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Flip’s Ex-Coach Endorses Ryan Saunders


Jim Dutcher has been impressed with the job Ryan Saunders has done since taking over as the Timberwolves head coach in early January. The Wolves have been playing less than .500 basketball under Saunders, but were struggling, too, prior to coach Tom Thibodeau being fired. “Any time you take over a program in the middle of the season, it’s not easy,” said Dutcher, who believes the players have responded well to Ryan’s coaching.

Ryan’s dad Flip played two seasons for Dutcher at the University of Minnesota, from 1975-1977. Flip, who passed away in 2015, later coached for Dutcher and the two built a close lifelong friendship.

The resemblances between father and son are evident to Dutcher, including facial expressions. “You just think of Flip when you see him (Ryan),” said Dutcher who coached the Golden Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten title with Flip as a young assistant.

Ryan hired Jerry Sichting as an assistant coach shortly after taking over the Wolves. Sichting had worked for Flip, and Dutcher said Ryan wanted to bring in the 62-year-old assistant to provide valuable counsel on and off the court.

Jim Dutcher

Dutcher sees another connection between father and son. “He’s not afraid to try things,” Dutcher said of Ryan’s willingness to experiment with new lineups, substitutions and how he uses his bench.

Flip, who died at age 60, had a long history with owner Glen Taylor and the Timberwolves organization as president, coach and minority owner. Ryan, 32, was an assistant coach under his dad, and then under Flip’s successors including Thibodeau. The Saunders name is almost synonymous with the organization.

Dutcher said Ryan shouldn’t be judged by his age (he’s younger than dozens of NBA players) or lack of head coaching experience. Because of his experience with the Timberwolves, including this season’s team, Ryan knows the organization, owner and players. “I think he was as ready as anybody in that situation could be (to be named head coach),” Dutcher said.

While Ryan carries the interim tag as head coach now, that could change after the season as Taylor continues to make his evaluation. Certainly a surprise entry into the playoffs will help Saunders’ cause, but for that to happen the team must play more consistent defense than it has offered so far this season and go on a long winning streak.

Dutcher is even more specific about the defensive challenge awaiting Ryan when asked about the team’s big need for improvement. “Getting defensive stops when the game is on the line (fourth quarter),” Dutcher said.

The Timberwolves are 29-34 after last night’s 135-121 road loss to the Wizards, the team’s third loss in a row. That’s way too many points to give an opponent, particularly a struggling club like the Wizards.

“It’s hard to win on the road when you’re defensive intensity is not there and it hasn’t been there in these three games…,” Saunders said referring to the team’s three-game losing streak during his postgame news conference televised in Minneapolis by Fox Sports North.

Worth Noting

Dutcher thinks the current Gophers men’s basketball team, 18-11 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten, may receive an NCAA Tournament invitation even if they don’t win their two remaining regular season games but do win their Big Ten Tournament opener. He said a victory tomorrow night at home against nationally-ranked and Big Ten leader Purdue will cinch an entry into the NCAA Tournament.

Former Golden Gophers coach Bill Fitch, who left Minnesota after the 1970 season for the NBA, is one of 13 finalists for induction later this year into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Fitch is among the winningest NBA coaches in league history with 944 victories, and his 1981 Boston Celtics won the league championship. In 1996 he was named one of the NBA’s Ten Best Coaches of All-Time.

Fitch coached five NBA teams starting with the Cavs in 1970 and ending with the Clippers in 1998. A former Marine, Fitch had high expectations for his players and teams that also included the Nets and Rockets.

Fitch coached collegiately for 12 years including at North Dakota where he led the team to two consecutive Division II Final Fours (1965 and 1966). He was Minnesota’s coach for just two years, but helped rebuild a program that won the 1972 Big Ten title.

The 2019 Hall of Fame Class will be announced at the Final Four in Minneapolis next month. Fitch is 84, retired and living in Texas.

The five finalists for the 2019 Mr. Basketball Award are Isaac Fink, Springfield; Matthew Hurt, Rochester John Marshall; Zeke Nnaji, Hopkins; Tyrell Terry, DeLaSalle; Tyler Wahl, Lakeville North. The winner will be announced March 26 at the Timberwolves-Clippers game at Target Center.

The Vikings have extended head coach Mike Zimmer’s contract through 2020, with no details about his compensation. In the past, Internet speculation has put his compensation at $4 million per year. It’s a decent bet Vikings ownership signed off this winter on a small increase on whatever he has been earning.

Zimmer is 47-32-1 in five seasons and his teams have two NFC North titles. He needs five more wins to tie Jerry Burns for third in most head coaching victories with the franchise.

Zimmer may need to win another division title and have success in the playoffs to receive another extension next year. New assistant head coach Gary Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl with the Broncos and presents a personality contrast to the very intense Zimmer, could emerge as a candidate if there is an opening for the head job.

Best wishes to former Gophers hockey coach Doug Woog as he faces health care challenges including Parkinson’s disease.

Ex-Gopher Blake Cashman produced some of the best results of any linebacker at the NFL Combine last week 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.

Darrell Thompson, the Gophers’ all-time career leading rusher, has built the youth mentoring Bolder Options organization into a much admired nonprofit. The 26th anniversary Bolder Options Gala is May 2 at the Minneapolis Event Centers (Riverside Ballroom).

The Minnesota United Major League Soccer club is the only organization in the league with a female head athletic trainer (Stacey Hardin), female TV color commentator (Kyndra de St. Aubin) and female director of operations (Angie Blaker).

The United won its regular season opener on Saturday against Vancouver, 3-2, and has four more road games before opening the home season and debuting new Allianz Field on April 13 against New York City FC.

Quoting former Gophers golfer, Minneapolis businessman, and motivational speaker Harvey Mackay in his syndicated column last week: “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.”

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About Author


David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. avatar
    March 6, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    Ryan seems like a nice kid...but I don't think we can take Glen Taylor seriously if he decides to hire him permanently. There are numerous factors in Ryan's favor (local media is obsessed with his dad, Glen also has to pay a ton of money out to Thibs still) but to me this organization has to bring in someone new who has proven something on this level. They struck out on Thibs...but you still keep trying. Ryan has his dad's name....but has never been hired in this league without his dad or Glen making the hiring, has never even been a #1 assistant yet, and frankly has not been a part of any winning teams really anywhere. If his name was Joe Williams we'd laugh at the thought of this being a permanent hire.

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