Joan Gabel is in the final days this month of her presidency at the University of Minnesota before becoming Chancellor at Pittsburgh. Gabel’s departure is a reminder she played a decisive role in the hiring of men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson.
The Gophers parted ways with head coach Richard Pitino in mid-March of 2021, creating an opening to lead the program. Less than a week later came the surprise announcement that instead of hiring a proven Division I head coach the Gophers were turning to Johnson, a former U player and experienced assistant whose stops had included 2013-2018 at Minnesota and more recently three seasons at Xavier.
Athletic director Mark Coyle vetted Johnson, a Minneapolis native, and presented his credentials to Gabel. Without Gabel’s endorsement Johnson never would have been hired. “To have someone like Ben Johnson leading this program – an ambassador for our University who grew up here, went to school here and knows what the University is all about – is tremendous, for our basketball program and our institution,” Gabel said in a statement announcing the hire. “Like so many Minnesotans, I’m excited to welcome Ben home and look forward to our team’s success under his leadership.”
Success hasn’t been easy to come by in Johnson’s first two seasons. There have been occasional high-five moments, but the Gophers have made program history with first-ever consecutive last place finishes in the Big Ten.
Alex Hickey from Saturday Tradition is probably among the first to predict Minnesota is headed for a third straight bottom of the league finish. Forecasting the Big Ten race for next year he wrote the following this week: “Minnesota is married to the Big Ten cellar until further notice.”
Jeff Ettinger, the former Hormel executive, will serve as interim president for up to a year until the U finds a permanent hire. Whoever takes over won’t have a history with Johnson and be influenced by having hired him. It’s been clear for a while Johnson must make the next two seasons much improved over the previous two.
Timberwolves starting point guard Mike Conley turns 36 in October, but Chris Finch has no reason to believe his playmaker won’t return for another season. The Wolves head coach said Conley is dedicated to his conditioning and training. Conley joined the Wolves during the season after a three-time trade and he was able to play 24 games for Minnesota averaging 14 points, five assists and providing much needed leadership on and off the court.
“He just does so many things that you can’t measure,” Finch said. “His leadership and presence is invaluable to what we’re trying to do here. His teammates and the organization in general respect him immensely, and that’s not something that we would want to just move away from easily.”
Gophers football legend Darrell Thompson left the Minneapolis area Friday for Atlanta where the 2023 Hot Rod Power Tour starts Monday. Thompson has a 1970 Camaro, a five-speed with 350 horsepower. Billed as the largest travelling car show around, the tour goes into multiple states before ending next Friday in Tennessee.
Wife Stephanie will pass on the adventure. “She will do a drive with me but to lock up in that car for 10 hours does not do anything for her,” said Thompson who is president of the Minneapolis-based Bolder Options nonprofit.
Thompson said son Race, who played basketball in the Big Ten for Indiana, will try out next week with the Timberwolves. Earlier workouts have been with the Nets and Wizards. Projecting as a combo forward, Race hopes to attract interest by an NBA team this summer and play his way onto a roster.
Jim Kaat, who pitched for the Twins from 1961-1973 and last year was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, speaks to the Twin Cities Dunkers next Friday. Kaat has been a superb baseball analyst on TV for years, including Twins broadcasts.
Jonathan Mekonnen, the Eastview class of 2024 basketball wing, is among the most sought-after preps in the state and has offers from St. Thomas, Colorado State, Drake, Illinois State and Northern Iowa, per head coach Danny Olsen. A visit next week to Loyola Chicago is likely to earn another offer, Olsen said.
Mekonnen is a skilled shooter, including three-pointers, but can also post up and could play small or big forward in college. He has rebounding and shot blocking abilities, too. “He’s very athletic above the rim,” said Olsen who recently became head coach at Eastview.
Prep Hoops ranks Mekonnen as the No. 5 prospect in the state of Minnesota for the class of 2024. Daniel Freitag, formerly of Bloomington Jefferson and now Southern California Academy, is No. 1 and followed by Isaac Asuma, Cherry; Jack Robison, Lakeville North; and Jackson McAndrew, Wayzata.
The Iron Sheik, the famous professional wrestler whose death at 81 years old was national news this week, was trained by Minneapolis wrestling icon Verne Gagne. It was Gagne’s wrestling camp that for many years developed a long list of performers who had successful careers in this market and elsewhere.
Former Gopher football player and pro wrestler Jim Brunzell recalled in an email being at Gagne’s camp with the Iron Sheik (Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri from Iran) and others. “The 1972 camp included Ric (Fliehr) Flair, Bob Bruggers, NFL linebacker and Gopher great from Danube, Minnesota, Ken Patera, Olympic weightlifter (first to clean and jerk over 500 pounds), Khosrow Ali Vaziri, national Iranian Greco-Roman wrestling champion, Greg Gagne, Wyoming QB and Verne’s son, and yours truly, Jimmy Brunzell from White Bear Lake and former Gopher wide receiver and high jumper.
“Bruggers’ career was cut short by a near fatal airplane crash. The rest of us had a pretty successful 20 year plus wrestling career, headlining cards around the world!
“It’s hard to believe that camp was 51 years ago. By the way, the camp was in Verne’s barn on Lake Riley (Eden Prairie). It was 4 months long, 6 days a week, 6 hours per day. The British heavyweight champ, Billy Robinson, trained us in submission holds, throws, and stressed wrestling balance for a successful and injury free career. As always, with about 30 minutes to go in our day, Verne would show up and physically manhandle one after another of us until we ran out of gas! Daily I used to ask myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’
“After a 28-year career, nearly 5,000 matches and 12 surgeries…I managed to survive a crazy career that prepares one for nothing. One thing I know for sure, the best tag (team) partner I had was and is my wife of 48 years, Mary.”
Former Vikings GM Rick Spielman on Twitter yesterday: “I wish I could put into words how special the Wilf family is. I lost all my Viking Game Balls during Hurricane Ian. To my surprise, I received a box today replacing all those game balls. I was truly blessed to work for the Wilf family and thank you from the bottom of my heart.”