Enjoy a Thursday notes column that even includes Montana travel.
The Vikings’ Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer are believed to be the only general manager and head coach combo in the 32-team NFL working on one-year contracts.
It appears ownership wants to see how the 2020 season plays out before deciding on the futures of Spielman who has been the GM since 2012 and Zimmer who was hired in 2014. The two have led Minnesota to two division championships, two playoff wins, and one NFC title game appearance in six years.
While the Vikings have done some offseason payroll trimming to create cap space, it’s unlikely money is preventing ownership from making extended contract commitments to their longtime leaders. The Wilf family, including Zygi Wilf, wants excellence on the field including the biggest prize—a Super Bowl appearance for their franchise which last appeared in the big game in 1977.
Former Viking defensive lineman Bob Lurtsema first met Zygi when he played in New York for the Giants. He quickly learned Zygi is a passionate pro football fan. Lurtsema said this week: “Money is not an obstacle (with the Vikings). He will do anything to have a winner. He’s a fan.”
Lurtsema isn’t surprised the Vikings haven’t re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen this offseason. He said Griffen, who played 10 seasons with Minnesota before declaring free agency earlier this year, became preoccupied with sacks in 2019 and made too many “critical mistakes.” Lurtsema believes Griffen sometimes was not in position to make the correct move coming off the line of scrimmage. “I wouldn’t have signed him (again),” Lurtsema said.
Numerous sources are praising the work ethic of Vikings 2020 first round draft choice Justin Jefferson, who is expected to replace departed star wide receiver Stefon Diggs. “He (Jefferson) sounds like an old-time player with his attitude,” Lurtsema said.
The Vikings will have a changed wide receiver roster in training camp that also includes fifth round draft choice K.J. Osborn and free agent signee Tajaé Sharpe.
Adam Thielen, who in 2020 starts his seventh season as a standout WR with the Vikings, can be a leader and he said this week the first step is to earn trust with newcomers. “I know that I’ve been able to learn from some veterans that have come before me of how they handled…things, and how they helped me become the player that I am,” Thielen said.
Thielen acknowledged it takes time for a quarterback and receivers to become most comfortable with each other. This will be quarterback Kirk Cousins’ third season with Minnesota. “He has a better understanding of where I am going to be, and how I am going to run my routes, and I have a better understanding of how he likes certain things done,” Thielen said.
Hopkins boys’ basketball coach Ken Novak told Sports Headliners it was he who first made the connection between Jeff Mailhot and Gophers head coach Richard Pitino. Earlier this spring Mailhot, who is a Minneapolis native and was an assistant coach last season at Iona, asked Novak to contact Pitino about the opening on the Minnesota staff created by the departure of Rob Jeter to Western Illinois. “Jeff was interested in the job,” Novak said.
Pitino announced Monday he had hired Mailhot, who has over a decade of college coaching experience including junior college teams. CoachStat.net once named him the top junior college assistant coach. Mailhot played for Novak at Hopkins and later was an assistant coach for the Royals. Word is Mailhot found himself looking for another opportunity when Pitino’s father, Rick Pitino, took over this spring at Iona, and wanted his own assistants.
As a Minnesota native, Mailhot presumably will have a focus on recruiting the state. Novak believes his protégé will be a high-level recruiter. “First of all, he gets along with everybody,” Novak said. “He does well with relationships. He’s got a work ethic. He loves the game of basketball.”
Novak has seen a number of his Royals players go on to play for the Gophers, but none for awhile. He hopes the Mailhot hire will re-ignite the Hopkins-Gophers connection. “I will encourage them (Hopkins players) but I won’t push them,” Novak said.
Chet Holmgren, the five-star basketball player at Minnehaha Academy who is among the most coveted college recruits in the country for the class of 2021, lives in the Hopkins school district but Novak said there has never been discussion about him playing for the Royals. The 7-foot Holmgren has a sister, Alexandra Holmgren, who is over 6-foot-5 and played volleyball for the Royals last season as a sophomore.
It was 20 years ago this week that the Timberwolves’ Malik Sealy died in a car crash after leaving Kevin Garnett’s birthday party. In Sealy’s honor, the team retired his No. 2 jersey.
Steve Erban’s Stillwater based Creative Charters, organizers of Gophers, Kentucky Derby and other fan trips for decades, has a new offering of a Montana experience featuring fly fishing, golf and more this summer. Early Bird specials with a May 25 deadline are available. More at Creativecharter.com., or by calling 612-801-7141.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible the Lynx, Timberwolves, Twins, United, Vikings and Wild could all be playing games this summer, and causing a logjam on local television. Because of virus concerns, broadcasters might be describing road games from television monitors away from the playing venues.
With parts of the country having different infection rates and policies on containing the virus, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer could use neutral playing sites instead of scheduling games in all cities with franchises. The Twin Cities, with its proven support for hockey and numerous indoor rinks and practice facilities, along with the Xcel Energy Center as a site for games, might be a hub for NHL scheduling this summer.
It’s looking like the football Gophers could intensify their rivalries with Wisconsin and Iowa in coming years. While it’s unknown when Big Ten football will start its 2020 season, the three programs are having impressive offseason recruiting results after being bunched at the top of the West Division standings in 2019.
Minnesota’s 2021 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 8 nationally by 247Sports, the often quoted college football authority. The Gophers have 16 high school players who have verbally committed to coach P.J. Fleck, including five four-star players.
Iowa’s class is ranked No. 10 and the Hawkeyes have 15 commits, with three of them four-stars. Wisconsin is No. 18 with three four-star commits among its 10 player total.
Recruiting rankings will reshuffle a lot between now and Signing Day in December. Yet the early and impressive ranking of the three programs makes a statement about Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The Gophers are expected to have about four or five more scholarships available for the 2021 class. That means about 75 percent of the class is already in place. If things hold, Fleck will have the most four-stars since he came to Minnesota in January of 2017.
With the momentum of 2019’s 11-2 team record and breakthrough season, and the recruiting success of this winter and spring, Minnesota could add more four-star players to its class of 2021. Five-star recruits are rare but a possibility for Minnesota.
The Gophers, Hawkeyes and Badgers are recruiting various states including nearby Illinois. The University of Illinois program has fallen on hard times, causing state players to have reservations about joining the Illini who have heavily turned to the transfer portal for help.
Five of Minnesota’s 15 players in the 2021 recruiting class are from Illinois, including three four-star commits. So far this year Iowa has two players from Illinois, including a four-star offensive tackle, and the Badgers have one Illinois native.
Last season Minnesota had a 7-2 Big Ten record, tied for best in the West Division with the Badgers. Iowa was right behind at 6-3. All three programs were in the top 15 teams in the final Associated Press national rankings. The Gophers had an impressive bowl win over SEC power Auburn, the Hawkeyes beat USC by 25 points and the Badgers had a one-point loss to Pac-12 power Oregon.
Both Wisconsin and Iowa have consistently fielded winning teams for decades. That isn’t likely to change as long as the present leaders of those programs remain in place. It’s up to Fleck and the Gophers to match that consistency and even exceed it on a path to excellence.
There’s still plenty for Minnesota to prove but each of Fleck’s teams have outdone their predecessors. That’s an encouraging sign, along with the 2021 recruiting and how it appears the Gophers are not only upgrading the talent pool, but building roster depth.
There may be no better example of the latter than the vital quarterback position. The bluebloods of college football didn’t want Kentucky native Tanner Morgan when he was in high school, but Fleck saw his potential. Now looking at his redshirt junior season, Morgan is forecast as an early round NFL Draft choice in 2021. Morgan’s replacement could be redshirt sophomore Zack Annexstad who at one time beat out Morgan as the starter. The QB roster also includes two redshirt scholarship freshmen and 2021 pledge Athan Kaliakmanis, who is one of Minnesota’s four-star commits from Illinois.
In the future the Gophers must contend with not only facing Iowa and Wisconsin, but also Northwestern led by Pat Fitzgerald—a master of getting more from less at the Big Ten’s only private school and a place where fan support is sometimes buried in apathy. Nebraska, with perhaps the Big Ten’s most passionate fan-base, could come alive after two disappointing seasons under state native and head coach Scott Frost, who has recruiting ties not only to his home state but also to Florida. Purdue, too, has potential led by offensive guru and head coach Jeff Brohm.
The Big Ten West has long been a step-child to the Big Ten East Division but the gap could be closing. If Minnesota, and say Nebraska, become annual dynamos, and Iowa and Wisconsin stay strong, look out for the “Wild West.”
Former Gophers basketball player and assistant coach Al Nuness praised the news yesterday that Minneapolis native Jeff Mailhot is joining coach Richard Pitino’s staff at Minnesota. Mailhot has a detailed resume of college and high school coaching including at Hopkins where he worked for head man Ken Novak, who probably has produced more Division I standouts than any coach in state history. Nuness knows both Mailhot and Novak, and said the two have a close relationship. “That’s a great hire,” Nuness said.
Birthdays: Gophers baseball coach John Anderson and 1991 Twins World Series star Jack Morris both turned 65 last Saturday. Jared Nuness, Al’s son and an assistant basketball coach at Baylor, is 41 today (May 19). Bud Grant, who coached the Vikings to four Super Bowls, will be 93 Wednesday.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor made a savvy decision in 2014 when he decided to purchase the Star Tribune. The paper filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after struggling with debt and declining advertising revenue but has made a big comeback in recent years shifting part of its business strategy to digital subscriptions.
Ex-Chicago Bulls bad boy Dennis Rodman, who has been receiving plenty of attention in the 10-part ESPN series “The Last Dance,” once kicked cameraman Eugene Amos in the groin at a Target Center game against the Timberwolves. Amos litigated and received a $200,000 settlement.
The series, of course, focuses on Bulls superstar Michael Jordan who has been paid $1.3 billion by Nike since 1984, according to the May 7, Forbes Sports Money Playbook.
Although speculation about it has declined, if MLB begins its season with playing sites only in Arizona, Florida and Texas that will be a tax windfall for players. Arizona has a modest state income tax, while Florida and Texas have none at all.
Rod Carew’s new book is on sale and it’s no ordinary tale about a sports hero. In One Tough Out: Fighting Off Life’s Curveballs (Triumph Books), the former Minnesota Twins second baseman describes his remarkable life and the obstacles he overcame to become one of the greatest hitters of the last century and a Cooperstown Hall of Famer.
Early in the book Carew, now 74, talks about his negligent and abusive father Eric. Living in poverty in Panama, Carew’s mother Olga earned $1 per day as a housekeeper. Eric spent much of his modest paycheck on booze.
“Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs,” Carew writes in the book with co-contributor Jaime Aron. “Previous owners wore them for as long as they could. By the time I got them, there wasn’t much left. At one point, my only pair of shoes had soles that flapped against the bottom of my feet when I walked. At school, I walked alongside a wall in hopes that no one would notice. I had to make do until my mother could find me a replacement.”
Eric worked on a tug boat and was a big man at 6-foot-3. Rod was often sick and weak so his father belittled him, calling the child “Sissy.” Carew speculates his father decided in his twisted view of parenting that physically abusing his son would toughen him up.
“Early on, he would shove me into a broom closet and keep me trapped inside for hours,” Carew recalled in the book. “His next step toward making a man out of me involved his fists. Nights when he drank heavily, his fists weren’t enough. His arsenal grew to include a rope, a strip of wood, the knotted cord from an iron, and the wide leather belt around his waist. These weren’t isolated incidents.”
Those beatings and rejections by Carew’s father were traumatic but his mother saved his self-esteem and at an early age put thoughts of success in his head. Olga and Eric had other children but she favored the boy and told him he was special.
“Long before Earl Woods prophesized greatness for the boy he named Tiger, my mother was infusing me with the confidence that I would grow up to make a mark on the world,” Carew said.
Olga, too, was physically abused by Eric. She eventually escaped to New York City and earned enough money in a factory to bring Rod to a new life as a 15-year-old in 1961. It was the beginning of a journey that would document success experienced by few ballplayers. First playing for the Twins and later the Angels, Carew won seven batting titles, played in 18 consecutive All-Star Games and collected 3,053 hits.
During Carew’s life, he has not only overcame a difficult childhood, but endured the tragic loss of a daughter to leukemia. In 2015 Carew fought his own health battle when his heart stopped, but remarkably he received a heart transplant from a 29-year-old he had met years before.
Carew’s life more than earns the title of his autobiography. “There’s no quit in this man,” Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson says on the book’s cover.
Ross Bernstein, the Golden Gopher hockey mascot from 1989-1991, is a prolific speaker to business groups and has averaged about 120 keynote addresses per year but because of the COVID-19 epidemic is doing virtual presentations this spring. The Twin Cities-based Bernstein has spoken on seven continents and also authored 50 sports books.
Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle describes second-year men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko as “low ego, high output.” The Big Ten Conference announced Motzko as its men’s hockey Coach of the Year this week.
Motzko has an impressive 11 Academic All-Big Ten honorees this winter, although none has a perfect GPA like Lindsey Kozelsky from the Gopher swimming and diving team. Kozelsky, an elementary education major, is one of 23 Big Ten student-athletes to have such a distinction.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer joking from home in Kentucky about how he is coping with the disruption of leading his team: “We’re just hoping it’s not my other eye that goes.”
The Gophers’ 37-year-old Richard Pitino ranks No. 7 in a listing of the 40 best under 40 college basketball coaches in the country, per an Espn.com story yesterday.
Zack Johnson, a 2015 Spring Lake Park grad, could play against his hometown Vikings later this year if he can make the Green Bay Packers roster. The 6-6, 301-pound guard signed with the Packers as a rookie free agent this spring after an All-America career at North Dakota State.