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.”
Enjoy a Wednesday notes column:
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said this morning he expects running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Adam Thielen to play in next Sunday’s game.
Cook, who reportedly hurt his ankle last Sunday, has been a focal point of the offense this fall and taken a lot of hits from opposing players. Zimmer, though, wouldn’t commit to using his star runner any less, saying every game has different demands. “His health is fine, so we’ll just keep going and try to be smart about how we use him.”
Thielen missed the most recent game because of testing positive for COVID-19. “I think he’ll be ready to go,” Zimmer said.
The coach liked the way quarterback Kirk Cousins, not known for his running ability, scrambled in Sunday’s comeback win over the Panthers. “I just think it’s improving (the scrambling). It’s always a work in progress, but you don’t want to run when guys are open. There were times when he was flushed out of the pocket and then made plays with his legs.”
CBS televises next Sunday’s Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium against the 1-10 Jaguars. Beth Mowins, who in 2017 became the first woman in 30 years to call an NFL game, will do play-by-play.
In 14 of the past 16 NFL seasons, at least one team with a losing record after 11 games has qualified for the playoffs. The Vikings, Patriots and 49ers currently have 5-6 records.
With 24 players on opening weekend NFL rosters, Houston was first among cities producing talent. More 2020 NFL players graduated from high school there than any other community. Miami was second with 19 natives in the league followed by Fort Lauderdale and Tampa with 14 each.
Eden Prairie has three native sons in Blake Cashman, Ryan Connelly and Carter Coughlin. Minneapolis has Tyler Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald Jr. Other Minnesota natives in the NFL include Ben Ellefson, Joe Haeg, Zack Johnson, Kamal Martin, Billy Turner and Maxx Williams.
States with the most NFL players: Florida, 194; Texas, 192; California, 170; Georgia, 134; Ohio, 71; Alabama, 60; Pennsylvania, 60; Louisiana, 59; North Carolina, 59; New Jersey, 57; Illinois, 53; Tennessee, 45; Michigan, 44; Virginia, 44, Maryland, 39; South Carolina, 39.
Although the Gopher football team has cancelled its last two games because of the pandemic, Mohamed Ibrahim still leads the Big Ten in rushing with 817 yards, averaging 163.4 per game. Next closest in total yards is Iowa’s Tyler Goodson with 564.
Forget about Gophers junior point guard Marcus Carr returning next fall for a senior season. He is playing like a first round NBA draft choice, averaging 29.7 points per game and making clutch shots with none bigger than Monday night’s three pointer to win the game against Loyola Marymount, 67-64. In three nonconference games thus far he has made 54 percent of his field goals and 45 percent of three-pointers.
Meanwhile, long range shooting specialist Gabe Kalscheur has converted less than one percent of his three-point shot attempts. The junior shooting guard is making 28 percent of his field goals.
In three games against mid-major teams (played LM twice), the 3-0 Gophers have just a two rebound edge, 119-117.
Freshman Jalen Suggs, the former Minnehaha Academy guard from West St. Paul and the highest rated recruit ever at Gonzaga, is drawing early speculation as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Word is Timberwolves basketball boss Tom Thibodeau traded Ricky Rubio in 2017 because he thought the former lottery pick wasn’t a physical point guard and defensive standout. Rubio, reacquired this fall by current president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, is the kind of offensive creator who fits the aggressive run and shoot style the Wolves are now committed to.
Here is an obscure name to keep in mind when the Wolves start up their schedule in late December and into January. Reserve forward Jake Layman, injured and not playing much of last season, had a noteworthy impact on a team with an overall record of 19-45. Minnesota was 11-12 in games he played.
Monday’s column suggesting Tony Oliva belongs in the Hall of Fame drew reader response, including from local baseball historian Dave Wright who emailed that the three-time American League batting champion ranks far down the list in key career hitting statistics during an abbreviated career: “…It is a pity that injuries did him in—he never played an inning in the field after 1972. To me, he just doesn’t cut it. If you let him in, you open the gates for guys like Al Oliver, Rocky Colavito and many others who had some very good moments but they didn’t last.”
Wright agreed, though, with Monday’s reference to another former Twin, pitcher Jim Kaat, being Hall of Fame worthy. “Kaat is a different issue. It has always been a mystery to me because he was a starter, a reliever, a fielder, a decent hitter and was used as a pinch runner at times—a rarity for a pitcher. It is one of the great injustices in the game. …”
St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck, 69, has been selected by the Society for American Baseball Research as one of baseball’s most significant Off-Field figures in the last 50 years. For SABR’s 50th anniversary the organization honored Veeck and others like Buck O’Neil, Bill James, Claire Smith, Frank Robinson, Peter Gammons, Ted Turner and Vin Scully.
Veeck told Sports Headliners yesterday he has no comment on the reported deal making the Saints a AAA Twins farm team until MLB makes an announcement.
It’s all but certain the Twins shopped left fielder and free agent Eddie Rosario in trade talks before placing him on waivers. Minnesota is likely searching for pitchers while ready to try top prospects to replace Rosario. Watch to see if ace reliever Brad Hand, from Chaska, becomes a Twin.
Bill Robertson, men’s commissioner of the Twin Cities-based WCHA, reports more than 10 schedule changes of games already this fall because of the pandemic. He has learned more than ever to “take things as they come,” being flexible and ready to adapt.
The WCHA is using regional game officials when possible to minimize travel. No fans, even family of players, are allowed at games. Big Ten hockey has the same spectator policy.
The Twin Cities Dunkers, the well-known organization that dates back to 1948, lost its most tenured member when Sid Hartman passed away this fall. Hartman, who was influential with the organization for decades, joined Dunkers in 1965.
Enjoy a Monday notes column:
With the Vikings having five games remaining in the regular season, it’s possible Justin Jefferson could break franchise rookie records set by Randy Moss in 1998 for most receiving yards and receptions.
Moss had 1,313 yards in his first season, while Jefferson has totaled 918 yards in 11 games after becoming Minnesota’s No. 1 overall draft choice earlier this year. If Jefferson continues to average about 84 yards per game, he could finish with 1,338 yards.
Moss also holds the club rookie record for season receptions with 69, and as of today Jefferson has 52. If Jefferson averages about five catches in the last five games, he totals 77 for the season and breaks another Moss record.
After catching two touchdown passes in yesterday’s win over Carolina, Jefferson has six TD catches for the year. Out of reach for the former LSU All-American is the Moss rookie total of 17 touchdown receptions, which is not only a Vikings record but the best in NFL history.
With his speed, moves and sure hands, the 6-1 Jefferson is able to gain separation from defenders and make big catches despite defenses scheming to shut him down. He had two pressure catches in the red zone yesterday while totaling 70 yards for the game. His 918 yards for the season is already fifth best in NFL history for a rookie receiver.
Jefferson has been a great fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system that requires precise route running. GM Rick Spielman was excited about Jefferson after drafting him last April. “We feel very fortunate that he was there at No. 22,” Spielman said then about the new fan favorite.
Jefferson told reporters this afternoon “it’s hard to believe” the kind of rookie season he is experiencing. Yesterday he filled in for Adam Thielen (COVID-19), the team’s premier receiver. The two have developed a friendship and Jefferson said Thielen contacted him about his performance after the game. “I am definitely excited to have my brother back (for the next game),” Jefferson said.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer saw Jefferson drop a ball in practice last week. The 21-year-old told the coach it wouldn’t happen again. “He is a confident kid, but he works real hard,” Zimmer said today. “There’s a lot of things he has to improve on and we let him know that as well. …I mean he’s good. Everybody knows he’s good. You know, it’s can he be great? That’s the big question.”
Zimmer said he is hopeful Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook (ankle injury yesterday) will be able to play in next Sunday’s home game against Jacksonville.
Jefferson and three other Vikings (WR Chad Beebe, WR Bisi Johnson and TE Kyle Rudolph) all had seven receptions yesterday and at least 60 receiving yards. The 2012 New Orleans Saints are the only other NFL team in history to have that distinction in one game.
The Vikings are showing talent and depth at wide receiver including Beebe who made the game winning catch against Carolina. “We can do a lot with that receiver corps,” Jefferson said.
After playing against Carolina, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins now has 16 career games with at least 300 passing yards, three touchdown passes and a rating of 115-or-higher, surpassing Drew Brees (15 games) and Aaron Rodgers (15) for the most such games by a quarterback in his first nine seasons in NFL history.
Rob Hunegs, owner of Twin Cities Sports Cards in Golden Valley, talking about Justin Jefferson collectibles: “His stuff goes out of here as fast as it comes in.”
The Denver Broncos didn’t have any quarterbacks to use in their game yesterday because of COVID-19. Zimmer said his understanding is the Broncos’ quarterbacks had close contact with each other, while his group has been diligent about protocols. Zimmer didn’t offer names, but in training camp and during the season there is preparation work with an emergency quarterback like someone who played the position in high school or college.
Zimmer liked the red zone performance of his team Sunday, noting his offense had three scores in four attempts while Carolina was 0-3.
Vikings safety Harrison Smith on the high level play of linebackers Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson making plays: “It settles guys on the back end.”
Not much of a birthday week for Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck who turned 40 yesterday and is still the youngest head coach in the Big Ten. This morning the Gophers announced next Saturday’s game against Northwestern is cancelled because of so many Minnesota players and staffers testing positive for COVID-19.
Minneapolis native Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, the Breck alum, is one of Northwestern’s most productive wide receivers as a senior. He had a career-best 95 yards in receptions against Wisconsin earlier this month.
Former Lakeville North all-stater Bryce Benhart has started every game at right tackle this season as a redshirt freshman for Nebraska. Benhart, though, had a costly holding penalty in the fourth quarter of Friday’s loss to Iowa when the Huskers were driving for a go-ahead touchdown.
Few remember but John Hankinson, the former Gophers quarterback who died earlier this month, worked as a sportswriter for the Minneapolis Daily American after leaving the University of Minnesota and before his career as a successful real estate developer.
Forward Dawson Garcia, who had Minnesota among his final college choices, has scored a team-leading 35 points as a true freshman in two wins for Marquette this month He was a McDonald’s All-American at Prior Lake.
Edina-based Joe Florenzano of Triple Crown Sports is hosting a December 10 private signing with Minnesota sports legend Bud Grant and is accepting items until December 9.
Jalen Suggs, the former Minnehaha Academy guard from West St. Paul, is the highest rated recruit ever at Gonzaga, the nation’s No. 1 team off to a 2-0 start. The Zags play No. 2 Baylor Saturday where the staff includes former Minneapolis-area prep coach Jared Nuness.
In the latest AP poll the Big Ten has four teams in the top 10: No. 3 Iowa, No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 5 Illinois and No. 8 Michigan State.
Former Twins center fielder Torii Hunter is on the latest ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but despite his impressive career he doesn’t have the resume for induction. But why aren’t ex-Twins right fielder Tony Oliva and pitcher Jim Kaat (A+ MLB TV analyst) not enshrined?
If the Twins don’t do a new free agent deal with multi-positional Marwin González, maybe they will sign another versatile player in Kiké Hernández, who may leave the Dodgers.