficulty seeing the baseball while batting and the results at the plate of the last few seasons substantiate that.
Mauer, a three-time batting champion, hit .277 and .265 during the 2014 and 2015 season. A career .313 hitter going into this season, Mauer is batting .268 this year.
With a contract that pays him $23 million per season, Mauer is giving the Twins a poor return on the club’s investment. First basemen are expected to offer better numbers than seven home runs and 28 RBI if their batting average is .268—particularly if they are among the best paid players in baseball.
Mauer, now 33, would be more valuable to the Twins if he could play part-time behind the plate. The team needs catching help this season and beyond. With Mauer’s present offensive limitations, an ideal assignment might have him catching 50 games, playing 50 at first base, and being the designated hitter at other times.
“Joe Mauer will not catch,” St. Peter said.
Why? “His health and his ability to continue at a high level as a dad, as a husband, trumps everything else in our minds. I think we’ve covered this ground many, many times. Joe Mauer is not going to return to the position of catcher based on his history there with his concussions.”
St. Peter said he isn’t aware of Mauer having vision problems now. Mauer is hitting .333 in his last seven games and that provides encouragement that the St. Paul native can continue to raise his average.
Can he become a .300 hitter again? “I am not putting numbers on things, you are, but we just think he can be a more effective hitter than what his average shows at this point,” St. Peter said.
After yesterday’s loss to the Indians, the Twins are 7-27 against Central Division rivals. The Twins start a three-game series in Detroit against the Tigers tonight.
In yesterday’s game Kepler hit his ninth home run. The rookie right fielder has hit nine homers and driven in 32 runs since June 12.
First baseman and designated hitter Kennys Vargas has hit safely in seven of nine games since being recalled from Rochester on July 4. He is batting .379 with the Twins.
Announced attendance at yesterday’s game was 25,692. If the Twins were contending for a division title the game could have been a sellout. When football is dominating local sports interest in August and September, attendance will be a challenge for the Twins who are headed toward their lowest customer total in Target Field history.
St. Peter said former Twins great Rod Carew has been cleared to be on a list for a heart transplant. Carew almost lost his life last year after a heart attack.
Everyone knows redshirt senior Mitch Leidner will be the Gophers’ starting quarterback this season, but even head coach Tracy Claeys can’t say who will be No. 2.
Sophomore Demry Croft played in three games as a reserve behind Leidner last season. During the spring Leidner didn’t participate in practices because of foot surgery but neither Croft nor freshman Seth Green (he enrolled at Minnesota in January) separated themselves as the No. 1 backup. Nor did redshirt junior and former walk-on Conor Rhoda, who played briefly in two games during the 2014 season.
Claeys said having 14 days of spring practices wasn’t enough to determine his second unit quarterback. He predicted that about 10 days prior to Minnesota’s opening game the coaching staff will settle on a backup to Leidner.
The Gophers begin formal practices in early August and play Oregon State at home on September 1. Regarding Croft and Green, Claeys said one of them is headed toward a redshirt season.
“There’s no question,” Claeys told Sports Headliners. “One of them will end up being redshirted—however it works out.”
Croft had plenty of learning to do last year as a freshman and looked just okay during his limited playing time. He completed seven of 17 passes for 34 yards, while rushing nine times for 38 yards. Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill has raved about Croft’s potential since he signed him to a National Letter of Intent out of Boylan High School in Rockford, Illinois.
Green, though, who Kill never coached, was the more highly rated prep quarterback in a high school career that included playing time in both Allen, Texas and Woodbury, Minnesota. Scout ranked Green as the No. 4 quarterback in Texas last season, while 247Sports listed him as the No. 10 dual-threat QB in America.
The development of Croft, Green and Rhoda is vital to not only the next few seasons for the Gophers but also this fall. Leidner is considered one of the Big Ten’s best returning quarterbacks and a long-term injury to him could wreck Minnesota’s season.
The Gophers’ prospects for a winning season in the Big Ten are fragile, and to be successful without Leidner Minnesota would probably need a breakthrough performance by one of their young quarterbacks. That’s a predicament neither Claeys nor the fanbase wants to see because the coach believes a healthy team can challenge for the West Division title.
Much of the college football media isn’t as optimistic, making the Gophers a popular choice to finish fifth in the seven-team West Division. However, Minnesota is seen as a dark horse with a favorable schedule and a bowl game waiting as a season-ending prize.
Optimistic Gopher fans are anticipating a 4-0 start when division favorite Iowa brings Floyd of Rosedale to town on October 8. That record will require an opening conference win on the road at Penn State on October 1, and right now the Nittany Lions will be the favorite. Prior to the game in State College, Minnesota will have to defeat two mediocre teams, Oregon State and Colorado State, and FCS ho-humer Indiana State—all at home.
Fans who are high on Maroon and Gold Kool Aid can see a 9-0 start before the Gophers play at Nebraska on November 12. If an undefeated Minnesota team could get by Iowa, the Gophers’ next four games are all against Big Ten opponents with less impressive resumes than Minnesota’s. But road games at Maryland and Illinois could be “trap games,” while wins figure to come easier at home against Rutgers and Purdue (two wins in the last 24 conference games).
All this preseason speculation is fun, of course, but counts for nothing. Just remember last spring when local baseball fans had the Twins winning close to 90 games and perhaps flirting with a postseason series. At the same time national media were penciling in the Twins for last place in the division. By May we all knew who was right.
While nobody knows how much the Gophers will improve on last season’s 6-7 overall and 2-6 conference records, we do understand this: Dinkytown ain’t Columbus, Ohio. Translation: the Gophers roster has nowhere close to the number of talented players and depth of an Ohio State and the other elites of college football.
A year ago Buckeyes fans were pondering who would be named the starter among three potential Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks. It was more than comforting to know that if one went down—or even two were sidelined—there was a star QB waiting to play.
At Minnesota the situation is much different. Gopher followers have collective fingers crossed that Leidner is on the field for 13 games during an eight, nine or 10 wins season.
College Football Notes
Gophers’ border rival Wisconsin has an interesting opening game—hosting SEC power LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Other unusual openers include California and Hawaii in Sydney, Australia; and Boston College and Georgia Tech in Dublin, Ireland.
The Gophers open their season September 1 against Oregon State at TCF Bank Stadium in a Thursday night game televised by the Big Ten Network. The opening weekend of college football includes made for national TV games Alabama-USC, Oklahoma-Houston and Notre Dame-Texas.
About 30 former Gophers, at the invitation of Claeys, attended a welcome reception for incoming freshmen players on campus last night. Each of the alums and freshmen spoke including ex-Gopher tackle Ray Hawes who paid tribute to Sandy Stephens. Now deceased, Stephens was the first African-American All-American quarterback in the nation and helped lead Minnesota to Big Ten and national titles.
Seniors Mitch Leidner, Jack Lynn and Damarius Travis will represent the Gophers at the Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago July 25 and 26.
Prominent former Gophers assistants are working at other programs including Matt Limegrover, Minnesota’s offensive coordinator last season and now offensive line coach at Penn State. Other “alums” include Kevin Cosgrove and Bob DeBesse who are the defensive and offensive coordinators at New Mexico; Michigan offensive assistant Jedd Fisch; Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone; Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof, and Texas State head coach Everett Withers.
It looks like former Gopher Philip Nelson will be the starting quarterback for East Carolina. Nelson is a senior and will play for first-year coach Scottie Montgomery.
Former Gophers football player Mark Sheffert is a nationally-known business advisor in financial, strategic, leadership and governance issues. Sheffert made a presentation and led a discussion on governance with the University of Minnesota Board of Regents last week. He is chairman and CEO of Minneapolis-based Manchester Companies.