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Contract Extension Next for Fleck?

November 25, 2018 - (0) comments


Will Golden Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle extend football coach P.J. Fleck’s contract after yesterday’s stunning and potential program changing 37-15 upset of Wisconsin?

I asked Coyle about an extension earlier this month and he was noncommittal, answering that he will address the subject later this year after more evaluation. Coyle hired Fleck in January of 2017 and in November of last year extended the coach’s contract one year through 2023.

While contract extensions provide more security to coaches and are a reward for good work, they are often for public perception too—sending a message to potential high school recruits that an athletic director is solidly behind his coach. Adding on another year to Fleck’s deal certainly meets the criteria described here.

From the outside looking in, earlier this month Fleck’s program was gloomy as the weather that contributed to embarrassingly small crowds for home games against Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern. Three weeks ago lowly Illinois humiliated the Gophers 55-31, gashing the defense with long runs and coming up with 646 total yards. The loss left Minnesota with a 1-5 Big Ten record and no more “softies” remaining on the schedule to make bowl eligibility likely.

Minnesota rallied, though, winning two of its last three games to finish with a 6-6 overall record and an invitation coming soon for a bowl game. Fleck had the wisdom to fire defensive coordinator Robb Smith after the Illinois game and named Joe Rossi as his replacement. Since then Minnesota has improved dramatically on defense while defeating Purdue 41-10, losing to Northwestern 24-14 and beating Wisconsin while giving up only two touchdowns including one late in the game.

Those wins in the last three games are the most impressive and significant in the Fleck era. Purdue is the only team to defeat 11-1 Ohio State, the Big Ten’s best program. While the Gophers could have played better, they made a competitive game out of their November 17 matchup with Northwestern, the Big Ten West Division champions. Against Wisconsin Fleck and the Gophers earned that signature win they have been pursuing for two years.

Minnesota went into yesterday’s game against the Badgers with a Big Ten worst minus 11 in turnover margin. That’s not what Fleck has had in mind since Day One while preaching “the ball is the program.” Minnesota redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan had three turnovers in the loss to Northwestern but he played clean against the Badgers.

Minnesota scored 24 points off of turnovers yesterday. Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw three interceptions and had a fumble. Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher, was held to 120 yards.

Don’t let anyone diminish the value of what the Gophers did in dominating the Badgers in Madison. Yes, the Badgers have been dealing with injuries (what team isn’t this time of year?), and have stumbled from preseason predictions of playing for a national championship to finishing with a regular season 7-5 record. But this is a team that only a week before at Purdue had rallied from a 27-13 fourth quarter deficit to win in three overtimes as the Boilermakers couldn’t control Taylor who ran for 321 yards.

Wisconsin has long been the standard-bearer in the Big Ten West Division, often beating almost everyone in the conference, and dominating programs like Minnesota. Until yesterday the Gophers hadn’t won in Madison since 1994. They hadn’t taken home Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 2003.

Minnesota’s futility against Wisconsin had become a symbol of a program that too often has been in rebuild mode and had surrendered its winning edge in college football’s most played rivalry. In a series that started in 1890, the record between Minnesota and Wisconsin is now 60-60-8.

P.J. Fleck

Fleck and his program have earned a win that could one day be seen as a game changer for Gophers football. Last year Minnesota won just two Big Ten games, beating dysfunctional Nebraska and awful Illinois. Before defeating Purdue, Fleck’s only other conference win was over so-so Indiana this fall. Three wins that didn’t provide a lot of credibility to Fleck’s goal of building a winning program, but now perceptions are changing.

The Gophers will return most of their players for next season. The roster will have more quality and depth than seen here in awhile. The personnel will include stars and difference makers such as defensive end Carter Coughlin, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., wide receiver Tyler Johnson, and running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. The quarterback position that has failed the Gophers since Adam Weber ran out of eligibility in 2010 will have two experienced starters returning in Morgan and true freshman Zack Annexstad.

Fleck’s coaching staff looks solid led by offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and Rossi who had his title changed from interim to permanent defensive coordinator this weekend. Minnesota has given up a total of 49 points in the last three games after allowing Illinois 55. Adding to the optimism is that Fleck’s third recruiting class will arrive next year and likely will provide more quality players and greater depth.

Minnesota also has a favorable schedule next season. The Gophers avoid games against Big Ten bullies Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. The conference schedule also has five home games, with four on the road. The nonconference schedule is friendly except for a road game against Fresno State, a potential top 25 preseason team.

This program has a long way to go and much to prove but maybe Fleck can restore it to what it was decades ago—a Big Ten contender and prominent name on the national scene. West Division rivals Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin flipped long ago from bottom feeders to champions.

After a giddy win over Wisconsin the most loyal and optimistic of Gopher fans can hope that Fleck becomes a savior like Iowa’s Hayden Fry, Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez and Northwestern’s Gary Barnett. Their names live in football immortality in Iowa City, Madison and Evanston.

Take a look at the three coaches’ records on Wikipedia and read how they earned and sustained success after a few seasons at places on the shortlist of laughing stock programs. Fry’s third team at Iowa was 6-2 in Big Ten games and tied for the 1981 conference title. Alvarez’s fourth year (1993) the Badgers went 10-1-1, including a Rose Bowl win. In Barnett’s fourth season (1995) Northwestern changed from the “Mildcats” to the Wildcats winning the Big Ten title. It was the program’s first conference championship since 1936.

That’s a drought Gophers fans can relate to. Minnesota’s last Big Ten title was 1967.


Mike Grant Not Hyping 6A Title Game

November 21, 2018 - (0) comments


Enjoy a Wednesday notes column:

In one of the most anticipated prep football games in years, 12-0 Lakeville North will play 10-1 Eden Prairie for the Class 6A state championship Friday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Because of past results and reputation, many high school football observers are predicting North will win, and that’s fine with EP head coach Mike Grant.

“We’d like them to think that they should win, (and) that they have the trophy all locked up. …But we don’t feel that way,” Grant told Sports Headliners yesterday. “We just feel like it’s another game.”

Grant refers to the Panthers as a “great team,” and his Eagles lost to them 14-0 in a September game. North has many outstanding players including on the offensive and defensive lines. Bryce Benhart, the 6-9, 300-pound offensive tackle headed to Nebraska, is a marquee name on a huge offensive line. The Mostaert twins, Will and Eli, are forces on the defensive line and verbally committed to North Dakota Sate.

Cole Kramer

The Panthers totaled five first teamers on yesterday’s Star Tribune All-Metro offensive and defensive units. The Eagles had one, linebacker Collin Penn, although maybe quarterback Cole Kramer, named to the second team, should have been included, too. “With Cole Kramer, we’ve got the best quarterback in the state,” Grant said.

Grant, whose team is the defending 6A champion, knows his players need to be emotionally ready Friday night. “(Otherwise) it will be a quick night for Lakeville North, because if you don’t bring the passion, they’ll steamroll you.”

Grant will try Friday to win his 12th state championship at Eden Prairie. Part of the success formula is making adjustments in games. Grant said, “When we go in (to the game) everyone says what are you going to do? Well, it depends on what they (opponents) do. Because they’re going to make a decision on how to play us and we’ll make a decision on how we’ll attack what they’re doing.”

Asked how he has become so proficient at making in-game adjustments, Grant joked, “Well, I am old. There’s no book on it. Trust me.”

Grant grew up in a football household being around his famous dad, Bud Grant. In college he played for the legendary John Gagliardi at St. John’s. He learned about many things relevant to coaching including flexibility.

“We’re not a textbook team,” Grant said. “We don’t even have a playbook. We’re not a script team. We’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants by design, because I never understood how people scripted. What if they (opponents) lined up a certain way (other than expected)?”

Border numbers: The Packers, who play in Minneapolis Sunday night against the Vikings, are 0-5 in road games this season. The Golden Gophers, who play at Wisconsin on Saturday, haven’t won in Madison since 1994.

A writer could predict more foolish things than the Lions, 4-6, upsetting the NFC North Division leading Bears, 7-3, tomorrow in Detroit. If the Vikings, 5-4-1, defeat the 4-5-1 Packers Sunday that will tighten up the division race and calm the Purple hysteria following Minnesota’s loss last weekend to the Bears.

Most played rivalry in college football? Minnesota and Wisconsin is the answer with game No. 128 coming up Saturday.

It’s being kept quiet but a local group is working to bring the National Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament to Minneapolis next May. The five-day tournament will include dozens of prelim bouts in various weight classes for men and women. All championship bouts would be at the Minneapolis Armory. The city hasn’t hosted the tournament since 1977.

The historic Armory, whose boxing legacy includes appearances by such great fighters as Sugar Ray Robinson, will be the site of four nationally televised boxing events in 2019. That includes a February 23 date featuring Minneapolis welterweight Jamal James, and April 13 match showcasing Osseo middleweight Caleb Truax.

James, who is friends with Twins legend Tony Oliva, will do his heavy bag work and prefight training at a northern Minnesota location. That’s similar to the north woods training preference of the late Scott LeDoux, the well-known Minnesota heavyweight. James is a boxing historian and honors Minnesota fighters of the past with tributes like his training location.

Premier Boxing Events and Fox Sports have included the Armory on a short list of national venues to host world-class bouts in 2019. PBC promoter Al Haymon’s group is said to have a bigger influence over boxing than Don King once held.

The Wild will host a free, open-to-the-public outdoor practice on Saturday at the Recreation Outdoor Center (3700 Monterey Drive) in St. Louis Park. The Wild’s practice is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. and last approximately 45 minutes. Fans are encouraged to arrive early as space is limited. Caribou Coffee, the official coffee of the Wild, will provide free coffee and hot chocolate to spectators.

Phil Esten, who takes over as the University of St. Thomas athletics director in January, will be in town next week to watch the November 30 Tommies-UW-River Falls basketball game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Esten first met Tommies men’s coach John Tauer when the two were students at St. Thomas.

Esten, 46, was a highly regarded administrator at the University of Minnesota years ago when he worked for athletics director Joel Maturi. Esten told Sports Headliners Maturi impressed him with his commitment to “putting values first” regardless of what was popular or easy to do.

Esten’s name has been mentioned in inner circles over the years as a candidate to be the Gophers athletics director. He has been a top administrator in athletic departments at Minnesota, California and Penn State most recently where his duties have included overseeing the football program.

Esten has Midwest roots, growing up in Wisconsin where his dad was a Division III cross country coach who won a national title and numerous conference championships. His grandparents were original Green Bay Packers stockholders and he, too, owns stock.

Esten will succeed Steve Frtiz, who is departing after 27 years as AD at St. Thomas. Esten praised Fritz for “doing a fantastic job” in helping to shape one of the most successful Division III athletic programs for men and women in the nation.

Condolences to family and friends of Ron Simon who passed away earlier this month. The former Gopher tennis player, Minneapolis attorney and pioneer sports agent was a terrific person. I helped research his 1993 book The Game Behind the Game: Negotiating in the Big Leagues. That book told compelling stories about his clients including Kent Hrbek, Kevin McHale and Paul Molitor.


Zim: Vikings Couldn’t Run ‘Worth a Lick’

November 19, 2018 - 2 Comments


Enjoy a Monday notes column:

The Vikings had the offensive linemen available they wanted for last night’s game against the Bears in Chicago where first place in the NFC North was on the line. Health has been an issue this fall but last night the Vikings started tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill, guards Tom Compton and Mike Remmers, and center Pat Elflein.

The result? Not so good.

Mike Zimmer

“We couldn’t run the ball worth a lick,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said on KFXN-FM after the game.

Minnesota had 22 net yards rushing in the 25-20 loss that sent the Vikings 1.5 games behind Chicago in the division race. The team’s leading rusher was Dalvin Cook with 12 yards.

The offensive line, scrutinized and criticized for years, had minimal push in trying to move a Chicago defensive line and linebackers that are among the best in the NFL. Those defenders also created pressure on Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins when he tried to pass, which was most of the time.

Give the Vikings credit for making adjustments that gave them a chance after trailing 14-0 at halftime. The Vikings were able to contain scrambling quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the second half after he did a reasonable impression of Minnesota legend Fran Tarkenton during the first two quarters. The Vikings went to a no huddle offense that slowed the Bears pass rush in the second half and was a major factor in Minnesota scoring 22 points.

The Vikings’ defense did enough, including causing turnovers, to turn the game’s outcome in Minnesota’s favor. The offense certainly did not and was unable to respond to opportunities. Among the most glaring failures were Cousins missing a wide open Stefon Diggs for a first quarter touchdown, and throwing a second half interception returned for a touchdown.

The Vikings, 5-4-1, haven’t defeated a team with a winning record this season including Chicago at 7-3. There are six games remaining on Minnesota’s schedule including two against teams with winning records—the 7-3 Patriots next month and a season ending rematch with the Bears. The other opponents are at .500 or near that mark.

Gophers senior linebacker Blake Cashman was named the Big Ten’s Co-Defensive Player of the Week this morning. His 20 tackles in Saturday’s loss to Northwestern was not only a TCF Bank Stadium record but the most in a Big Ten regular season game since 2013.

Before Saturday’s Minnesota-Northwestern game at TCF Bank Stadium a street vendor was hoping to sell tickets at $15 each on face value tickets about four times that amount. He was thinking about asking $5 each for the 11 a.m. game where the temperature was 23 degrees at kickoff—the fifth lowest in the stadium’s history.

The announced attendance of 32,134 was the second lowest since the facility opened in 2009. Minnesota announced a crowd of 31,068 for the Purdue game on November 10. Two Sports Headliners sources reported actual attendance was 14,000 to 15,000. If so, it’s certain the actual attendance for last Saturday’s game was similar.

There’s no question cold and rain have made Minnesota home attendance less in recent seasons than if the Gophers played indoors like they did for more than 25 years in the Metrodome. I asked athletic director Mark Coyle last week if he might consider scheduling the last game of the home schedule at U.S. Bank Stadium in future years.

Coyle said he and his colleagues hadn’t discussed the possibility. Then he offered, “…Never say never.”

Jax Café, the Northeast restaurant operating since 1933, was not running buses to the last two Gophers games because of too few customers, according to a sportswriter who has used the service.

For several months Gophers fans were excited to have Jason Bargy as the program’s only four-star recruit in coach P.J. Fleck’s 2019 recruiting class. Bargy, though, quit his high school team this fall and has academic issues that could have prevented him from qualifying for entrance to Minnesota, according to recruiting authority Ryan Burns. News reports also have Bargy involved with a domestic battery charge.

Bargy won’t be coming to Minnesota. With football National Signing Day next month, the Gophers are under pressure to find another quality defensive lineman like Bargy, who has been listed among the best players in Illinois. Burns, publisher of Gopherillustrated, told Sports Headliners the Gophers are talking to potential replacements including Darius Robinson from Michigan and Rashad Cheney from Georgia.

Cheney is a four-star recruit who has turned down Alabama and Georgia. Among interested schools Minnesota will have to beat, Burns believes, are Mississippi and Penn State. “I think Minnesota has a legitimate shot,” Burns said.

Not sure what it says about Les Miles who won a national title at LSU but needed almost two years to land another head job. I am told he aggressively pursued the Gophers’ football coaching job after Tracy Claeys was fired in late December of 2016 and now he is the new head coach at football-pitiful Kansas.

Give Gophers coach Richard Pitino credit for switching to a second half zone defense to help his team win last night’s late game against Texas A&M, 69-64. The Aggies were too easily driving to the basket for scores before Minnesota went to the zone, a defense seldom used by Pitino.

Matthew Hurt, the class of 2018 five-star Rochester basketball recruit, reportedly will wait until next year to choose his college destination but a source I respect believes Kansas is the front-runner.

The Twins may have made MLB history in hiring a coach directly from a college position, with no previous big league experience. The hiring of new pitching coach Wes Johnson from Arkansas is a Twins’ franchise first.

With front office bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine around, it’s a good guess that ex-manager Paul Molitor didn’t have full authority over who he hired as coaches. Maybe new manager Rocco Baldelli is in that spot, too.

If Joe Mauer had decided to play one more season, he could have provided a 2019 Twins marketing theme for selling tickets. A farewell season for the Minnesota native would have appealed to season and single game ticket buyers.

Interested in a Christmas gift suggestion? Twin Cities-based freelance writer Patrick Borzi, with bylines that include the New York Times, offers a fun read in his new book, Minnesota Made Me—a sports anthology with bios of 38 Minnesota athletes (32 are still alive). The theme: How growing up or living in Minnesota shaped them as athletes and people.

Borzi, who is married to Star Tribune sportswriter Rachel Blount, interviewed all the subjects in his book including Minnesota natives like Matt Birk, Tyus Jones, Adam Thielen and Lindsay Whalen, and other fan favorites such as Lou Nanne and Tony Oliva who flourished in the state after coming here.

There are recurring values written about in the book including strong Minnesota character. You read about Thielen using his initial pro football earnings to pay off his student loans, or Whalen’s work ethic including rising before 6 a.m. in her hometown of Hutchinson.

The foreword of the 296-page paperback is written by Sid Hartman, the soon to be 99-year-old Star Tribune columnist who probably would tell you he is “close personal friends” with most of those profiled by Borzi. “Growing up here toughened me up and helped me survive all these years in a very tough business,” Hartman wrote.

More, including order information, at


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