Long ago Golden Gophers football dominated this sports marketplace. Even spring football practice was a big deal with 15,000 or more fans turning out for the annual game between the varsity and alumni. In the fall radios were tuned to Gopher games in duck blinds, backyards and homes across the state as Minnesotans celebrated and agonized over nearly every play.
What was Gophers football like in the 1950s? Think about how the Vikings dominate the public’s interest today and the comparison will provide an answer. Back before professional sports arrived in the state and the Gophers were riding the highs of national titles in the 1940s and 1930s, the state’s sports fans were captivated by Minnesota’s Big Ten team.
The lofty interest in Gophers football has been gone for a long time—changed by a steep decline in team performance from the days of national prominence, and the competition from the Vikings and other sports franchises in this state. Blips of public passion have surfaced in the past, with none more dramatic and productive than coach Lou Holtz’s magic show for two years in the 1980’s when he got fans so excited the season tickets total reached 56,000 in 1986.
In late 1985 Lou marched off to his dream job in South Bend, Indiana whistling the Notre Dame Fight Song and the more naïve Gophers followers believed the program had turned around. It hadn’t and by the 1990’s the team was playing in front of rows and rows of empty blue seats in the Metrodome.
In the early 2000’s the dome rocked at times under coach Glen Mason but the majority of fans never seemed all-in on a regime that teased sustained success but didn’t deliver. Out went Mason after the 2006 season and in came Tim Brewster who had never been a head coach or coordinator. He wasn’t “The Guy” to lead the Gophers out of their chronic apathy but Jerry Kill was.
The folksy Kill could not only coach football but the public found him authentic, labeling him “one of us.” Like most U football coaches, Kill had to rehab the program for awhile but by the spring of 2015 the team was trending upward and fans were buying tickets. In the opening game of the season against No. 2 ranked TCU Minnesota drew a TCF Bank Stadium record crowd of 54,147.
The season before Kill’s team had earned the program’s first winning record in the Big Ten in 11 years and first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962. Yes, 2015 expectations were high but then the bubble burst in mid-season with Kill resigning for health issues.
The public took a wait and see attitude toward Tracy Claeys, Kill’s successor. That approach continues with P.J. Fleck who’s gushing enthusiasm and Row the Boat mantra has sailed with some fans but not others. Name the tickets category (season, single game, group or student); getting people in the Bank has been a big challenge.
This year the ticket buying menu is more diversified than ever with lots of options and some low pricing. There’s been no storming of the ticket booths, however, and that’s not unexpected after decades of minimal on the field results and recent seasons when the Gophers are a combined 5-13 in conference games.
But this year could see a change in public interest, and in wins and losses. The Gophers open practice this week with justified confidence in becoming a contender for the Big Ten West Division, and waking up the local masses to the pleasures of big time college football.
This is a team with exceptional players who could fast become fan favorites. The list starts with senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson, a Minneapolis kid who turned down the chance to enter the NFL Draft after last season. Johnson is a heavy choice to be All-Big Ten and leave Minnesota with a legacy similar to the school’s best receivers ever.
Native sons resonate with fans and rivaling Johnson in popularity will be senior defensive end Carter Coughlin, the former Eden Prairie star. Coughlin’s dad, Robert Coughlin, played for the Gophers and Grandfather Tom Moe did, too, and later became Minnesota’s interim athletics director.
Senior linebacker Thomas Barber can talk family, too. His dad Marion and two older brothers were major contributors as players at Minnesota. Thomas, though, can experience something no other Barber has done in Dinkytown—play on a championship team.
A name that heads any list of Gophers with box office appeal is sophomore safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. His dad played for the Vikings so the public knows his name but more importantly Junior is a special talent. He saved the Gophers’ win over Fresno State last year and then his absence for most of the season because of injury was glaring.
Those names are just part of the roll call. Sophomore 400-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele is intriguing because of his size and skill set. The prospect of Faalele occasionally becoming a ball carrier this season (like he did in the Spring Game) is tantalizing. The player watch also includes Wildcat formation quarterback Seth Green whose power runs helped the Gophers maintain ball possession and win games last season on their way to a 7-6 record.
Then there is the quarterback competition between Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, the expected development of sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman who turned down Georgia to come here, and the deep and talented running back roster that goes at least four deep, maybe six.
The players mentioned above and many teammates led Minnesota to its most impressive finish in years in 2018. The Gophers, after an awful midseason stretch, won three of their last four, defeating good teams in Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. Now the Gophers have to show that same level of performance in 2019 starting with the first four games of the season.
It could be pretty low hanging fruit for the Gophers to win two of their first three games, nonconference assignments with South Dakota State and Georgia Southern at home. The third nonconference matchup is Fresno State away, a likely challenging game. Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford is big time and has a team picked by the media to win the West Division of the Mountain West Conference. Playing at night on the West Coast is often a bugaboo for Big Ten clubs.
But if the Gophers are going to impress early in 2019 they need to win against a team like Fresno State. And, ideally, go to Purdue for their first Big Ten game and beat a Boilermakers team that can potentially beat anyone in the conference.
Let the Gophers come home from Purdue 4-0 and watch the homecoming they receive from the public to play Nebraska on October 12. Lordy, with a scenario like that there might even be more gold in the stands than red when the Cornhuskers come to town.
An 8-4 season, with five wins in the Big Ten, along with a recognizable bowl invite could position the Gophers to experience a significant increase in tickets sales for 2020. The road back to 2015 interest won’t be easy but it’s possible.
A return to the fan obsession of the 1950’s? Don’t even go there.
The Golden Gophers have 22 verbal commitments for their 2020 football recruiting class, per 247Sports, but local authority Ryan Burns told Sports Headliners Minnesota is still shopping and he expects the final scholarships awarded could total 25 next year.
Burns, who owns and writes for Gopherillustrated.com, said there are a couple of prep players Minnesota is targeting including four-star recruit Kaden Johnson, the 6-4 outstanding linebacker from Minneapolis. “He’s the big fish out there right now,” Burns said. “He is waiting on something. The question is what is that something.
“He is not in a hurry to make a decision, even though Minnesota and Wisconsin are getting up there in spots (scholarships still available). And I know that the Gophers are going to wait until National Scholarship Day and hold a scholarship for him.”
National Signing Day for high school players is December 18, and another state player Burns said the Gophers are waiting on is, Danny Striggow, a three-star 6-4 defensive end from Long Lake who he thinks is trying to decide between Minnesota and Iowa. “He is going to be making a decision here, I believe, in August,” Burns said about Striggow who is a state champion wrestler.
Head coach P.J. Fleck and his assistants have two four-star commits among their 22 verbals. Daniel Jackson is a 5-foot-11 wide receiver from the Kansas City area, while running back Ky Thomas from Topeka, Kansas is also 5-11.
The Gophers are gambling more on Jackson than on the average recruit. “He was the most dynamic player in Kansas as a sophomore for his class, and in the first game of the year last year, he tore his ACL,” Burns said.
Jackson’s school, Bishop Miege, has won five consecutive state championships. His coach, Jon Holmes, believes in a Jackson comeback. “He knows what Daniel is rated and he’s told me as recently as a couple of weeks ago he still thinks he’s undervalued and underrated,” Burns said.
Several years ago the Gophers recruited a potentially great running back in Washburn’s Jeff Jones, who was named the state’s Mr. Football in 2013. Jones hardly played for Minnesota because of off-field issues but the 185-pound Thomas reminds Burns of Jones.
“I think he has got the best side to side (running) ability we’ve seen in a Gopher running back since Jeff Jones,” Burns said. “That shouldn’t be taken lightly considering Minnesota has had some really good ones including two on campus right now in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. He just knows how to make people miss in a phone booth.”
There are always three-star recruits who during their senior seasons can push for and achieve four-star rankings. Included in that group is Anoka linebacker Cody Lindenberg, a player Burns described as ideal in size at 6-2, 210 with exceptional athleticism and “technically sound” in his game. “All he’s gotta do is put that together on a senior tape and I think Minnesota is going to be getting a steal with him,” Burns said about the Gopher verbal commit.
Minnesota has three verbal commitments per 247Sports for the class of 2021 including a big name in 6-foot-4, four-star quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis from Illinois. Burns said Kaliakmanis turned down offers from Iowa, Iowa State, Syracuse, Tennessee and Virginia Tech. “That’s about as high profile as it gets,” Burns said.
Burns believes Kaliakmanis has the physical skills to attract recruiters and then said: ““But I think what (offensive coordinator) Kirk Ciarrocca values in him so much is the way he’s able to process a defense, especially for a young kid at his age. We’re talking about a 16-year-old kid right now that put up some pretty good numbers at Antioch High Scholl in Illinois. You watch the tape, he (Kaliakmanis) knows what he’s looking at when he is staring at a defense.”
Why Minnesota? Burns said Kaliakmanis liked what the Gophers are developing on the field but there is more. He is attracted by the total culture of the Fleck regime including the relationships with teammates and outside community service activities, Burns explained.
With two freshmen and two sophomore quarterbacks on scholarship already, and Kaliakmanis in waiting, the 2020 class doesn’t have a commitment from another quarterback. Instead Fleck is placing an emphasis on other positions including offensive and defensive linemen, with verbal commits from three on each side of the ball.
Two offensive linemen Burns rates highly are Aireontae Ersery from Kansas City and Casey Collier from Texas. “Two guys that have a lot of athleticism, have a lot of length, and they’re both legitimate 6-foot-5- plus,” he said.
Ali Saad is a defensive lineman Burns believes could make an early impact in his Gopher career, despite his youth. “He is only 16 right now, and that being said he looks like a 22-year old grown man,” Burns said of the 6-4, 250 pound prep from Dearborn, Michigan.
Defensive line recruit Gage Keys is the kind of athlete who looks impressive even in street clothes. “I just think that athletically he’s as good looking (athletically) as you’re going to get,” Burns said of the Ohio prep. “He was a basketball player for the first three years. He finally this offseason said, ‘I am going to fully dedicate myself to football,’ and now he is 250 pounds already and he looks very, very special.”
It appears Fleck and his staff are jumping in early on the trend to look for international players. Sophomore offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, 6-8, 400 pounds, is from Australia by way of IMG Academy in Florida and showed so much potential last season he could be a star soon. The 2020 class has verbal commitments from cornerback Richard Agyekum of the Netherlands and defensive lineman Melle Kreuder of Germany.
Burns expects the number of international players recruited in the Big Ten and elsewhere in college football to continue increasing. “It’s a different, evolving world where last year I think maybe there were one or two Big Ten kids that came from international (places),” he said. “Well, now it’s going to be five, six or seven. Just kind of the way things are evolving across college football.”
The 6-foot-3 Kreuder is 21 years old, with a maturity that within a few years will distinguish him from his teammates and Big Ten peers. “…I would much rather have a 25-year-old defensive end…going against Iowa than I would a 17 year old,” Burns said.
The 2020 recruiting class is ranked No. 27 in the nation by 247Sports. Part of the reason for the high ranking is Minnesota has more players verbally committed than a lot programs, and so the Gophers final rank after National Signing Day is likely to be in the 30’s where Fleck’s two previous classes landed.
What does Burns think of the 2020 recruiting class? “I think it’s pretty good for a team that hasn’t really showed that they can win consistently yet. Where year one it was a struggle with P.J. trying to implement his system, five wins. Last year great September, terrible October, (and) really good late October, November, December.
“Now if Minnesota can show consistently on the field—and show that they can win seven, eight, nine games this year—yes, this is going to help with their 2020 class, but what it is really going to help is that 2021 class. …”
In Fleck’s first season of 2017, Minnesota was 2-7 in the Big Ten and 5-7 overall. Last year the records changed to 3-6 and 7-6, including three impressive wins in the last four games.
The hiring of a female head coach in the NBA has gone from possible to likely in recent years.
In 2014 Becky Hammon became the first full-time paid assistant female coach in the league when she joined the Spurs staff. During the last few months there has been a trend in hiring females with the 76ers, Cavs, Celtics and Kings placing women on their staffs. There are now nine female assistants in the NBA.
Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL and NHL have no female head coaches, but the NBA has been a pioneer in its hiring of women as assistants and referees. Is the league ready for its first female head coach?
“Well, I think as a league we’ve been about as flexible as any league, and so probably if it’s going to be done, it’s probably going to happen in the NBA,” said Glen Taylor who owns both the NBA Timberwolves and WNBA Lynx.
The NBA has long been known for its diversity and openness to change. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is an advocate for more females in his league. He wants about half “of new officials (referees) entering the league” to be women, per a May 9 story on Nba.com from the Associated Press. Speaking at an event in Washington, D.C., Silver also said: “There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”
Taylor told Sports Headliners the first female to become a head coach in the NBA will face “a lot of pressure,” but he thinks it’s just a matter of when—not if—that a woman is leading a club in the league. That person might be promoted from an assistant’s position in the NBA, but certainly Cheryl’s Reeve’s resume could some day put her in the conversation for a head job in the league, or perhaps a No. 1 assistant’s role.
Reeve, 52, is both the Lynx’s general manager and head coach. She is also an assistant coach on the USA Women’s National team that will compete in the 2020 Olympic Games. Since becoming head coach of the Lynx in 2010, she has coached Minnesota to four WNBA titles. Taylor has consistently been impressed with her work. “I am a great fan of her,” he said.
Going into this season Reeve worked with a reshuffled roster including the absence of star players Lindsay Whalen (retired) and Maya Moore (sabbatical for 2019). Yet the Lynx has surprised followers by being a competitive team. Although on a losing streak recently, the club has a 10-10 record is and only 3.5 games out of first place in the WNBA Western Conference.
“I just gotta admire her, how she has changed her defensive strategy and offensive strategy to fit the new players,” Taylor said last week. “It’s been just terrific.”
The Twins, who hold a two game lead in the American League Central Division over Cleveland, will see the Indians in Minneapolis for a four-game series starting August 8. Prior to that series the Twins will compete against three teams playing less than .500 baseball (White Sox, 45-54; Marlins, 38-62; Royals, 39-64), plus the National League East Division leading Braves, 60-43. The Indians, though, will have a more difficult schedule facing three of four opponents who are at or above .500, including the AL West Division leading Astros, 66-38.
The Twins and Indians will also play two series in September, one in Minneapolis and the other in Cleveland. This season the Twins are 5-4 against the Indians.
Aaron Hicks, the Yankees outfielder who the Twins gave up on and traded to New York, beat Minnesota with a two-run home run on Tuesday night and is hitting .329 in his last 19 games. In that stretch he has seven home runs, 16 RBI and 16 runs scored.
The Twins, who lost two out of three to the Yankees this week in their series at Target Field, attracted a sellout crowd last night of 40,127. It was the club’s eighth sellout of the season.
The Vikings, valued at $2.4 billion, rank No. 35 on the Forbes list released this week of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world. The NFL Cowboys ranked No. 1 at $5 billion, with MLB’s Yankees second at $4.6 billion.
Sports Illustrated ranks Golden Gophers senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson No. 62 among its top 100 college football players going into the 2019 season.