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U Needs Minnesota Hoops Connection

March 08, 2021 - (0) comments


The University of Minnesota is expected to buy out the contract of men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino soon. Pitino had eight seasons to prove he was worthy of his position, but the results are among the worst in program history including only one winning year in Big Ten Conference games.

Pitino was hired at 30 years old, with one season of previous head coaching experience at Florida International University. He reportedly was a sixth, seventh or eighth choice of then athletic director Norwood Teague. The U administration later carelessly threw money at Pitino, convinced that was necessary to retain him. He should have been dismissed three years ago.

In this millennium the state of Minnesota’s “biological twin” to the east, Wisconsin, has seen its Badgers program going to Final Fours and winning Big Ten championships including last year. In contrast to Minnesota, the Badgers have been led by coaches with ties to Wisconsin starting with Dick Bennett, then Bo Ryan and now Wisconsin born Greg Gard.

For decades the Badgers have built their roster with Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota players. This year’s Badgers have seven Minnesotans on the roster, while the Gophers finish their season with two. Pitino fired more blanks than bulls-eyes in recruiting this state, missing frequently on top talent and all but ignoring promising walk-ons.

Athletic director Mark Coyle will identify and then hire the next coach with the expected approval of U president Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents. His candidate pool should include several coaches with Minnesota ties. This is an opportune time to choose a coach familiar with and appreciative of the U, and the state’s people, culture, quality of life and Fortune 500 business community.

A coach with state ties can bring unique passion and commitment to the Gopher job. He will want Minnesotans to be proud of their Gophers. With a commitment and attitude like that, it’s much less likely the coach will see this as a stepping stone job and want to move on.

This is a huge hiring decision for Coyle. Gopher basketball has to end the cycle of failed coaching eras and establish a long run of success like Wisconsin has done. A winning program translates to more than a better experience for the players and fans. Men’s basketball is the second largest income-producing sport among 22 programs in the self-supporting athletic department, and increased revenues are needed more than ever. With the state almost bursting with quality high school basketball talent, the U program has more potential than in the past and is positioned for success with the right leadership.

Richard Pitino

It is standard operating procedure for athletic directors to maintain lists of potential replacement coaches, seldom knowing for sure when change will come. Coyle may have been thinking for a long time about who might take over for Pitino (I am told he was almost dismissed last March).

Interestingly, San Diego State coach and Minnesota native Brian Dutcher signed a contract extension last September that included a favorable provision about the Gopher job. Dutcher’s buyout with the Aztecs is nearly $7 million unless he accepts the Minnesota job. Then the buyout is $1 million.

Dutcher was open last year in talking about his interest in coming home after growing up in Bloomington as the son of former U head basketball coach Jim Dutcher. He made it known the state and the U, his alma mater, are special to him. His dad and sisters live in the metro area.

Brian, a former national coach of the year, checks the boxes for what Coyle should be looking for in a coach including experience and proven success. Finishing up his fourth year as Aztecs head coach, he has won Mountain West Conference titles and brought national attention to his program including last season when SDSU won 26 consecutive games and was ranked No. 4 in the country.

Dutcher has more than 30 years of college coaching experience including a long run as an assistant known for his recruiting. His ability to sell helped Michigan assemble the Fab Five of the 1990s and as head coach at San Diego State he has established recruiting roots in California. His sincerity, common sense and reputation would resonate well with Minnesota high school recruits and coaches.

At 61 Dutcher will coach at least several more years. Even if he has great success at Minnesota, he isn’t leaving for another job. Instead, he might hand his job off to a top assistant on the staff. That assistant could be Ryan Saunders.

Saunders, 34, can be another legacy coach for the Gophers. He played for Minnesota as did his father, Flip Saunders, who also was an assistant coach for Jim Dutcher. Minnesota-born Ryan was recently fired as Minnesota Timberwolves head coach but if he chooses there is a lot of coaching opportunity ahead. His NBA experience would be valuable in both recruiting and coaching for the Gophers. He could also be interested in learning the college game from a mentor like Brian Dutcher.

It’s too bad but I don’t see a return path to Minneapolis for Eric Musselman. If he leaves Arkansas before April 30, he or his next school owe $5 million for a buyout. Coyle isn’t paying $5 million, or leaving his basketball program in limbo until May.

Musselman is a terrific coach with a zealous desire to win. He made Nevada a national name in basketball and is turning around the Arkansas program. The U, with a history of failed actions in football, basketball and hockey dismissals and hires, should have pursued Musselman three years ago when he was at Nevada.

Eric was a pre-teenager living in Bloomington when he watched his dad, Bill Musselman, make the Gophers a Big Ten power and box office hit in Minneapolis during the 1970s. What a homecoming it could have been with the Gophers winning games and Eric reviving the raucous pre-game warm-up show that Bill had his players entertain with.

Former Gopher J.B. Bickerstaff is deserving of a phone call from Coyle. Yes, he is finishing up the first year of a four-year deal as head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavs but making the assumption he wouldn’t be interested in the Gopher job is wrong. Coyle won’t know without asking.

Bickerstaff, 41, was once head coach of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, and he spent four seasons in Minneapolis as an assistant with the Timberwolves. His extensive NBA resume would bring sophisticated X’s and O’s to the U program, and grab the attention of high school recruits.

Maybe Bickerstaff wants a change and wants to get away from the NBA travel grind and return to his alma mater. His presence as Minnesota head coach might prompt offering an assistant’s position to Jared Nuness, a valued staff member of the highly ranked Baylor program. Nuness, son of former Gophers basketball captain Al Nuness, grew up in Eden Prairie and could become another legacy hire for the U.

Niko Medved, 47, would probably crawl through glass to come back home. He could be a poster boy for candidates with Minnesota ties. Minneapolis-born, Medved’s story might be worthy of a made-for-TV movie if he were hired by the Gophers and went on to win championships. He was a student manager for the Gophers in the early 1990s and from 1997-1999 associate head coach at Macalester. He then worked his way along the coaching trail with assistant jobs including one season with the U. As head coach at Furman, Drake and now Colorado State, he has achieved program turnarounds.

This season Colorado State is 17-5 overall and 14-4 in the Mountain West Conference. Contributing to the Rams’ success is assistant coach Dave Thorson, the Minnesota prep coaching legend from DeLaSalle. With the Gophers, Thorson would create instant credibility and rapport with state high school coaches.

The Rams finished in third place in the Mountain West, behind Dutcher’s 14-3 Aztecs and coach Craig Smith’s 15-4 Utah State team. Smith is a native of Stephen, Minnesota and it is believed Coyle had interest in him 12 months ago. Smith’s employment with the Aggies dates back to the 2018-19 season and it is more than impressive.

He has produced two Mountain West Tournament title teams, a share of one regular season championship and been to the NCAA Tournament twice. His overall record at State is 72-22 and 42-13 in conference games. The Aggies will be headed to the Big Dance no matter what happens to them in the conference tournament that begins Wednesday.

Like Medved, Smith started his career with obscure jobs and early on first gained attention on the NAIA level. His first two head coaching jobs were at Mayville State in North Dakota and at the University of South Dakota—more evidence of Upper Midwest roots.

Coyle’s friends will tell you he is a strategic thinker and bright guy. Let’s see who glitters gold for him.


CB Richard Sherman Could Help Vikings

March 03, 2021 - (0) comments


Cornerback Richard Sherman, 32, has been an elite player during his NFL career and he becomes an unrestricted free agent later this month. The former All-Pro has the profile and experience to complement what otherwise is a young Minnesota Vikings cornerback roster.

A former NFL executive (familiar with NFC North teams like the Vikings) told Sports Headliners a veteran cornerback might be on Minnesota’s free agent shopping list. “Maybe they can negotiate a good deal with someone like him (Sherman),” the authority said.

The source mentioned offensive guard, defensive tackle and possibly cornerback as priority positions for the Vikings as they consider 2021 free agents and college draft choices. He would use Minnesota’s first round draft selection at No. 14 on Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore. “I think he would be a really good target for them,” he said.

Vikings fans weren’t happy with the defense last season, including the performance of the line. They certainly could welcome Barmore, a redshirt sophomore All-American who might have been the most dominant defensive tackle in college football last season.

The Vikings have 10 draft picks as of now and will pick up a couple more adding compensatory choices for players lost through free agency. With so many selections in the seven round draft, general manager Rick Spielman will be doing a deep think on how he can better the club’s future. “I am sure he’s going to be moving around (trading picks and perhaps veterans). He always does,” said the authority who asked that his name not be used.

Mock drafts have several quarterbacks dominating the first 10 selections of the opening round but the NFL source wouldn’t use the Vikings’ draft collateral to move up to select a replacement for starter Kirk Cousins. “I think he’s good enough to win with,” he said. “Certainly they need someone long term to draft (at QB). I wouldn’t go in the first round (this year) and get one of those (college) guys. Maybe (get a) third round type of quarterback. You can find really good players in the third and fourth rounds (Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott are prime examples).”

The source considers Cousins a top 15 NFL quarterback, maybe even first 12, and questions the credibility of speculation the Vikings are interested in trading him. That’s partially because he sees Cousins as a potential winning piece directing an offense with playmakers like running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Also, the Vikings have salary cap issues and would have unwelcome “dead money” allocated against them if they moved the veteran quarterback.

The NFL has yet to establish the final salary cap number for franchises but it could be $185 million per club—a figure that has Vikings management crunching numbers. Minnesota is unlikely to franchise tag a player like last year when safety Anthony Harris received $11.4 million. With that deal expiring soon, he might be among players released in the coming weeks as the Vikings try to create “wiggle room” with the cap and the ability to chase free agents, perhaps including Sherman. Other Vikings could be headed toward restructured deals, with that looking like the direction for offensive tackle Riley Reiff.

The Vikings were 7-9 last season after playing most or part of the year without the following key defensive personnel: end Danielle Hunter, tackle Michael Pierce and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. “It’s a whole different deal if those guys were all there,” the source said. “I don’t think there’s any question that they would have been a playoff team… .”

Spielman will meet with the media via Zoom today to discuss the offseason.

Worth Noting

There was preliminary discussion between the Gophers and Minnesota Twins prior to the pandemic about establishing a high tech pitching lab on the University of Minnesota campus. Gophers coach John Anderson told Sports Headliners such a facility could help pitchers to not only improve performance but prevent injuries.

John Anderson

The expertise of sports science and kinesiology authorities at the U are part of what makes the idea of a pitching lab intriguing. Anderson said the Gophers and Twins have an ongoing successful relationship and are always interested in projects that will enhance baseball in the state.

Anderson is in his 40th year leading the program and has 1,325 wins. That’s the best in Big Ten history and he can start adding to the total when the Gophers begin their season Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Minnesota has games Friday, Saturday and Sunday against Indiana and Rutgers.

The pandemic cut short the season in 2020 and the Gophers’ overall record was 8-10. Anderson has seven positional starters back from last year’s team whose season ended March 11. He believes the Gophers “have enough talent” to achieve a winning season playing a schedule of Big Ten opponents only and no Big Ten postseason tournament.

Anderson will be without Max Meyer who was drafted last season by the Miami Marlins and could eventually join Glen Perkins as the two best pitchers he has coached. Already one of baseball’s top prospects, Anderson believes Meyer has the “stuff” to have a long MLB career.

Longevity will require continuation of a healthy right arm. “We didn’t over pitch him at Minnesota,” Anderson said. “We protected him and didn’t overuse him.”

At Woodbury High School Meyer weighed only about 165 pounds but at Minnesota he physically matured and benefitted from weight training. Analytics and other tools helped the 6-foot right hander improve, too. At Minnesota he developed a fast ball clocked at three digits to complement a slider he was using since high school. “He touched a couple hundreds in the short season we had in 2020,” Anderson said. “Quite a jump that he made.”

Twins 40-year-old DH Nelson Cruz has hit 311 home runs since 2012, the most in the big leagues.

When Marcus Carr totaled 41 points against Nebraska last week he came within two points of breaking the men’s single game scoring record for Gopher players. Eric Magdanz and Oliver Shannon each scored 42 points in a game. Carr’s 41 moved him into a tie in the record book with Andre Hollins.

Two Minnesota natives and former Gophers are on the WCHA 2000s All-Decade team announced by the Twin Cities-based league Tuesday. The team includes defenseman Jordan Leopold from Golden Valley and forward Johnny Pohl of Red Wing. Others on the team are forwards Peter Sejna and Brett Sterling, both from Colorado College; defenseman Matt Carle of Denver and goaltender Brian Elliott of Wisconsin.

All-decade teams this winter are part of the league’s 70-years celebration.

Maurice “Mo” Forte, believed to be the first ever African American assistant football coach of the modern era with the Gophers, died last Friday in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Mo, a native of Hannibal, Missouri, was an outstanding running back for the Gophers in the late 1960s before becoming an assistant at Minnesota from 1970-1975. His coaching career included the head job at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and assistant positions at major colleges and with two NFL teams. His 74th birthday would have been last Monday. Condolences to his family and many friends across the country.

Dr. Joel Boyd, recognized as one of the top knee surgeons in America and Minnesota Wild team physician since the franchise’s inception, will be the guest speaker for the Twin Cities Dunkers March 10.


Money Unlikely to Stop Pitino Buyout

March 01, 2021 - 1 Comment


Via social media, emails and private conversations the verdict is in to fire University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino.

No argument here. He should have been told to move on three years ago.

However, the public won’t decide Pitino’s fate. The decision will be made by school athletic director Mark Coyle and president Joan Gabel. Coyle’s job is to lead the athletic department and bring important matters to Gabel. There is no reason to believe that the relatively new president (started in 2019) will not follow the recommendations of her department head.

If Coyle wants to replace Pitino, I don’t think money will deter him and Gabel from doing so. This opinion is based on talking with authoritative sources with present or past connections to the University. They understand the second-guessing that will come with a decision to shake up the basketball program given the budget deficit facing the U and the bad feelings in place from eliminating three men’s sports, but they also see a path to make a change and enhance future revenues.

Richard Pitino

Pitino’s contract buyout is for $1.75 million and that’s just the beginning of expenses for past U mistakes that include extending his contract and providing a sizeable retention bonus. There presumably will also be expenses incurred with settling contracts from Pitino’s staff, and certainly costs associated with bringing in a new coaching staff. Those expenses could include money to cover the new head coach’s buyout at his old school and a possible salary larger than Pitino’s $2 million.

Budgets are always a challenging issue in the (generally) self-supporting U athletic department. Money is dramatically more sensitive now because of the pandemic, and a department deficit for this school year could total $50 million or more. It was reported in December the entire University of Minnesota system is facing about a $166 million overall budget shortfall by fiscal year end in June.

In the months ahead money via a loan (or perhaps sale of bonds) is expected to bolster the system budget. A significant portion of the money (whatever that sum is) will go to Gopher athletics, perhaps totaling over $50 million.

The athletic department has borrowed money in the past from the U central administration. This isn’t new ground, although past amounts are believed to be less than $10 million. Those loans had to be paid back and presumably this would be the expectation when the department receives a mega loan to work with for school year 2021-2022.

Part of the loan could be targeted to pay for changes with the basketball program. This scenario makes funding for a new direction in basketball viable. And Coyle, if he chooses, could forecast significant increases in future revenues with a successful new coach. Interest in the program has declined during Pitino’s eight years but there is potential for Gopher basketball to be the cash cow it once was.

The combination of high ticket prices and regular sellouts once put the Gophers toward the top of the Big Ten in basketball revenues. There was even a time in the 1980s when Gopher basketball TV ratings were second in the market only to the Vikings.

If Coyle and Gabel pursue a change, they will need final approval from the Board of Regents. Generally, the board’s position is to be supportive of the president and her leaders. Thumbs down by the regents on major decisions is unusual and could signal a breach with the president. I don’t see that happening if final approval of a new direction for basketball is presented.

Coyle and Gabel won a 7-5 regents vote last year to eliminate men’s gymnastics, indoor track and tennis. The savings for one year will be similar to the cost of Pitino’s buyout, but over five years and longer the savings will be considerably more, supporters of the move would say. The controversial downsizing, leaving the U with 22 sports in the athletic department, is also based on Title IX issues, per Coyle.

Eyes glaze over trying to understand the details and explanations about eliminating the three sports. But the programs aren’t coming back unless there is miraculous outside funding (keep your eye on tennis). Non-revenue sports are being cut all over the country as schools struggle through the pandemic and its impact on finances. The 22 sports total at Minnesota is more than many prominent universities elsewhere support.

Minnesota has three revenue producing sports in football, basketball and men’s hockey. All have considerably more financial upside for the athletic department treasury that depends on local and Big Ten revenues including the TV money machine (so far broadcast rights fees continue to escalate).

As an AD, Coyle has to judge his coaches on more than how many games they win and how much money they dump into the program’s coffers. Coyle looks at a coach’s relationships with his players and their academics. He makes judgments about how that coach works with him and others in the department. He must hold the coach accountable for compliance with NCAA and department policies. Certainly Pitino checked some boxes favorably over the years to hold Coyle’s support.

Fans don’t even think about such matters and that’s understandable. Big time college basketball is a business and the public isn’t buying the product. In eight years Pitino, hired by failed athletic director Norwood Teague, has a Big Ten record of 54-94, a winning percentage of .365. Only twice have his teams made the NCAA Tournament, winning one game. This season’s team is 6-11 in conference games and in free fall having lost five consecutive outings.

Gopher basketball is potentially better than this—much better. Both in quality and depth the state’s talent pool of high school players is nationally praised. The U is the only school in the state representing a powerhouse basketball conference, and that should make recruiting easier than at many other places.

Closing down the state’s recruiting borders has been a laughable thought this millennium and no one expects it to happen any time soon—perhaps never. But from home grown walk-on kids to blue chip future pros, the U can be much more successful with its in-state recruiting while still looking for players beyond its borders. With a transformation led by the right head coach, the Gophers can annually take up residence among the better teams in the Big Ten.

The chorus of critics is singing that tune today.


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