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Tommies Hoops: Big Time Potential

August 06, 2020 - (0) comments

 

Transitioning from Division III, the University of St. Thomas takes its 22-sports program into Division I competition in a year.  Tommies men’s basketball has the long-term potential to become the first money-making program in the athletic department, and perhaps one day emerge as a high profile national team.

School athletics director Phil Esten was asked about the program eventually earning that kind of success.  Maybe in 10 years?  “I certainly think that we’re going to make progress toward that,” Esten told Sports Headliners.

Right now the Tommies are at the starting line.  For the first five years, men’s basketball and the other UST sports aren’t eligible to participate in NCAA Tournaments.  Men’s basketball and most of the other UST sports will compete in the Summit League. The initial goal is for the basketball team to soon hold its own in a mid-major conference that includes four schools from the Dakotas. “I think we can be a very competitive basketball team (in the future),” said Esten, who has been a high level athletics administrator at Minnesota, California and Penn State.

In men’s basketball the Tommies can target the quality recruiting base in the Twin Cities area. “There’s a lot of very deep and rich talent in the state of Minnesota,” Esten acknowledged.

The Gophers have been the state’s only Division I program in the past but Minnesotans will now have a second choice to compete at the NCAA’s top level while staying close to home.  “There’s plenty of talent I think for St. Thomas to be able to recruit a couple (standouts) every single year,” said Esten who believes preps in Wisconsin and Illinois could also be prime targets.

Former University of Minnesota Big Ten championship coach Jim Dutcher has been impressed with the quality talent within the state.  “…Some of the players that Minnesota may hesitate on, they (the Tommies) may be able to get in the door,” Dutcher told Sports Headliners.

John Tauer

St. Thomas will make the transition to Division I led by coach John Tauer.  The Tommies have been a national power in Division III under Tauer, and won the 2016 NCAA championship.  A Tommie alum, he has a passion for the school, and has built a strong relationship with Minnesota high school coaches.  He will be expanding his staff to better compete at the Division I level, according to Esten.

Esten said already “we’ve had some pretty interesting conversations” from prominent men’s and women’s basketball schools about scheduling St. Thomas teams in the near future.  While some schools may look at the initial Tommies teams as easy opponents and want St. Thomas only for their home games, Esten said a couple of programs have expressed interest in coming to the Twin Cities for games, too.

Motivation to travel here includes exposure to the state’s recruiting talent, but Esten said there is also a willingness to help UST successfully start its men’s or women’s programs.  While Esten wants most basketball games played on campus in the school’s 2,000 seat arena, he is willing to consider an attractive matchup in a much larger venue in either Minneapolis or St. Paul.

No doubt such a game would attract a portion of UST’s 110,000 alumni, a large percentage of who live in the Twin Cities. Those Tommies alums are expected to support St. Thomas in greater numbers than in the past for various sports.  The spectator turnout for UST home games will also benefit from the approximately 40,000 people in the Twin Cities who are alums of various Summit League schools.

The Tommies wouldn’t schedule a showcase basketball game at a Target Center or Xcel Energy Center without believing it would be a money-maker.  The men’s and women’s programs could eventually become competitive enough to spark conversation about building an on-campus arena, perhaps seating 8,000 to 10,000 spectators.  Esten is a proponent of playing in on-campus facilities. In the meantime, the Tommies men’s basketball program may soon receive six-figure paydays by agreeing to play at the home arenas of Division I powers from conferences like the Big Ten and ACC.

The school leadership compares UST with other well-known urban Catholic universities.  With factors such as geographic location, endowments, curricula, graduation rates, and job placements, administrators say St. Thomas is similar to schools like Creighton, Dayton, Marquette, Villanova and others.  Those schools, of course, have great basketball legacies including national titles.  Three of the four (Dayton not included) are members of the prominent Big East Conference where a former St. Thomas insider told Sports Headliners he thinks the Tommies could land 10 years or more down the road.

Because of the pandemic the total St. Thomas sports program has one more uncertain year of competition in the MIAC before it exits to Division I.  The COVID-19 virus already has caused MIAC decision makers to move the football season to spring.  The UST football schedule had included a November 7 date at U.S. Bank Stadium against St. John’s to be hosted by the Johnnies.

Esten believes in normal times the game might attract at least a near capacity crowd at the Vikings’ home stadium.  Tommies-Johnnies is a legacy rivalry that a few years ago set an all-time record for attendance at a D-III game, with an announced crowd of 37,355 at Target Field.  That record has since been broken, but with U.S. Bank Stadium’s football capacity of nearly 69,000, a UST-St. John’s game would have the potential to set a Division III record (perhaps never to be broken).

Whether there is a game in 2021 or not, the end appears near for the nationally publicized football rivalry.  UST will be a FCS Division I program competing in the Pioneer Football League in the fall of 2021.  Esten couldn’t think of a game matching a Division I program against a Division III team, referring to it as “very rare.”

By transitioning to Division I the Tommies are expected to grow their subsidized athletics budget by three or four times.  The initial budgets perhaps will be $21 million to $25 million.  The school, though, is firmly behind the transition, citing multiple benefits ranging from competing in sports at the Division I level to extending the UST brand across the region and country.

In retrospect did the MIAC do the Tommies a favor by unexpectedly asking UST to leave the conference because of the school’s dominance in athletics?  Esten said no, referring to the disappointment of the surprising news and the ending of 100 years of association with the conference.  “It was really sad,” he said.

 

Incentives Likely in New Cook Deal

August 04, 2020 - (0) comments

 

Enjoy a Tuesday notes column leading off with Minnesota Vikings developments.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said his organization is “working extremely hard” to finalize a new contract with starting running back Dalvin Cook who becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

Whether it’s coincidence or not, the Vikings media schedule in coming days includes making Cook available to reporters a week from Friday.  Cook, about to begin his fourth season with Minnesota, is in training camp but Spielman offered no timeline when a new deal might be completed for one of the NFL’s top running backs who reportedly will earn $1.3 million in base salary this season based on his rookie contract from 2017.

Cook’s 1,135 rushing yards during the regular season last year was 10th best in the NFL.  His 53 receptions with a 9.8 yards per reception is impressive, too, but a source close to the team told Sports Headliners management is “very concerned” about Cook’s injury history, and that will impact the next contract.

The explosive Cook played in only four regular season games in 2017, 11 in 2018 and 14 (of 16) last year.  The source believes the Vikings could offer a two or three-year deal at about $10 million per season, with perhaps only one-third of the money guaranteed. Such a contract could offer incentives, with Cook awarded bonuses for playing in 12 games and 16 games.  In addition to durability incentives, bonus structure could include performance compensation such as leading the NFL in rushing.

A multi-year contract extension was announced for Spielman on Monday.  No specifics on duration were offered, or compensation, but the deal might be for three years at $2 million or more annually.  Head coach Mike Zimmer, under a new contract through 2023 that was announced last week, was scheduled to make $5 million in 2020 per Forbes last May, but his new deal could be for $7 million as early as this year.

Dating back to when Spielman started as general manager in January of 2012, the Vikings rank ninth in the NFL with a .570 winning percentage (72-54-2)—fourth best in the NFC over that eight-season period. And Spielman has more draft picks (93) than any other general manager in the National Football League. Of those selections, 56 are the result of trades and 13 have been first-round selections.

Spielman is respected in the Viking organization and doesn’t flaunt an ego like some front office heads in professional sports.  He tries to put others first and began a news conference yesterday praising a long list of individuals who help him with his job. He stresses communications and honesty as the football department’s leader. “There’s no BS going on,” he said.

Spielman hired Zimmer in 2014.  Both are sons of football coaches and love the process of building a team.  Zimmer described himself and his boss as “hard headed,” yet said both agree on things about 99 percent of the time. “I understand his bad jokes probably better than anybody,” Zimmer kidded.

Spielman and Zimmer are seeing some sense of normalcy in these pandemic times with players finally on the field after virtual instruction had to be used in prior months.  There is a level of confidence about the anti-virus measures at the team’s practice facility, but, of course, no certainty.  “I feel like I am the COVID police,” Spielman said.

Mike Zimmer

Zimmer reminds players to be cautious when they leave the facility. NFL labor policy does not allow keeping players in a hotel during training camp, so instead they can go home and to other parts of the community.  The COVID issue reminds Zimmer a bit of what his friend and legendary former coach Bill Parcells told him years ago: “Five things will cross your desk every day you’re not prepared for.”

The Wilf family, owners of the Vikings since 2005, has been rumored as potential buyers of the Minnesota Timberwolves whose asking price might be $1.2 billion.  The Wilfs could leverage the Vikings or their other business holdings for a sizeable bank loan, but they may not be interested because of the unsettled real estate market in New York and New Jersey where the group has many holdings.

If Gophers fans wonder whether any other players will join wide receiver Rashod Bateman in leaving the team to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, the answer is almost certainly no. Quarterback Tanner Morgan could be an early round draft selection next year, but he can raise his draft stock by playing this fall (if there is a season).

The Twins conclude their first home-stand of the year this afternoon, with eight games played before zero fans.  It appears the Twins and other MLB teams will play their entire shortened season in front of empty seats—with the COVID-19 pandemic being a particularly ill-timed development for a Minnesota franchise that might have attracted 3 million customers this year.

Coming off 101 wins last season and a MLB record 307 home runs, there was a lot of preseason buzz about the Twins.  Now it looks like optimism about Minnesota being one of baseball’s best teams is on target.  Minnesota is off to a 8-2 start with continued power hitting and superb pitching out of the bullpen.  The Twins have drawn 3 million customers three times in franchise history, including the first two seasons at Target Field, 2010 and 2011.

With so many MLB games already cancelled, there is speculation the season could be shut down as early as this week.

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said on WCCO Radio last night he expects Jake Odorizzi, who has been sidelined this season with back issues, to pitch this weekend against the Kansas City Royals.

Former Twins manager and Hall of Fame player Paul Molitor will tape an interview Friday for the Twin Cities cable TV program “Behind the Game.”  Co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson will ask Molitor about his career and the current status of baseball.

Prominent Minneapolis attorney Marshall Tanick, a former sports editor of the Minnesota Daily, wrote a detailed story last month for the Minnesota Lawyer about the “eclectic litigation” the Twins have experienced in 60 seasons here.  The preeminent litigation came about 20 years ago when financially challenged Major League Baseball sought to contract franchises including the Twins under the ownership of Carl Pohlad. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, owners and operators of the Metrodome, took to the courts and successfully blocked the contraction.  The litigation preserved the franchise for Minnesota, allowing enough time to win public approval for Target Field.

Deepest condolences to family and friends of Jim Presthus following his unexpected death Friday.  The younger brother of former Gopher basketball captain Paul Presthus, the 67-year-old doctor and Edina resident died peacefully in his sleep.

 

Sources Saying Vikings Season Iffy

July 29, 2020 - (0) comments

 

Although the Vikings opened training camp yesterday, word is sources close to the organization question whether an NFL season will happen due to the ongoing COVID-19 threat.

Vikings employees were shaken Monday when the announcement came that popular trainer Eric Sugarman, in charge of the team’s COVID protocol, tested positive for the virus along with members of his family.  That news came on the same day several Vikings players, including 2020 top draft choice Justin Jefferson, were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.  The designation refers to a player who either tests positive for COVID-19 or who has been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person or persons.

Vikings and NFL decision makers are monitoring their own franchises and what’s happening in other professional sports leagues that are starting up.  Pandemic concerns have already surfaced in MLB, forcing cancellation of games after teams began playing their 60-game schedules just last week.

Baseball is a sport that allows social distancing on the field, whereas pro football does not and has about twice the number of players on rosters.  “If baseball can’t play, what does that say about the NFL and college football,” said a sports industry source who has heard about Vikings concerns.

Another Sports Headliners source with expertise shared a similar view.  “I have a hard time believing it (the schedule) is going to get off and running,” he said. “If there is a (NFL) season, it might be eight to 10 games.”

A worst case scenario for the Vikings and NFL would be stoppage of training camps because of sizeable virus outbreaks among their players and staffs, coupled with worsening news across Minnesota and the nation about the pandemic, and MLB suspending or cancelling its season. Football certainly falls into the category of high risk for coronavirus transmission.

The league has already cancelled all preseason games, with the regular season scheduled to start in September.  Maybe.

Worth Noting

What? College Football News posted its preseason All-American offensive team this week including wide receivers, but Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, a likely first round NFL Draft choice next spring, wasn’t included among the 12 receivers.  Louisville’s Tutu Atwell, Jr., son of ex-Gopher Tutu Atwell, was included on the list.

Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan made Honorable Mention.

The outpouring of condolences following the recent death of Gophers 1960s three-sport standout Noel Jenke has been moving, and look for former teammates from baseball, football and hockey to organize a gathering to celebrate the life of the Owatonna, Minnesota native.

Glen Taylor

It looks like 79-year-old Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor will cash in on selling the franchise that he bought in 1994 for a reported $88 million and make a huge gain.  Forbes has valued the franchise at $1.375 billion, with media stories having Taylor asking $1.2 billion.  Taylor bought the club from original owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, who are believed to have paid the NBA $32.5 million in the late 1980s to bring an expansion franchise to Minneapolis.

I remember inquiring about an NBA franchise in the early 1970s and receiving a letter from league commissioner Walter Kennedy cautioning that an expansion fee would be over $500,000!

Taylor is likely to weigh several factors in deciding who will buy the club, including a review of bidders who are ethnic minorities.  The NBA office will welcome and perhaps push for such potential buyers, and that includes former Wolves superstar Kevin Garnett who is part of an interested group.  Garnett, though, has expressed harsh criticism of Taylor in the past and it’s unknown how that might affect decisions by the soft-spoken Timberwolves owner.

WCCO Radio’s Mike Max said this morning to watch for an announcement later today that the University of St. Thomas men’s hockey program will be joining the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

College Hockey, Inc. reports there are 218 NCAA alumni playing for NHL teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs that begin Saturday, and the Gophers have the most alums with 17.

The prediction here is Alex Stalock wins the goalie competition as the Minnesota Wild prep to play its opening game Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks.  He might handle pressure better than another veteran, Devan Dubnyk.  Like every team in the playoffs, the Wild is searching for a hot goaltender to lead win after win in the playoffs.  Look for coach Dean Evason to stick with whoever he chooses as starting goalie.

The Canucks are a solid offensive team and for the Wild to match production, continued breakout stardom will be needed from Minnesota forward Kevin Fiala.  He tied his NHL career high of 23 goals last season before the pandemic prematurely ended the schedule.  In the last five games he had seven points including four goals.

Expect Evason to not favor his top lines for most playing time.  If the third or fourth lines are performing the best, their minutes will be considerable.

Josh Donaldson was off to a slow start at the plate in the Twins’ first three games, all on the road, but he hit his first home run of the season and first in a Minnesota uniform last night in the club’s home opening 6-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.  In one game with the Twins, and 22 other prior games playing for other clubs, Donaldson has a career.384 batting average at Target Field.

 

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