Word is Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck isn’t headed to the Tennessee Volunteers, but don’t expect speculation about his future at Minnesota to end in the months or years ahead.
Rumors are circulating of Fleck’s interest in the Tennessee job that opened earlier in January, but a source close to University of Minnesota football told Sports Headliners Fleck has turned down the position. Late last year Fleck’s name was speculated about with an NFL head coaching job.
It’s probably accurate that other job inquiries have been encouraged toward the 40-year-old Fleck who successfully has led the Gophers program since 2017. It could be Fleck and agent Bryan Harlan are more than willing to use talk of the coach going elsewhere as leverage to improve program resources and budgets, including contracts for Fleck and his staff. Fleck’s $4.75 million salary places him in the middle of compensation for Big Ten coaches, and the money pool for assistants is among the lowest in the conference.
Most of Fleck’s assistants have expiring contracts this month, according to the source who acknowledges the head coach is frustrated by his staff’s compensation. It’s not known what stance the University of Minnesota administration and athletic director Mark Coyle are taking regarding contract renewals and salary increases but it’s certain Fleck will fight for assistant coaches.
Money, always a challenging subject in the athletic department, is dramatically more sensitive now because of the pandemic and a department deficit for this school year could total $50 million or more. It just might be that the cost saving of eliminating gymnastics, tennis and indoor track starting with the 2021-2022 school year will at least partially be directed toward the football budget.
It was reported in December the U is facing about a $166 million overall budget shortfall by fiscal year end. In the months ahead money via a loan, or perhaps sale of bonds, is expected to bolster the U budget with a significant portion targeted to the Gopher Athletic Department.
Whether Fleck is determined to stay at Minnesota long-term appears debatable. He has said a career goal was to coach at a Big Ten school and he has expressed his liking for the quality of life in Minneapolis and in the state. The Gopher job, though, can’t match financial resources with the bluebloods of college football.
If Fleck’s ultimate goal is to land at such a program, the U leadership ought to be protecting itself regarding a buyout if he decides to go elsewhere. His buyout figure was set at $10 million last year but now has dropped to $4.5 million. Extending Fleck’s contract in the coming months with new provisions that include a large buyout could be a prudent move for the U.
Dan Harralson, writing Saturday for Volswire.usatoday.com, contends Fleck could be a great fit for the Vols not only because of his success with Minnesota. The Vols are facing alleged NCAA infractions and Harralson said the program might benefit from Fleck’s relationship with Joe Novak, his college coach at Northern Illinois. The retired Novak is a member of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions.
Hank Aaron, the baseball icon who also passed away last week and played in the minor leagues and majors in Wisconsin, held the career baseball home run record for more than three decades and was compared with rivals Willie Mays and Ted Williams. Aaron, younger than both, didn’t serve in the military while Mays missed two seasons in the major leagues because of the Korean conflict and Williams five (World War II and Korea). Those lost seasons were prime years for both Mays and Williams whose gaudy stats would have been even more impressive, including career home run totals.
Twin Cities resident Dave Wright, the retired Hamline sports publicist, is now in his 52nd year as a public address announcer. “I started when I was a junior in high school at Assumption in Windsor, Ontario in 1970,” Wright said in an email responding to a Sports Headliners request about his P.A. career.
Wright’s impressive resume includes assignments for both the state boys basketball and hockey tournaments. At St. Thomas he was the longtime P.A. voice for both Tommies basketball and football. He has also worked softball and soccer games over the years. Current assignments are St. Thomas Academy hockey, St. Agnes football and high school section baseball games at CHS Field. “I have no idea how many games I have done. The number must be at least 1,500,” he wrote.
The P.A. work is a labor of love, and certainly not an endeavor to make money, with Wright estimating an assignment might pay a person $40 per game at a local high school. He’s still having fun after all these years. “I am 67 and think my voice is still good. But I know it will go out down the line and I hope I am smart enough to leave before somebody tells me to.”
Supporters who previously attributed Minnesota’s mediocre Big Ten basketball record to a string of games against nationally ranked teams had to think again Saturday. Richard Pitino’s Gophers lost at home to unranked Maryland, with the Terps dominating in a 63-49 win. The loss set Minnesota’s conference record at 4-5.
Below .500 in Big Ten regular season games is familiar for Pitino. Now in his eighth season, the coach has led Minnesota to one Big Ten season with a winning percentage above .500.
Hopkins basketball legend Paige Bueckers, now a freshman at Connecticut where the Huskies are 10-0, is averaging 17.1 points per game, making .536 percent of her field goals, averaging 5.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists. She missed the Huskies’ most recent game with an injury. Minnesota prep basketball enthusiast Ken Lien points out Bueckers last played in a losing game as a sophomore in high school.
Talk show host Larry King who passed away a few days ago was a friend of Harvey Mackay, the former Gopher golfer, Minneapolis businessman, syndicated columnist and New York Times best selling author. Mackay’s latest book is out this month, “Getting a Job is a Job.”
The Wall Street Journal weekend edition reports NBC is shutting down its cable sports channel at year’s end, with NHL programming transitioning during 2021 to USA Network.
Golden Gophers football transfers began classes at the University of Minnesota this week, per recruiting authority Ryan Burns of GopherIllustrated.com. Head coach P.J. Fleck and staff made news in recent weeks by bringing in more transfers than at any time in his regime dating back to 2017, with the number of newcomers distinguishing Minnesota from its six West Division rivals.
“I think that Minnesota in the West has certainly done the most to improve their short-term (talent) in 2021 using the transfer market,” Burns said. The transfers are linebacker Jack Gibbens, Abilene Christian; defensive tackles Val Martin and Nyles Pinckney from N.C. State and Clemson respectively; kicker Will Mobley, Temple; guardKarter Shaw, Utah State; punter Daniel Sparks, Louisiana-Monroe; and wide receiver Dylan Wright, Texas A&M. All but Mobley are in school now, with the Temple athlete enrolling in May, according to Burns.
The arrival of the newbies, most of whom have considerable college game experience, bolsters the overall Minnesota roster depth, while adding quality talent and potential starters. “I look at every position now and I see competition,” Burns said.
Competition will highlight the team’s offseason as players go through conditioning, weight training, meetings, drills, practices and scrimmages. Intense competition for playing time should make the Gophers more prepared and better on the field for next season starting with an opening game against Big Ten and national power Ohio State, expected to be ranked in the preseason AP top five.
Starting spots on defense are really open, with perhaps cornerback Coney Durr and end Boye Mafe the only locks. Gibbens, a grad transfer with four years experience at Abilene, is expected to provide leadership and quality play at linebacker where the Gophers were both thin and inexperienced last season. Defensive line was also a trouble spot in 2020 and Burns said junior defensive tackle Jamal Teague, who opted out last season, might not return. Another junior tackle, Noah Hickox, has left the program, leaving the defensive line roster even more inexperienced. The arrival of veteran grad transfers Martin and Pinckney clearly fills a need with their immediate eligibility.
Pinckney is a headliner after being a four-star recruit out of high school and playing in 55 games for the powerful Clemson program. The Tigers are heavy on defensive line talent for 2021, with two of their players named this week to an early ESPN preseason All-American team. Pinckney comes to Minnesota looking for a big season and invite to the NFL.
The Minnesota offense contrasts with the defense, having veterans returning at every position, but the arrival of Shaw and Wright, both underclassmen, can mean potentially helping the Gophers this year and beyond. Burns said Shaw has been told he is the center of the future, eventually replacing John Michael-Schmitz. Shaw can play multiple positions and could have helped the Gophers last season as they struggled with depth.
Wright looks like the other headliner among the transfers and Gopher fans need to hope the NCAA soon announces a new policy that underclassmen like he and Shaw can move to new schools and have immediate eligibility. Wright was a four-star recruit out of high school and wooed to A&M by former Gophers assistant Maurice Linguist who worked for Fleck at Minnesota before joining the Aggies, and is now with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Burns credits Linguist with playing a huge role in Wright choosing to transfer here.
“It’s Linguist who actually tells Wright I can vouch for everything that P.J. is doing up there—look at their wide receiver development. Minnesota is able to land him,” Burns said in telling the Wright recruiting story. “He is a kid that Minnesota doesn’t have anybody in their wide receiver room right now that looks like him. He is a specimen at 6-foot-4. The question is going to be how long is it going to take for (wide receivers coach) Matt Simon to refine his game where he can help Minnesota win football games.”
Minnesota’s extra points and field goal kicking last season was poor. Burns said grad transfer Mobley, who is expected to challenge returnee Brock Walker for kicking duties, holds the Temple record for consecutive extra points made (51). Sparks was among the Sun Belt Conference’s best punters last season as a freshman and if eligible will offer competition to returnee Mark Crawford who has to improve.
Burns said Fleck obviously “wasn’t blind” to special team woes last season that included poor field position on kickoff returns. Burns’ research showed primary returner Cam Wiley, who struggled with decision making, had 11 returns resulting in average starting field position on the 16-yard line. A fair catch places the ball on the 25.
“They lost nine yards of field position every time he decided to return a kick. I cannot stress to you (enough) how horrible that is,” said Burns, who noted the Gophers had the fourth worst starting field position following kickoffs in college football last season.
In yesterday’s interview with Sports Headliners Burns also talked about Minnesota’s 2021 freshman recruiting class that has 17 players signed to national letters of intent, with two highly publicized players pending. The next date for signing is February 3, and the Gophers hope to lock up offensive tackle Saia Mapakaitolo from Arizona and Nebraska cornerback Avante Dickerson.
Mapakaitolo was committed to USC and had his choice of West Coast offers, per Burns who said a California recruiting authority raves about the athleticism of the young tackle. Listed at 6-5, 280 pounds by 247Sports, Burns is intrigued by Mapakaitolo’s size, athleticism and participation in rugby, a grueling sport.
It was a disappointment to Gopher fans that Dickerson, a four-star recruit and the highest ranked of Minnesota’s verbal commitments last year per 247Sports, didn’t sign in December as expected. Burns believes Minnesota and Nebraska are the front runners for the gifted cornerback. With only about two weeks until the February signing date, Burns said Dickerson and his mother may visit Minnesota to help make a final decision.
The issue of location, staying closer to home and playing for the Cornhuskers in Lincoln is apparently a major factor in trying to make a decision. For Burns, there is no question what school Dickerson should choose.
“I don’t think particularly highly about Nebraska, with all the (outgoing) transfers they’ve had in the last year, their win-lost record. … To me it doesn’t make a ton of sense, because especially I believe (head coach) Scott Frost is on the hot seat. So why would you want to be going to a school, other than it’s close to home, that you could potentially be playing for a new coach in the next year or two?”
The Gophers also have several players from the 2021 freshmen class who have enrolled early and started classes. 247Sports identifies early enrollees as DE Deven Eastern, WR Brady Boyd, WR Lemeke Brockington, “athlete” Dylan McGill, CB Justin Walley and LB Devon Williams.
Word is the Gophers have given up on recruiting Davon Townley, the defensive end from Minneapolis North High School. At one time Minnesota coveted the four-star for its 2021 recruiting class. Where might Townley be headed? “I have no idea,” Burns said. “All I know is I assure you…it ain’t going to be at Minnesota.”
Legendary Herb Brooks, who led the hockey Gophers to national championships in 1974, 1976 and 1979, was named the WCHA’s 1970s Coach of the Decade today as part of the league’s 70-year celebration.
The NFC title game Sunday in Green Bay features the franchise, the Packers, with the most world titles (13) against the quarterback, Tom Brady of the Bucs, with the most post season wins, 32.
Packer wide receiver Davante Adams had 18 touchdown receptions during the regular season. That total ranks behind only former Viking Randy Moss (2007) and ex-49er Jerry Rice (1987), who are tied for most in NFL single season history with 23 each.
Jeff Crilley’s email newsletter, “The Rundown,” included a story yesterday listing the states whose residents are most to least stressed during these turbulent times. Citing a OnePoll survey for stress supplement Natrol Relaxia, Minnesota ranked among the most relaxed citizenry. Iowa is the least stressed, Missouri the most.
It’s only been two games, but what an extraordinary beginning for 23-year-old Kirill Kaprizov of the Minnesota Wild. An NHL authority told Sports Headliners Kaprizov could be the difference maker the Wild has been searching for and his presence might be vital in a shortened 2021 regular season.
The Wild has struggled with offensive production for years, including in the playoffs. In Minnesota’s opening game last Thursday, the rookie Russian forward scored the game- winning goal against the Kings in Los Angeles. Two nights later he made a dazzling play again, passing to teammate Marcus Johansson for the winning goal as the Kings lost a second straight game in overtime. He is the first player in NHL history to have overtime points in each of his first two career games.
With NHL teams playing 56-game regular season schedules because of the pandemic, instead of the usual 82, early season wins are more important than ever, including on the road. “This is the kind of player that will help them not falling too far behind,” said the authority, preferring to speak anonymously. “He gives everyone hope. It’s somebody that can score every time he is on the ice.”
The Wild remain in California and play the Ducks in Anaheim tonight. Expectations are for the Ducks and other NHL teams to assign aggressive defensive forwards against Kaprizov, trying to push the 5-9, 200-pound newbie around. “They’re just not going to let him free wheel and do whatever he wants,” the source said.
While tough tactics and adjustments are coming, Kaprizov certainly didn’t look frustrated in his first two games. He showed all the attributes (and perhaps more) that were expected during his debut, including darting around the ice with quickness and speed impressing even casual NHL observers. The authority quoted here gushed about Kaprizov’s hands that deftly allow him to control and shoot the puck, and also his vision.
Because of his exceptional vision, Kaprizov was able to secure the puck and pass to Johansson on a play that others cannot make. “Go back and look at that play, it’s amazing,” the source said.
The Wild drafted Kaprizov in 2015 and for years anticipation has built about his arrival in Minnesota. The curious included his new teammates who had to wonder what this gifted young talent would be like as a person. Kevin Gorg, the Fox Sports North analyst, told Sports Headliners that Kaprizov is anything but a prima donna.
“This kid has come in here without any expectations on his part,” Gorg said this morning. “He’s worked his tail off. He has been out there spending extra time before practice, extra time after practice. He’s been breaking down film.
“He’s been working like he’s a guy that might not make it, even though we’ve known…that this kid was going to be a star. He hasn’t had that star attitude. He’s come in with that fourth line grinder attitude. …I think he’s gained an awful lot of respect from his teammates with the work ethic.”
After spending his life in Russia, Kaprizov now finds himself in a new country and during a pandemic. Veteran Ryan Suter has hosted the rookie at his home that includes an outdoor rink. Kaprizov lives alone and uses his limited English to make his way around the Twin Cities, including to Kramarczuk’s, the famous eastern European deli in Minneapolis. “Kramarczuk’s has been his favorite spot to get some cool food,” Gorg said.
Gorg believes Kaprizov is enjoying his early times in America. “If you watch him at the rink he’s always kind of laughing and having fun. I think that’s a big, big part of that comfort level he’s starting to feel coming over from Russia. I think there were a lot of unknowns when he made this move. He doesn’t speak the English great yet—something he’s trying to work on.”
Gophers center Liam Robbins was named the Naismith Trophy Player of the Week today after leading No. 23 Minnesota to a 75-57 win against previously unbeaten No. 7 Michigan on Saturday. The Davenport, Iowa native had 22 points and eight rebounds in only 22 minutes. He made a season-high eight field goals and a season high three 3-pointers for the Gophers. He also blocked two shots and limited Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson to five rebounds and a season-low nine points.
The Sportingnews.com draft out this morning has the Vikings selecting Miami defensive lineman Gregory Rousseau with the No. 14 selection of the first round. He had an ACC-best 15.5 sacks last season for the Hurricanes. “He would be a great fit with Mike Zimmer,” writes Vinnie Iyer.
It looks like former Gopher Rashod Bateman could end up fretting about being selected in the first round of April’s NFL Draft. The wide receiver talent is deep with several talents perhaps more likely to go ahead of Bateman including ex-Purdue playmaker Rondale Moore. Sportingnews.com predicts Bateman going to the Jaguars at No. 25 in the first round where his coach would be Urban Meyer and his QB likely Trevor Lawrence (Jags have No. 1 choice and are expected to draft the ex-Clemson QB).
A former NFL executive recently said in this space the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins is a top 10 or 12 quarterback. Jim Carter, the former Gopher fullback and Green Bay linebacker, emailed he differs with that, although he doesn’t claim to be an expert on quarterbacks—“I’m from the Murray Warmath school of erring on the side of big heart and toughness over talent, even quarterbacks!”
Here is Carter’s list of quarterbacks he prefers over Cousins: “(Aaron) Rodgers, (Patrick) Mahomes, (Philip) Rivers, (Josh) Allen, (Tom) Brady, (Lamar) Jackson, (Russell) Wilson, (Drew) Brees, (Deshaun) Watson, (Matt) Ryan, (Kyler) Murray, (Ben) Roethlisberger, and probably (Baker) Mayfield, (Matthew) Stafford, and (Ryan) Fitzpatrick, too.”
Welcome news for Gophers football fans: Ohio State’s great quarterback Justin Fields declared for the NFL Draft today. That means the Buckeyes, expected to be a preseason top five team nationally, will have an inexperienced QB for their opening game next September in Minneapolis against Minnesota.
Juancho Hernangómez, Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns will not play for the Timberwolves in today’s game (1:30 p.m. start) in Atlanta against the Hawks. They are ruled out for “health & safety protocols.”
Jay Meyerhoff, Braemar’s head PGA professional, has been named a “Golf Range Association of America Top 100 Growth of the Game Teaching Professional.” For the third consecutive year the GRAA has recognized both the Braemar Golf Course Driving Range and Braemar Golf Dome as being among the top 50 ranges in the country.