Did circumstances caused by the coronavirus prompt Golden Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle to announce last week that basketball coach Richard Pitino will return for another season?
A sports executive, asking for anonymity, told Sports Headliners a couple of weeks ago he heard Coyle had decided to fire Pitino, who was completing his seventh season leading the Gophers. Another source, with close ties to the University of Minnesota, said rumors this winter were Coyle had reached out to potential replacements.
As of last week, developments from the coronavirus had the University anticipating $50 million or more in new expenses. It could be that Coyle, in consultation with school president Joan Gabel, decided against giving Pitino the $2 million buyout his contract demands.
Critics would have pounced hard on University leaders for spending $2 million during such difficult times at the U and throughout the state of Minnesota. Fault-finders wouldn’t care the $2 million probably would have come from the largely self-supporting athletic department, and not from tax dollars out of the University’s general fund.
Gabel and Coyle may well have sized up the situation and seen that the practicality and the perception of changing basketball coaches just now was not the way to go. “Richard was (probably) spared by the pandemic,” said the source with close ties to the U.
Was it the right decision? For years there has been a chorus of Pitino critics, speaking with conviction that the program has underperformed. This winter the noise level jumped with loud complaining and second-guessing from the fan-base. There were blown leads in games and close defeats, including to border rivals Iowa and Wisconsin. The emotions of this winter became combined with too many past seasons of frustrations that even involved misbehavior by players.
Wisconsin had five Minnesotans on its roster this year and some played key roles in helping the Badgers tie for the 2020 Big Ten championship. Next season the Badgers add two promising Minnesota prep players in Ben Carlson and Steven Crowl. The roster in Madison is expected to have seven Minnesotans for 2020-2021.
For 20 consecutive Big Ten seasons the Badgers have produced better records than the Gophers! And often Minnesotans were major contributors. Part of that Wisconsin success story the last 20 years includes five Big Ten regular season titles and two Final Four appearances. Impressive results for the Badgers who represent a state and school that is demographically, culturally and geographically similar to Minnesota.
Critics have been outspoken for a long time about the Gophers not recruiting more quality Minnesota prep players. A former Big Ten coach told Sports Headliners there were more than a dozen Minnesotans playing for other NCAA basketball teams this winter that could have helped the Gophers. Pitino’s two most recent recruiting classes have no Minnesotans—and he and his staff have come up empty on three of the last four classes.
This year’s Gopher team had five Minnesotans on the roster, with two of them starters. Sophomore center Daniel Oturu was named an All-American and is likely to depart for the NBA in the spring. Sophomore guard Gabe Kalscheur was also a starter and the team’s most active three-point shooter. Forwards Michael Hurt and Jarvis Omersa played limited minutes off the bench, and guard Brady Rudrud hardly at all.
Fans have an expectation that the high caliber and large number of talented prep players in the state will translate into success for the Gophers. Minnesota has become a hotbed of talent, and a regular recruiting stop for college coaches from other places including prominent names like Tom Izzo of Michigan State, Bill Self from Kansas and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.
Pitino’s seven-year Big Ten record is 48 wins, 72 losses. Only once, in 2016-2017, have his teams won more conference regular season games than they have lost. That 11-7 record was a pleasant surprise and resulted in Pitino being selected the league’s Coach of the Year.
The 2016-2017 team made the NCAA Tournament where the Gophers lost their opening game. Pitino’s team last year also made the tournament and had an impressive upset win over Louisville before losing to Michigan State. In the coach’s first season, 2013-2014, Minnesota won the National Invitational Tournament.
Qualifying for the 68-field NCAA Tournament has become a popular measure of success in the college basketball world, but it shouldn’t be seen by fans or administrators as meaningful as being a conference title contender most seasons. In a statement last week Coyle expressed his expectations for Pitino to compete for championships. (While more detail was sought, Coyle declined to be interviewed for this column.)
Next fall and winter the pressure on the coach and Coyle could increase even more. If Oturu departs, it’s difficult to speculate how the returning players and incoming freshmen (two four-star recruits from out of state) will produce and with what results.
Those results weren’t so good this year with the Gophers finishing in 12th place in the 14-team Big Ten. Minnesota’s record was 8-12 in the conference and 15-16 overall. Home attendance had an announced average for 16 games of 10,232. That is the lowest since the program had an average of 8,395 during the 1970-1971 season. (Announced attendance means tickets distributed.)
The Gophers had one sellout all season when 14,625 was announced for the February 16 Iowa game. Fan apathy has been a reality for years and this offseason indifference is likely to grow. Certainly Coyle sees this and may well have considered how a change in leadership could have jump-started expectations and revenues including season tickets and donations. The right coach could make up the $2 million buyout in short order.
Coyle is a savvy administrator and has impressed with his coaching selections since becoming athletic director in 2016. His hires include football coach P.J. Fleck who in year three at Minnesota led the Gophers to a final A.P. ranking of No. 10 in the nation. That was the highest ranking for the program at the end of a season since 1962. For decades Gopher football mostly struggled against Big Ten opponents, but last year Minnesota had a 7-2 record. The seven wins tied a school record. Fleck’s teams are 15-4 in their last 19 games.
If the football program—requiring large numbers of players—can become a quick success story at Minnesota, then surely basketball can rebound, too. The rise of football should mute the apologists who say Gophers basketball can’t do much better than land in the lower portion of the Big Ten standings.
Pitino was hired in 2013 by infamous U athletic director Norwood Teague who had been unable to convince other candidates to accept the job. Pitino, then 30 years old, had one season of head coaching experience at Florida International where his record was 18-14. The job at Minnesota has been rewarding financially with a current salary base of about $2 million and millions more earned over seven years including through bonuses. Not so rewarded are the Gopher loyalists who have invested their money, time and emotions in the program with minimal return for years.
Teague showed patience with Pitino, and so, too, has Coyle who is on record as personally liking the coach. I like Richard, too, but coaches are hired to win and there has been too little of that for most of the last seven seasons.
Hopkins girls’ basketball coach Brian Cosgriff told Sports Headliners he doesn’t know if he will be coaching next season. He has been the Royals head coach for 21 seasons, with seven state titles, 19 Lake Conference championships and 14 section titles.
Daughter Brooke is a senior at Hopkins and has been a reserve on a Hopkins team that won 62 consecutive games. Her college destination is yet to be determined and that was on dad’s mind when he talked about his future Saturday.
“I want to be around to follow her collegiate career, and if coaching doesn’t allow me to do that, I am going to have to have a serious conversation with myself and some people.” Cosgriff said. “But I haven’t made up my mind right now (about next year).”
Coach Cos, as he is known to so many admirers, has experienced so much emotion in 2020 including induction into the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame. In the last 12 months he’s had a dream run seeing his team win the 2019 Class 4A championship while coaching his daughter and a roster of talented and unselfish young athletes. That roster for several years has included Paige Bueckers, the do-it-all National Player of the Year, and perhaps the greatest girls basketball player in state history.
The winning streak, the 2020 journey to another state tournament, the joy of playing and coaching all came to an abrupt halt last week after the Royals had won their state tournament semifinal game. Because of the coronavirus threat, the Minnesota State High School League cancelled what would have been the 4A title game Saturday between Hopkins and Farmington. This week’s boys’ tournament is also cancelled and spring sports teams as of now are allowed to practice but not play games.
Seeing competition end on the court or fields is frustrating for all concerned. For the Royals and Farmington to stop playing one game short of determining a state champion prompts a lot of emotional pain. Cosgriff said his players were “crying their eyes out” when he told them the bad news.
The coach wanted to offer something to say that would console them. He and the players are used to fixing problems like watching film after games and correcting mistakes. All he could say to his players was to savor the journey they had experienced, and find joy and satisfaction in knowing each other and all they had achieved.
As of Saturday, though, Cosgriff and the Royals yearned for one more game, and another state title. Could something be worked out? “I haven’t been told anything,” the coach said. “At this point it’s cancelled. I haven’t been told that both teams will be crowned state champions, (or) there is a makeup date, or anything like that.”
On Sunday Governor Tim Walz announced all schools in the state, starting Wednesday, will be closed for at least eight days. Shortly afterward the announcement came that Hopkins schools are closed as of today. Saturday Cosgriff was struggling with two realities—his team couldn’t play for a championship they had been working for since last April, yet Hopkins and other schools were open.
Cosgriff understands what a serious situation the state and nation face. He gets it that people can become very ill and inevitably there will be lawsuits involving the coronavirus. So he understands the risks but just seeks some final answers even including a banquet to celebrate what has been achieved (the school district, he said, is discouraging banquets for its teams).
Cosgriff said, “I just want some of these questions answered. What’s the alternative here? Is it just done? Is that what it is?”
NFL.com is reporting this morning Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has agreed to a two-year contract extension with the team. No further details reported yet. Cousins was in the last year of his deal and earlier media reports said negotiations were stalled.
A college sports commissioner said the NCAA is deciding whether seniors who play spring sports will be granted another season of eligibility in 2021. The NCAA, like so many organizations across the country, has placed springs sport on hold for now.
The annual Minnesota Football Clinic for March 26-28 has been cancelled and the sponsoring Minnesota Football Coaches Association also announced that its March 28 banquet is postponed. Refund options are available for both the clinic and banquet.
Northfield author Patrick Mader has written another book on accomplished athletes from the state. More Minnesota Gold is devoted to 51 Minnesota athletes who competed in the Olympics, Paralympics, and World Championships. The 392-page full-color book includes a name index and city listing. Among the many names profiled are speed skater Amy Peterson who won three Olympic gold medals, and 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey player John Harrington.
Former Minnesota governor Arne Carlson talking yesterday on WCCO Radio about 100-year-old Sid Hartman’s impact on the state: “He is Mr. Sports. That’s all there is to it.”
Ten years from now on Selection Sunday there might be Minnesotans other than Gophers fans sitting in front of televisions to learn where their men’s basketball team is headed in the famous NCAA Division I Tournament. St. Thomas, as a member of the Big East Conference, might be in line for an invitation to the Big Dance, too.
As of today, the Tommies are a long way from membership in the prestigious Big East, but this scenario could have more credibility than you think. The Division III Tommies are optimistic about an NCAA vote this spring allowing them to jump to Division I status starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Most of the St. Thomas sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, are likely to compete in the mid-major level Summit League whose nine members are Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, Purdue Fort Wayne, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois.
The switch to Division I status will be expensive but St. Thomas is a school with deep pockets and generous donors. The Tommies will also count on the men’s basketball program becoming a profit center. As a mid-major, the Tommies will be looked at in their early Division I years as “cannon fodder” for major conference teams, and many of them in leagues like the ACC and Big Ten pay large guarantees to easy opponents. Six-figure paydays from programs like Duke, Michigan State and Kansas will ease the financial burden (including scholarships) of going Division I for St. Thomas.
Home crowds in St. Paul for the Tommies are likely to be small in the initial years of men’s Division I basketball, but eventually school leaders could build an on-campus arena seating about 8,000 to 10,000 fans. Such a facility, combined with an improving and competitive basketball roster, and a home in the Big East Conference, would help fulfill the St. Thomas vision to establish the school in the same image as nationally known Catholic schools like Marquette and Villanova.
St. Thomas president Julie Sullivan wrote about the Division I process in an October, 2019 article on the school’s website last fall. “This decision is about more than athletics – it’s about advancing our vision to be a leading Catholic university recognized at the national level. An important outcome of increasing St. Thomas’ visibility, for example, is an ability to attract a more geographically diverse cross section of students who are accomplished in and out of the classroom.
“This additional representation would add value to classroom discussions, campus life, co-curricular activities and virtually every aspect of St. Thomas while providing St. Thomas with the opportunity to extend the reach of our mission and impact. The presence of Division I sports teams will also build on the strong Tommie fan loyalty and provide the campus and alumni with more engaging fan experiences.”
The caliber of high school basketball in the state of Minnesota has been impressive for years, and still seems to be trending upward. The Gophers have frequently blundered acquiring their share of the talent, consistently seeing top players attend schools far and wide, including the Wisconsin Badgers who tied for the Big Ten championship this year with Minnesotans playing key roles.
With the arrival of St. Thomas in Division I, the Gophers will no longer be the only program in the state with that status. Word is St. Thomas is already showing interest in younger high school players whose college years will match the launch of the Tommies D I debut in the Summit League.
The St. Thomas athletic director is Phil Esten who once was a top administrator in the Minnesota Athletic Department. Esten’s responsibilities with the Gophers included overseeing the building of TCF Bank Stadium. He has also worked in athletic departments at California, Ohio State and Penn State. He is respected in college athletics, and his relationships and experiences are an asset to St. Thomas in gaining Division I status and growing its programs.
One day the Tommies may have progressed to a position of authority in the Summit League and could receive an invitation to join the Big East Conference whose membership is dominated by Catholic schools including Creighton, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s and Villanova—all programs with rich basketball legacies.
St. Thomas men’s and women’s teams have been Division III powers for years, including in NCAA tournaments. Most recently, the St. Thomas men won the 2016 Division III national title.
Because of Coronavirus concerns the Twin Cities Dunkers has postponed its March 18 meeting where Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher was scheduled to speak at the Minneapolis Club. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck was to introduce Fisher who has a family tie to the University of Minnesota.
Congratulations to former Gophers All-American defensive end Bob Stein after the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame named him a member of the 2020 College Football Hall of Fame Class. A key contributor to Minnesota’s 1967 co-Big Ten championship team, he is the 19th Golden Gopher player to join the College Football Hall of Fame, and first since quarterback Sandy Stephens in 2011.
Sean Engel, a 2016 Chaska High School graduate, will be a senior at Augustana (Sioux Falls) next season and the 6-foot-5 wide receiver has pro football ambitions. He made the NSIC South Division all-conference first team in 2019 after catching 39 passes for 546 yards and helping his team to a 9-3 season and the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2015. Older brother Derrick was a wide receiver for the Gophers.
Harvey Mackay, the University of Minnesota alum, former Gophers golfer and New York Times best selling author, has a new book out, You Haven’t Hit Your Peak Yet, and in late January it was Barnes & Noble’s best selling business book.