Veteran Chain Crew Works U Sidelines
Mark Lundgren, 71, just finished his 20th year as boss of the Chain Gang for University of Minnesota home football games. His position as crew chief and that of other “gang” members is not paid, but people line up to fill openings.
Opportunities are rare. Since 2000 only one Chain Crew member decided to retire while in good health. “Unless someone dies, people don’t leave,” Lundgren told Sports Headliners this week. “People really enjoy it.”
Lundgren keeps a file with names of those expressing interest but he has only added a small number of people to the crew in 20 years. Four are guys who played for Lundgren when he was head football coach at Golden Valley High School decades ago. One of them is Brian Cosgriff, the former Hopkins girls basketball coach who turned the Royals into a national power.
Over the years Cosgriff has made time, despite a busy schedule of coaching, teaching and family, to be at TCF Bank Stadium for Gopher games because he enjoys the experience of being a crew member so much. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s definitely a crew. I call it the Chain Gang Mafia. Half the fun of working the games is getting there early so you can shoot the bull with the guys in the locker room beforehand. We got games on the TV, we got food, and afterwards we tailgate.”
Crew members receive complimentary parking and game tickets from the U Athletic Department. They are provided with a pregame meal, shoes and apparel. “What I’ve got is a lot of guys that maybe have coached, or been in football, or played, and just kind of want to keep up with it,” Lundgren said. “It is a fun job, I will say that.”
Lundgren has 14 people at his call to work games, although the official crew on gameday totals a couple fewer. Alternates have to be in place in case someone is unable to show up at the stadium. There are varied assignments for crew members ranging from managing yardage markers to writing and charting every penalty, and down, distance and time. The mission is to work with officials (the “zebras”) to ensure the game is supervised with accuracy and fairness.
Lundgren joined the Chain Crew in 1993. He had known longtime Gopher football trainer Jim Marshall for awhile and it was Marshall who connected him to Peter Deanovic, the crew chief. Lundgren was part of a crew that included Tom Mahoney, the legendary Fairmont football coach. The two became close friends and Lundgren was a pallbearer at Mahoney’s funeral. Matt Mahoney, Tom’s grandson and now the head coach at Fairmont, is on the current crew working for Lundgren.
Because of the pandemic, this year has been like no other for Chain Crew workers. They had to be tested the day before a game, and the day of, for COVID. That meant it just didn’t make sense for crew member Ken Baumann, another prep coaching icon, to attempt a four-hour drive between Mahnomen and Minneapolis. Lundgren hired alternates to replace any crew member who tested negative one day, but came up positive on gameday.
Because of COVID, fans were not allowed to attend home Gopher games. “It’s just like a morgue compared to a normal gameday,” Lundgren said.
The revised Big Ten schedule had the Gophers playing four games in Minneapolis, but last Saturday’s regular season home finale against Northwestern was cancelled because of COVID. The pre-COVID Gopher schedule consisted of seven home games so ending up with three was a downer, plus Lundgren wouldn’t be seeing coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“Fitzgerald from Northwestern is one of the finest people you’ll ever meet,” Lundgren said. “He’s just very kind. It’s not like you are friends, but he will come out and he will greet you. He will tell you to have a good game.”
Lundgren also offered praise for longtime Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz. “Ferentz, ironically, as much as people hate Iowa, is a nice guy to work a sideline with.”
While meeting coaches and interacting with game officials can be a pleasant part of the job, Lundgren knows he isn’t on the field to be a spectator. “I learned that you have to pay attention. Everybody says, ‘Boy, you’ve got the best seat to watch the game. You’re right there.’
”Well, you can’t really watch the game and do your job. I end up taping all the games and then watching them when I get home (where he can be a fan). We have to remain intent on our duty as opposed to a fan watching the game.”
Part of being focused while on the field is to avoid being run over on the sidelines by a wayward player. Lundgren calls it “getting the hell out of the way.”
Cosgriff said Lundgren expects crew members to be alert in doing their jobs, focusing on both their work and safety. “Believe me, if you’re not paying attention he’s going to let you know,” Cosgriff said. “He’s definitely the godfather of the Chain Crew, that’s for sure.”
Lundgren reflects on his 20 years as crew chief and acknowledges he has enjoyed the experience including the relationships and fair treatment he has received from the U. He will also be anticipating 2021. “You build up for the season. You’re excited for the scrimmages (to prep for games). You’re excited for football to start, and for the games to come. This year with the COVID and the cancelling of the games, it’s been a real disappointment for everybody on the crew. There’s no doubt about it.”
For Cosgriff, being part of the Chain Crew has provided time to be with Lundgren, a person with whom he is so close. “He is the reason I got into coaching because I wanted to be just like him. Since my parents have passed away, he has kind of become my surrogate father. Anyone who played for him has kind of felt that way.
“When there’s health problems with the family, or you are struggling with something, you call coach Lundgren. Everyone does. He is that kind of guy. He is totally supportive. You know he’s going to be there in the drop of a minute for you.”