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USC Seems Right for Fleck, But

September 21, 2021 - (0) comments


There is so much interest in whether P.J. Fleck will ultimately be offered and accept the USC head coaching job that he is a betting favorite of odds-makers.

I get it.

Before the season my analysis of Power Five coaching jobs that could open up in 2021 and be of interest to the Minnesota head coach placed USC at the top. No other school was even close. The Trojan job became available last week with the surprising dismissal of Clay Helton after just two games.

College football media guru Paul Finebaum lists USC, along with Alabama, Ohio State and Texas, as the best jobs in college football. At age 40 Fleck might want to make a long stay at USC where the school is strategically placed to recruit in the talent-rich state of California. A private school, USC is expected to make all kinds of resources available to its next coach with the intent of restoring the football program to its customary elite national status.

Do the Trojans want him? I’d wager a new keyboard USC athletic director Mike Bohn has Fleck on “radar” but hasn’t made him a target yet. It doesn’t require hiring an expensive search firm to place Fleck on a list of a dozen potential candidates. His impressive 11-2 season in 2019, Minnesota’s best showing since 1967, put Fleck’s name on the national coaching map and in the database of athletic directors from Power Five conferences.

However, Fleck needs a shiny record this fall to captivate the USC fan base and almost certainly to tantalize Bohn. Fleck, now in his fifth season at Minnesota, has an overall record of 28-20 and in Big Ten games is 15-20 (only one winning season). But his overall career winning percentage of .583 is the best at Minnesota in the last 50 years. And since the beginning of the 2019 season his overall record is 16-7.

Fleck earned his best Gopher career nonconference victory last Saturday against Colorado, winning 30-0. The Gophers this season are 2-1 including a conference loss to top-10 ranked Ohio State.

Would Fleck leave Minnesota for USC where he might one day draw national mention among the most successful coaches? It would not only be much easier to win football games at USC than Minnesota, but the Trojans are likely to offer superior compensation to Fleck and also his assistant coaches and support staff. If caught in a financial bidding war, don’t bet on the U.

Fleck will take his “Row the Boat” culture anywhere he goes. It resonates deep in his being and he would promote it in La La Land both internally and in the community. Some Minnesotans still haven’t warmed to the hyper-charged coach but maybe you have noticed the more he wins, the quieter his critics are. Same thing will happen in Hollywood. If the Trojans become elite, “Row the Boat” won’t sound very corny to the cynics.

After several seasons in Minneapolis, Fleck knows what he has for assets and what he is up against. He and athletic director Mark Coyle, the man who hired him at Minnesota, remain close. The relationship between a head football coach and his boss can mean everything in determining the success of both. Fleck is a power player in the athletic department and the U is committed to his future.

The Gopher job is a challenge, starting with the limited number of quality high school prospects in the state and region. For 20 years or so, many of the best preps in Minnesota have chosen programs other than the Gophers.

Recruiting could get a boost at Minnesota if businesses become responsive in rewarding Gopher players via Name, Image and Likeness deals. Fleck knows this could be a game changer in recruiting but so far I can’t detail much support at all, including any outside organizing group trying to make this work for the Gophers. Under NCAA rules, head coaches can’t orchestrate NIL and it will be a sad story if the business community Minnesotans like to brag about doesn’t get on board with NIL.

Fleck preaches “never let your circumstances dictate your behavior.” It’s interesting to think about that when considering things that might discourage him in Minnesota. As strong as his makeup is, Fleck has feelings and wants to be liked. He notices what is going on with NIL. He has heard the media and public naysayers who criticize his personality and coaching. In his fifth season he sees empty seats in Huntington Bank Stadium and knows fan support changes on a dime.

Things can add up over the years, and not just challenges, but also positives like quality of life experiences. Fleck is a Midwestern native and seems to have embraced life in Minnesota including summers on Lake Minnetonka. He and his wife Heather have devoted a lot of volunteer time to community causes. Their relationships with organizations and friends are meaningful.

Fleck has bonded with his players here and encouraged a culture of doing for others, including in the community. Sportscaster Mark Rosen wrote on Facebook that he received handwritten notes of condolences about the recent passing of his wife from every Gopher football player.

P.J. Fleck

And then there is this: if Fleck wants his coaching legacy to be that he turned Minnesota into a Big Ten power and national force then he will stay here. The USC Trojans won their last national championship in 2004. In Los Angeles, Fleck would be the guy who reignited the flame. At Minnesota, without even a Big Ten title since 1967, Fleck could be the man who made the Gophers a 21st century legacy program.

Worth Noting

During the last 50 years only Lou Holtz among nine Gopher head coaches (Fleck included) has ever departed Minnesota for another school.

The estimated attendance of Gophers fans at the Colorado game includes over 10,000. It was possibly the largest regular season road total for the Gophers in a long time. “I’ve been to about 20 road games, not including bowl games…and this was by far the loudest and energized contingent I have seen,” said Minnesotan Steve Hunegs via email.

Greg Joseph’s missed field goal Sunday has produced a media frenzy and Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer responded yesterday to a reporter’s question by saying “…let’s give this kid a break, okay?”

Vikings radio network analyst Pete Bercich reacting to a fourth quarter holding penalty on maligned left tackle Rashod Hill during a running play to the other side of the offensive line: “Oh, my God!”

Trending: media predictions are that the Gopher men’s basketball team will finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten standings next winter.

Former Minnesota Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario, now with the Atlanta Braves, hit for the cycle on just five total pitches Sunday.

Nick Anderson, the Crosby-born Minnesota native with the Tampa Bay Rays, had an elbow injury earlier this year that sidelined him but in three short relief appearances earlier this month he has given up only one run.

The Twin Cities Dunkers will have their largest live and silent auctions ever this week. All of the auction funds go to the athletic programs at Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools.

The Gopher women’s hockey program, with seven national championships, is celebrating 25 seasons in 2021-2022. First game this fall is October 1 at home against Ohio State.


Wild Owner Wants 5-Year Kirill Deal

September 17, 2021 - (0) comments


Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold spoke openly with Sports Headliners today about the ongoing contract negotiations with forward Kirill Kaprizov, last season’s NHL Rookie of the Year and a potential superstar for years to come. Leipold said months ago the franchise made an offer to the restricted free agent for eight years in the “neighborhood of $9 million,” but a deal still isn’t in place even though the Wild opens training camp next week.

“That was really an ambitious offer that we made to a player that has played 55 games in the league,” Leipold said. “We know he is a special player. We do believe that. We thought the offer indicated how we believe in him. He wants less years. It doesn’t appear to be so much about the money.”

Leipold and GM Bill Guerin have asked Kaprizov and his agent to show them contracts of comparable NHL players to help discussions. “That’s how we typically do any kind of negotiation is that we talk about comparables, and we’re not getting any comparables from them,” Leipold said.

The Wild are not insisting on an eight-year commitment. “…I think really the issue right now on the table is how long will the contract be and our position is it needs to be at least five years,” Leipold said.

Would the Wild negotiate the deal down to three years? “I can assure you we will never do a three-year deal,” Leipold said. “That will not happen.”

The negotiations have been drawn out and frustrating. Will the club consider trading Kaprizov? “There’s never been discussion on that,” Leipold said. “I don’t think so. We’re not going to trade him. He’s our guy. We’ve been committed to Kirill now for years (drafted in 2015). We want him to be in a Wild sweater as long as we can have him.”

Kirill Kaprizov

Leipold is hopeful that a five-year deal at $9 millon annually could get done soon. “I have no reason to believe that he wouldn’t be in training camp, right? I can’t understand what is holding this up. The offer we have is on the table, it is incredibly fair. I don’t think anyone is going to question that—whether $9 million for five years is fair or not fair. You can look at what the best players in the league are making, we’re right there. I don’t understand what is holding the signing of this negotiation up.”

Leipold believes it’s time for flexibility from Kaprizov and his agent. “We’ve already given on the number of years…and we’re asking him to make movement as well. The hope is that he will and he’ll recognize he wants to be with his team, and wants to be with it long term, and wants to win a (Stanley) Cup here. We love the way this team is developing now with our younger players. This is a good time to be a Wild player and a Wild fan.”

The 24-year-old Kaprizov captivated the State of Hockey with his offensive skill set and electric play last season. He led the Wild and NHL rookies with 51 points in 55 games last season. The 5-foot-11, 201-pound forward also led the team and league rookies in goals, even-strength goals (19), power-play goals (8) and shots on goal (157).

Worth Noting

Think Iowa isn’t a college football developmental program? The Hawkeyes had 34 alums (same as Clemson) on NFL opening day rosters, per a news release from the league. The Iowa total is bested by only five other schools including No. 1 Alabama (54) and No. 2 Ohio State (50).

Ex-Gophers in the league heading into the opening NFL weekend totaled 12, according to the Daily Gopher. That number included former Minnesota QB Chris Streveler, now a backup with the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals team that plays the Minnesota Vikings team Sunday is the most experienced in the NFL averaging 5.47 years and 16 players age 30 and over.

The Vikings average 4.07, with eight players age 30 and over.

The Front Offices Sport newsletter reported NFL viewership numbers were up seven percent for the league’s opening weekend. “The NFL averaged 17.4 million viewers per game over traditional and online platforms, bouncing back from its dip last year — the first decline it had experienced in three seasons,” the newsletter wrote Wednesday.

Sportsmediawatch.com reported the September 2 Minnesota-Ohio State game on FOX had the largest TV audience on record for a game on the opening Thursday of the college football season. The telecast averaged 6.3 million viewers, with the previous high 5.13 million for Ohio State-Indiana on ESPN four years ago.

Word is NFL scouts are showing interest in former Chaska and North Dakota State wide receiver Sean Engel, now a senior at Augustana. The 6-foot-5 Engel was all-NSIC as a junior. He has a business administration degree and now is majoring in business marketing.

The first-year Division I football St. Thomas Tommies are 1-0 but tomorrow play at Northern Iowa (FCS-ranked No. 16.) The Panthers, who lost by only six points earlier this month to FBS-power Iowa State, will play a return game at St. Thomas in 2024.

Forward Nick Bjugstad on his promise to Minnesota Wild fans: “I ‘ll do my best every day to bring the Stanley Cup to St. Paul.”

Playing its home schedule at the Wild’s TRIA Rink practice facility this fall and winter will be the Minnesota Whitecaps of the rebranded Premier Hockey Federation (formerly the National Women’s Hockey League).

“The move is designed to brand the league based on the skill and talent of its athletes as opposed to their gender,” a Whitecaps spokesperson said via email. “It is the first professional women’s sports league in North America to lift the word ‘women’s’ out of its title—a potential game-changer for other women’s professional leagues.”

The Whitecaps open their season November 6 in Boston against the Pride, then have the home opener November 20 versus the same team in the six-franchise league.

I have known Minnesota Twins legend Tony Oliva since the 1970s but until recently I don’t think I ever told him how much I enjoyed watching him play ball. I ran into him at a local driving range when he was tuning up his game for a tourney.


Nick Bjugstad Talks Wild Leadership

September 14, 2021 - (0) comments


With the offseason departure of veterans Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the Minnesota Wild faces a leadership question as the team approaches the start of training camp September 22. Forward Nick Bjugstad, 29, addressed the subject and his own career in an interview with Sports Headliners.

Bjugstad acknowledged it will be a different locker room next season without Suter, 36, and Parise, 37, who for years were the face of the franchise. “Those guys will be missed and they’ll have to be guys that step up,” Bjugstad said.

Bjugstad has seen the importance and role of leadership during a 10-year pro career. He played seven seasons with the Florida Panthers, two with the Pittsburgh Penguins and a first year with the Wild in 2020-2021. “I’ve been in very different locker rooms. I’d say the best cultures I’ve been in, the leadership starts from the top.”

Sidney Crosby, a super star for the ages, was a teammate of Bjugstad in Pittsburgh. Crosby led the Penguins not just with enormous talent but with a work ethic that set the tone for championship expectations. In Florida Bjugstad said the best teams he played with enjoyed and challenged one another.

How does Bjugstad see his leadership role for the coming season? “Definitely as an older guy you have to view yourself as someone who can help…the young guys. Help be a voice in the locker room. … I think a lot of the wisdom I retained over the years was from the older guys.”

Leadership is never about one person on a roster. Bjugstad expects team leaders to include Marcus Fuligno, Joel Eriksson Ek and Jared Spurgeon. Fuligno, Bjugstad said, is a vocal leader in the locker room and Ek’s focus and attention at the arena is exemplary. And Spurgeon?

“He reminds me of Crobsy in the way that he is very inclusive,” Bjugstad said. “Treats everybody the same, makes them feel welcome, and obviously an unbelievable defender.”

Bjugstad said the right locker room environment creates a culture where “everyone flourishes.” That includes impressionable younger players who are comfortable coming to veterans for advice.

Bjugstad said he loves meeting different people. He enjoys being around the locker room, and he is curious about the psychological aspect of sports.

Adversity has played a major part shaping who Bjugstad is. He’s endured serious injuries and when he came to the Wild about a year ago his past included major groin and back surgeries. As a result he has taken much more interest in the human body and how it functions.

He knows if players are injured and don’t understand what happened to them, the development can lead to a downspin in careers. “…If I wasn’t injured as much as I was I wouldn’t really be talking about the nervous system and how the body functions,” Bjugstad said.

Nick Bjugstad, photo credit Minnesota Wild/Bruce Kluckhohn

Bjugstad has taken a different approach to offseason training this summer. As a younger player he was very aggressive in the weight room and didn’t pay attention to his body. Now his training approach is much more balanced including workouts in the pool and even proper breathing. His regimen emphasizes staying healthy and having a long career.

The former Blaine High School star who was the state’s Mr. Hockey in 2010, hasn’t played a full NHL season since 2017-2018. His goal now of playing a full schedule of 82 games is not a surprise.

At 6-foot-6 and about 208 pounds, Bjugstad is thin and he targets consumption of 5,000 calories per day. He eats a gluten free diet of healthy foods. While it may sound great to have a pass for 5,000 calories a day, Bjugstad does find himself eating just because he must.

He feels energized and mentally ready as training camp nears. As he approached his first season with the Wild a year ago, he wasn’t able to train the way he wanted because of surgeries. “I was a little apprehensive with a lot of the things I was doing going into the season and then I got through the season relatively healthy, and then this summer has been full bore,” he said.

The Minneapolis-born Bjugstad is grateful the Wild gave him an opportunity to come home. Because of the pandemic, this will be his first season playing in front of fans at Xcel Energy Center. “I love the fans. I was a fan of the Wild when I was a kid so I am really excited to get people in the building.”

Over the years the Wild has struggled to score goals, including in the playoffs. Bjugstad said he has been working with a skills coach to help his shooting in different positions. While offense is important, he wants to be known as a two-way player. “I’ve learned to play a little more of a defensive game than I played when I was younger.”

The Wild has been waiting a long time to make a deep playoff run. What about the season ahead? “I definitely think this group we have the Wild…wants to get better and enjoys being around each other, and that can make the world of difference in a long season and a playoff run,” Bjugstad said.


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