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‘Old Man’ Cruz Could Make HR History

March 17, 2021 - (0) comments

 

No player age 40 or older has ever led the American or National leagues in home runs, according to MLB.com. Minnesota Twins 40-year-old DH Nelson Cruz might change that this season.

Although he didn’t finish first, the amazing Cruz led in American League home runs during part of last year’s shortened season. He finished 2020, after celebrating his 40th birthday in July, with 16 home runs and a .303 average in 185 at bats.

Cruz has hit 311 home runs since 2012, the most in the big leagues, per MLB.com. Four times in his career he has hit 40 or more homers. That includes his 41 home run total in 2019 when he was 39 years old. He led the American League in home runs in 2014 with 40, while playing for the Baltimore Orioles.

Although several much younger players like Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels are surer bets to lead their leagues in home runs in 2021, Cruz does seem to get better with age. Not only does he have 57 home runs in the last two years but over the last five seasons no MLB player tops his 176.

Cruz won the 2020 American League DH Silver Slugger Award in a vote by AL coaches and managers. In 53 games he ranked third in league on-base percentage, fourth in OPS, fifth in slugging percentage, tied for fifth in home runs and was seventh in batting average.

Cruz’s successful approach to training and nutrition are well documented. “He is quite a physical specimen and is obviously in tremendous shape at the age of 40,” Twins president Dave St. Peter said earlier this year.

Being a student of the game is part of Cruz’s success story, too. “His baseball related intellect is elite,” St. Peter said. “He understands the game inside and out.”

Cruz will ease his way into spring training, preparing for the coming season while approaching his 41st birthday July 1. In 20 spring training at bats he is hitting .300 and has a home run, although that one doesn’t count in an unlikely but possible campaign to be the MLB or AL 2021 home run king.

Worth Noting

Maybe Marcus Carr, the Gopher point guard and leading scorer, won’t return to the team next season and will opt for professional basketball, but he’s a long-shot to make an NBA roster. It’s highly unlikely he will be selected in the two rounds of the 2021 NBA Draft and he would have to hope for a free agent invite.

On a list of college basketball’s 50 best players this season, SI.com rates Carr No. 46. Minnesota natives Matthew Hurt, McKinley Wright IV and Jalen Suggs are at 43, 42 and 8.

Richard Pitino

Rick Pitino has influenced son Richard Pitino’s coaching career for years including now with Richard’s hiring at New Mexico. Lobos AD Eddie Nunez played for a Rick Pitino disciple at Florida, coach Billy Donovan. While in his 20s, Richard was an assistant coach working for dad at Louisville and Donovan in Gainesville.

Rick, who in his first season back in college coaching has Iona in the NCAA Tournament, looks after family. He once said on local radio here that Richard’s boss, Norwood Teague, was one of the best athletic directors in the country.

The Gophers’ basketball coaching vacancy will probably be filled in three weeks, or sooner. Whoever accepts the job likely has his current team in the NCAA Tournament.

Utah State coach Craig Smith, from Stephen, Minnesota and thought for awhile to be a favorite for the Gophers job, is receiving fan approval out west to fill the University of Utah opening.

The other Big Ten men’s basketball opening is Indiana, and look out for the Hoosiers if they convince Brad Stevens to take the job. Stevens, an Indiana native, was sensational at Butler before going to the NBA’s Boston Celtics.

Randy Wittman, 61, probably won’t draw interest from the administration despite being an Indiana native, former Hoosier star and ex-NBA coach including with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

That was Lewis Garrison, the former Gopher football player and now an experienced basketball official, working last Saturday’s Big Ten semifinal game between Iowa and Illinois in Indianapolis.

The University of Minnesota lost a thoughtful and practical leader when Michael Hsu wasn’t re-elected to the Board of Regents. The Minnesota State Legislature voted Monday on regents and among the new members are Kodi Verhalen replacing Hsu in the Sixth District.

The Minnesota men’s hockey team, winners last night of the program’s second Big Ten Tournament, head into the NCAA Tournament with the most wins in the country at 23-6.

The Minnesota Wild is 6-2 since veteran forward Zach Parise was benched for one game March 3. An NHL authority said head coach Dean Evason plays no favorites and expects everyone to play hard, even his highest paid players. No player receives the star treatment including rookie forward Kirill Kaprizov who has captivated the fan-base.

Have to wonder if former Gopher and now Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny won’t be the next men’s hockey coach at St. Thomas. The Tommies figure to soon announce the coach who will lead them into Division I play in the CCHA.

Six players representing four schools have been named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s All-Decade Team for the 2010s: forwards Jack Connolly of Minnesota Duluth and Marc Michaelis and Matt Leitner of Minnesota State; defensemen Justin Schultz of Wisconsin and Alec Rauhauser of Bowling Green and goaltender Dryden McKay of Minnesota State. All-decade teams this winter are part of the league’s 70-years celebration.

There is a tradition of great football clinics in Minnesota but perhaps none match the lineup of speakers for the MFCA’s virtual clinic coming up April 8-10 with Tom Allen, Mack Brown, Matt Campbell, Paul Chryst, Dave Doeren, Pat Fitzgerald and P.J. Fleck. Learn more by visiting the Minnesota Football Coaches Association website.

Vikings free agent signings of linebacker Nick Vigil and defensive linemen Dalvin Tomlinson and Stephen Weatherly hints at the franchise using its first round selection in the upcoming draft on an offensive player, perhaps a guard.

The popular WCCO Radio “Sports Huddle” program hasn’t been on the air for a year and apparently there is no plan to bring it back. The show stopped its long run because of COVID-19 concerns for 100-year-old Sid Hartman who died last fall. Hartman’s birthdate was March 15, 1920.

 

U Hoops Job? Set the Hiring Bar High

March 15, 2021 - (0) comments

 

I don’t have confirmation on speculation Richard Pitino will be terminated as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota. I know this: if athletic director Mark Coyle seeks a replacement, he should be determined to hire the best coach possible.

Richard Pitino

That means making inquiries about the nation’s premier coaches. While it might appear to be a frivolous exercise to investigate the availability of elite coaches like Tony Bennett from Virginia or Mark Few of Gonzaga, it’s not. There can be factors—unlikely as they may seem—that could spark the interest of a power coach to Minnesota.

Neither the public nor the media may know what these background factors are. A top coach might want to move on to another program because of a personal or professional conflict such as a marital divorce, or rift with the school athletic director and president. Maybe the coach is convinced the ceiling has been reached with his program’s resources and potential. He wants one more challenge to build on his legacy.

If naysayers had their way years ago, Lou Holtz never would have landed at Minnesota. The Gophers football program was the pits in 1983 after a 1-10 season that included the 84-13 debacle against Nebraska in Minneapolis. Holtz, a turnaround master, wasn’t getting along with his athletic director at Arkansas. Gophers AD Paul Giel and booster Harvey Mackay had the vision and will to convince Holtz to accept the Minnesota job.

In two seasons Holtz transformed Minnesota football on the field and at the box office. Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls beckoned, but then Holtz left for his dream position at Notre Dame where he went on to win a national championship. He is the only coach in college football history to take five different programs to bowl games. It would have been six except he was off to Notre Dame only weeks prior to Minnesota playing in the 1985 Independence Bowl.

After the failed performance of Pitino and two predecessors, it’s vital the Gophers secure the best hire for the first time this century. The program has the potential to annually produce teams landing in the top half of the Big Ten. Not to just have an occasional winning season here and there, but sustained success like the neighboring Wisconsin Badgers.

There are never guarantees of future successes with a coach. That’s why Coyle should not pursue a person with limited, or no head coaching experience. The more successful a coach’s background at his previous stop, the more likely success can be expected at a place like Minnesota. No guarantees, but at least the margin for error has been reduced.

There are many coaches whose names are rumored with the Gopher job if it opens up. Among that group, I am endorsing Minnesota native and U alum Brian Dutcher who has his San Diego State Aztecs playing in the NCAA Tournament starting Friday.

Disclosure: I know Brian and I am friendly with his father, Jim Dutcher, the former Minnesota head coach who led the Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten title. During an interview yesterday Jim wanted it understood he wasn’t talking with Sports Headliners to campaign for his son becoming the Minnesota coach.

“I don’t know how interested he is in the Minnesota job,” Jim said. “I don’t know if they have any interest at all in him. To this point there’s been no contact. His whole concentration right now is the NCAA Tournament for the team he is coaching.”

Jim didn’t initiate our phone conversation. He was willing to answer questions specific to Brian’s more than 30 years of experience as a major college assistant coach and head coach.

Brian, a student manager for his father at Minnesota and 1982 U alum, worked as a graduate assistant at Illinois before becoming an assistant at South Dakota State and then an assistant at Michigan starting in 1988. At Michigan he worked for head coaches Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher. When Fisher received the head job at San Diego State in 1999, Brian went West. He became Fisher’s top assistant and head coach in waiting until taking over the program for the 2017-2018 season.

During Brian’s basketball life he has been around Big Ten championship teams at Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. With the Wolverines, he was part of the staff helping Michigan to the 1989 NCAA title. In four years leading San Diego State he has coached the Aztecs to two Mountain West Conference regular season titles and two tournament championships including last Saturday’s win over Utah State. The last two seasons his record is 53 wins, six losses.

The 2020 USA Today National Coach of the Year, Brian has long been known as an outstanding recruiter. “He’s relentless,” Jim Dutcher said. “When he makes that contact (with a recruit), it’s going to be steady all the time. …He won’t give up on the guy until somebody tells him, ‘No, I am not going to come.’ “

Brian helped Michigan assemble the legendary Fab Five group in the 1990s and to this day remains close to Juwan Howard, now the Wolverines coach. At San Diego State he recruited Kawhi Leonard—an in-the-shadows high school player who Dutcher and Fisher saw potential in. Leonard, among the best players in the NBA, still comes back to campus at San Diego State where Dutcher has given him free access to the gym. “He was a very good recruiter at Michigan and he has done a great job of recruiting at San Diego State,” Jim said.

Brian’s not a flashy recruiter but he achieves results by being prepared and selling himself and San Diego State. His players can join a winning program, with a stable coaching situation. They will be expected to achieve academically, give maximum effort on the court and behave as solid citizens when not playing basketball. They will be held accountable for all of this.

“The kids that go through San Diego State’s program, they’re tied to the school forever,” Jim said. “They come back for games. They stay in touch with the coaches and the school. So they’re kind of the definition not what a team is, but… what a basketball program is. They don’t have those up and down years. You have a good product on the floor every year.”

How would Brian go about recruiting if he were the Gopher coach? “You always start with your home state,” Jim answered. “You’ve gotta get the best players out of your state if you’re gonna have a good program. Then they (the coaches) would supplement it with what their needs were nationally.”

Recruiting Minnesota players requires what Jim  describes as building a bond with people in the state including with prep coaches, recruits, and Gopher alumni. When Jim came to Minnesota in the 1970s he reached out to former Gopher coach John Kundla to learn all he could about the program and the state. Understanding a place’s culture and history is key to successful in-state recruiting, he explained.

Recruits are attracted to how Brian builds and sustains relationships. “They really stress a family attitude with their team,” Jim said. “You’re part of the Aztec Nation. You’re part of our family, not for four years but forever. So you just kind of build that bond. He understands (the importance of family).”

Most programs, including Minnesota, can’t expect to have a roster loaded with blue chip players every year. Identifying potential talent is part of Brian’s success story. “They’ve got people that have turned out to be all-conference, or players of the year, that weren’t highly recruited in high school,” Jim said.

Aztec Matt Mitchell, not coveted as a prep, is the 2021 Mountain West Player of the Year. He has helped the Aztecs win 14 consecutive games after stumbling earlier in the winter. “They stress we gotta be better tomorrow than we are today, both individually and as a team,” Jim said. “You see it as the year goes on, the team is playing better and better. You can just see the improvement both individually and teamwise. …”

When Aztec players screw up, they will hear about it from the head coach. “He is not an in your face kind of guy but he does hold players accountable,” Jim said. “They know what’s expected of them and if they’re not doing it (right) then he’ll hold them accountable, either in playing time or whatever it takes.”

In practices the Aztecs are led by a coaching staff that will make decisions on how their team should best prepare for the next opponent. While they will practice with focus and effort, Brian won’t overwork his players. “Brian knows you don’t leave your game on the practice floor,” Jim said. “You gotta be rested. You gotta be mentally and physically ready to play. So they’ll take a day off and rest legs. …”

Nothing completely prepares a top assistant for the head job. He has to be in that role to experience all the responsibilities including managing the actual game. During Brian’s four years leading the Aztecs his dad has seen improvement by his son. “I think he has become a really outstanding bench coach,” Jim said. “That’s why you’re voted coach of the year.”

Jim Dutcher

The Aztecs have made a habit of winning games that aren’t decided until the last five minutes. Part of that success comes from making adjustments during games and at halftime. “San Diego State has got a reputation for closing out games,” Jim said. “I think a lot of that is around their defense, but also a lot of that is about coaching (during games).”

Defensive teams that statistically and in performance rank with the better programs in the country is a vital part of Brian’s approach to coaching. “Brian has been around the game for a long time, and he understands that to be a consistent winner…it starts with good defense because a lot of teams can have good offensive shows but they go on the road and they can’t win on the road,” Jim said. “Good defensive teams are good road teams. So I think he has a really basic understanding of what it takes to be not only a good team—but to be a good program—you kind of have to hang your hat on the defensive end, and they’ve done that.”

At 61 years old, Brian will coach many more years. Maybe that will be in San Diego, or perhaps coming home to Minneapolis. Wherever he is, dad believes Brian will continue to coach with a lot of experience, knowledge, passion and energy. “He is a young 61,” Jim said. “Brian doesn’t seem to be that old.”

 

Boosters Detail Saving Gopher Tennis

March 10, 2021 - (0) comments

 

There could be a path for the University of Minnesota men’s tennis program to continue indefinitely, according to information submitted this week to members of the school’s Board of Regents.

Tennis, along with men’s gymnastics and indoor track, are scheduled for elimination later this year to save the athletic department $1 million to $2 million annually. The decision to discontinue the sports was made last fall at the recommendation of president Joan Gabel and athletic director Mark Coyle who said Title IX issues also dictated the extreme action.

The regents voted 7-5 to approve the elimination of the three sports and assist the athletic department budget in coming years. The department is mostly self-supported from revenues generated by three sports, football and men’s basketball and hockey. A budget deficit of $40 million or more has been estimated for the department this school year.

The action to cut programs was met with a storm of controversy and emotion including by members of the tennis boosters group. This month representatives of the Baseline Club informed Coyle and the Board of Regents their findings dispute that Title IX is an issue, and funding can be established to continue the program into perpetuity.

The Baseline Club retained the services of a lawyer with Title IX expertise, according to documents given to the Board of Regents. Nationally known attorney Arthur Bryant concluded that Title IX related issues don’t prevent the tennis program from being reinstated. The University’s Office of Legal Counsel is reviewing Bryant’s findings.

Regarding finances, the booster club stated it has over $1.3 million in pledges to help make the reinstatement of tennis possible. Already in place because of past private funding is a $1.2 million endowment used for scholarships. It’s projected that the $2.5 million total can fund the tennis program for four years. With the impetus of that success, the booster club believes further private funding can solidify the program’s existence indefinitely.

The University will have to determine whether it’s in agreement with the Title-IX issue. There will also be careful scrutiny of financial pledges to determine sources and how donations will be secured. Contrary to what some observers believed last fall, the $1.2 million tennis endowment can’t be transferred to another sports program at the University without the approval of the Baseline Club.

The Baseline Club started in 1979 and has played a leading role in promoting and enhancing tennis including through its financial contribution for construction of the on-campus Baseline Tennis Center.

Budget cuts prompted by the pandemic have caused the elimination of college sports across the country, with tennis among those programs most affected. The University is projected to have 22 men’s and women’s sports for the next school year.

Worth Noting

Give credit to Tom Devine and other volunteers from Friends of Gopher Sports for their persistent lobbying to eliminate state sales tax on Gophers seat licensing, which uses the revenue for scholarships. If legislation is enacted the savings to the athletic department will be about $1 million per year, Devine said.

A bill to make the change had a hearing in the House of Representatives last week and the proposed legislation includes elimination of sales tax on seat licensing at other state schools including UMD and St. Thomas. The bill is co-authored by Representative Mohamud Noor and Senator Greg Clausen. Efforts have been made in the past, too, but volunteers are optimistic about legislative change this year. “I am proud of it,” Devine said about ongoing lobbying.

Sooner or later Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle will go before the University Board of Regents and discuss the men’s basketball coaching situation. The regents meet this week and then don’t have another regularly scheduled gathering until May 13-14.

A source familiar with U policy said Coyle doesn’t need regents’ approval to terminate coaches including Richard Pitino.

Paige Bueckers

Sports Illustrated online points out Hopkins legend Paige Bueckers, now playing for the Connecticut Huskies, could be the first basketball freshman to ever be named women’s college player of the year. She has already been honored this winter as both Big East freshman and player of the year. Former Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore, playing for Connecticut, also earned those honors as a freshman.

NFL Network is providing extensive coverage this month of Pro Days from college campuses including North Dakota State Friday. Bison QB Trey Lance, from Marshall, Minnesota, is showing up among the first 10 selections in 2021 NFL mock drafts.

Condolences to family and friends of Duane Blaska who died at home Monday morning after a lengthy fight with cancer. Duane, 79 and from Anoka, was the heady starting quarterback on the Gophers’ 1962 team that compiled a 6-2-1 record and finished the season ranked No. 10 nationally by both the Associated Press and United Press International. If not for the controversial officiating in a season ending loss to Wisconsin in Madison, Minnesota would have gone to three consecutive Rose Bowls.

“Duane was everybody’s friend—a lovable, admirable soul with a flawless character. Bless his memory,” former teammate Paul Ramseth wrote in an email.

The Minnesota Wild, six wins over .500 with 14 wins and eight losses, is playing impressive enough to deserve a ranking of 11 or 12 among the 31 NHL teams, writes Stan Fischler of the Fischler Report.

Ross Bernstein, the Twin Cities-based sports author and entertaining national speaker, is the latest “Behind the Game” guest with co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson. The program is available for viewing on the “Behind the Game” YouTube Channel and via cable access throughout the state.

Catcher Mitch Garver, a 2019 Twins Silver Slugger winner, is in competition for playing time with Ryan Jeffers after Garver’s off year in 2020.

 

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