Saturday, October 31, 2020

Minnesota Gopher Football is 0-2- Here's Hoping PJ Fleck Can Fix It

After a shocking 0-2 start to the 2020 season, for some faction of the Minnesota Gopher football fan base it appears we’ve already reached “If you have even the slightest doubts about PJ Fleck and the state of the program you’re a traitor and fair weather fan.” Cool cool cool cool cool. There are both political and religious connections to be made here to fanatical and blind following of a leader but with everything else going on this crazy ass year, let’s not go down that road today, shall we?

For the record, I am not out on PJ Fleck and I am not here to call for his head. However, I do have a few questions and comments and perhaps concerns about the state of the program and, well, this seemed as good a place as any to express them (sorry Frothy).

Watching a shockingly bad defense and a not-so-shockingly bad special teams these first two games I am reminded of how difficult it is to be a good football coach at the P5 level, and how especially difficult it is to pull off at Minnesota. A big part of the sheer terror for some of admitting everything isn’t as, um, “rosy” for Fleck and this program as we believed even just two weeks ago is exactly because of how hard it is to win at Minnesota. Since the glory years of the 60’s we’ve seen many different coaches with many different ideas try and fail to win consistently here. It hasn’t happened prior to PJ Fleck because he or the other coaches are bad, it’s just a reminder this is one of the toughest Power 5 jobs in the league.

Fleck’s background and mantra and strengths as a head coach are as a CEO and leader- he’s not considered an X’s and O’s guy on either side of the ball, and that’s ok. We’ve seen many examples of this type of coach being successful all over college football, with Dabo at Clemson being the most extreme positive example. But for that CEO coach to be successful he needs to be able to consistently recognize and bring in coaching talent onto his staff (especially at the offensive and defensive coordinators) and it also helps if he’s really good at recruiting and developing. 

But the other really key thing that often gets overlooked for ANY head coach to have sustained success is they need to be adaptable. Time and again we see the hot shot head coach in college or the NFL who worked his way up through the ranks as an offensive or defensive guru and they have success at first or maybe even for awhile. But then the game shifts and they cannot or will not shift with it (Hi Chip Kelly! Hi Mike Zimmer!), OR whatever worked for them at lower levels just isn’t going to work as well at the Power 5 level.

A perfect example of this is actually the guy who came before PJ- well fine the guy who came before the guy who came before PJ- Jerry “Have I told you lately how much I hate PJ Fleck?” Kill. Country Jer was the epitome of the work your way up the ladder CEO coach whose track record said he should have succeeded not just at the P5 level, but he should have succeeded here. And health problems aside, for a time he did. But by year 4 it became apparent he was a little TOO loyal to his long-time assistants and that the real key to his success was Tracey Claeys and the defense. On offense Matt Limegrover was in WAY over his head as an OC (and perhaps even as a line coach) and he had no one on staff who could develop anything besides running backs (I give them no credit for that one generational TE- Hi Maxx!). 

While he clearly wasn’t and isn’t cut out to be a head coach, Claeys and DB coach (and eventually DC) Jay Sawvel proved incredible and borderline miraculous at turning “MAC-level” defensive recruits into good players and even NFL draft picks at Minnesota. At least until they moved onto their next jobs at Wazzu and Wake and then suddenly they couldn’t. Which again speaks to how freaking hard and frankly weird coaching college football is. Everything a coach does works until it doesn’t and then we find out if they’re good enough to figure out how to make it work again.

Two games into Fleck’s fourth season, that’s where we suddenly find ourselves. Whatever worked for him last year in an awesome and wondrous 11 win season is so far not working at all this season. If you want to pick nits about the offense feel free, but I’m not here to do that today. And yes, I watched the 4th quarter prevent offense against Maryland that helped the Gophs eventually lose the game, but I believe that’s more about the HC’s philosophy than the OC’s at this point. Remember all those vanilla offenses we’ve seen in the non-con under Fleck with Kirk Ciarrocca? I think that’s more PJ than his OC, but I’m willing to wait and see on that one.

I’m also not going to talk about special teams because what is there to talk about? They were atrocious last year under Rob Wenger and they’re atrocious again this year under Rob Wenger. I’m going to go out on a very short and sturdy limb and say they will be atrocious as long as Wenger is the special teams coach, so until Peej realizes this and finds a new ST coach, I don’t know why we’d expect anything else.  

But the defense? That is one of my two big questions right now for PJ Fleck- WTF is happening on defense? Or perhaps more accurately NOT happening on defense right now? DC Joe Rossi seemed like a revelation two seasons ago when he replaced Robb Smith near the end of the 2018 season. The D suddenly looked competent- including a win over Wisconsin!!!- and then they were mostly awesome last year. But thus far in two games it’s like Robb Smith has kidnapped Rossi and secretly replaced him because it looks exactly like the Robb Smith defenses we saw previously. Sure, we lost Winfield some key and very good players like Antoine Winfield Jr, Kamal Martn, Thomas Barber, and Carter Coughlin, so I was expecting a few bumps out of the gate. But these are not bumps in the road, this is the road spewing open a gateway to hell. This just looks like complete and total incompetence in all facets and I do not understand how we got here considering how Rossi had coached previously. 

Fleck as CEO coach is going to be more dependent on how good his coordinator hires are, and we’re seeing that now- it’s too early to say on Mike Sanford, I don’t know what the hell is going on with Rossi but I’m worried, and it’s WAY past time to say on Wenger.

The other issue is one I didn’t think we’d need to be worried about but this one falls squarely on PJ- depth. He has without question improved Minnesota’s recruiting since he got here- the Gophs are consistently bringing in better recruits with not just better star ratings, but to me the mark that we’re getting better players is that their offer sheets consistently include other P5 schools. That’s a very good thing. That said, as we learned with Tim Brewster, recruiting rankings don’t mean anything if you can’t develop that talent. I’m not saying Fleck and his staff definitively cannot develop talent, but I am at least wondering whether we have an issue there, and if it’s more to do with his coordinators or position coaches or what. Kill and Claeys may have gotten “MAC-level” recruits but on defense at least it didn’t matter when Claeys kept turning them into good players and a good defense. Fleck has had three full recruiting classes now and we’re not seeing much in results thus far on D now that the Empire Class that Kill and Claeys recruited are gone. Some of that- a lot of that?- could be just scheme and maybe the talent is much better than what the results have shown but hoo boy when the results are THIS bad it has to leave you wondering at least a little. 

On offense, the skill positions look great and that’s really all Fleck kids at this point, but O-line depth is rearing its ugly head yet again, a consistent and frustrating theme for every staff since Glen Mason got fired. For the first time since Mason we had 6 B1G quality O-linemen last year, which was great because we never had to really go past those 6. But in two games this season the right side of the O-line has been missing and it’s been a real problem as we appear to be left with just four good linemen and nothing else.

Why, and how do we fix it? That’s what PJ Fleck is now facing this season on defense, along the O-line and really at depth everywhere on the roster. In hindsight maybe B1G West champs were too high of expectations in a season with no spring or summer practices during a pandemic and we clearly underestimated the impact of losing some key contributors, but it still should be better than this. I still love PJ Fleck as the head coach of this team- I promise I’m not a traitor or a bandwagon fan- but the honeymoon is over. The mark of a good coach is not just having initial success, but when things stop working, can he figure out how to fix it? We’ll find out soon enough how good and adaptable Coach Fleck is with how well he rows the boat through some very tough waters the rest of the season.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Big Ten Football 2020: Setting Sail

Oh hi, I’m Outstate Biff. You’ve caught me writing an escapist, self-indulgent blog post.

Big Ten football is back. And not like Texas…like, it’s literally back.

The college football season, such as it is, has been bizarre in ways not seen since the 1918-1919 seasons which is a weird coincidence I’m sure someone will look into sometime. It remains to be seen whether the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the start of the season will add stability, but it can’t be much worse than what’s happened so far. In retrospect, the decisions made by the Big Ten and PAC-12 to delay their start dates may end up looking not so bad in the long-run.

I’m in an odd place. I work in healthcare (usual disclaimers apply: I’m not a doctor, this isn’t medical advice, this should not be construed as representing the views of my employer, etc etc), and the pandemic has dominated my waking hours. Do I believe we should be playing? Um...I…don’t really know; I have my doubts. But I’m also sufficiently hypocritical to watch the hell out of it, and I could use the distraction.

It’s been a tough year of relentless long work weeks since February, always playing from behind. I’ve experienced death (my dad) and birth (my son). COVID robbed my family of much of the normal comforts that are supposed to come with those events, and free time has been rare. To cope, I’ve found other escapes, one of which will soon be Big Ten football. Another has been Yacht Rock. Building something in the garage, watching a sunset on the deck, driving to the store for a month of quarantine supplies…the soundtrack has been Yacht Rock.

Now, I don’t mean the adulterated garbage you get from the Sirius XM Yacht Rock channel or Fleetwood Mac cover bands in captain’s hats. I mean the real thing, originated in concept in a 12-episode web series that began in 2005, and further defined in a now-defunct (but soon to be reborn) podcast and website hosted by the web series creators.

The Yacht Rock Era occurred from the mid-70s to mid-80s, with a handful of more recent examples. The web series defined the genre as music with high production value thanks to improved recording techniques that became available in the mid-70s, a core group of elite studio musicians with a lot of cross-pollination between bands, influences from jazz and R&B like complex chord structures and “smooth” sound, lyrics often about heartbroken and/or foolish characters, and rhythmic characteristics similar to the gold-standard Doobie Brothers “What A Fool Believes” and Toto’s “Hold The Line”.

What is Not Yacht (Nyacht)? The Eagles. Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) by Looking Glass. Jimmy god-damn Buffett. They’re of the era, and sometimes touch some of the characteristics but they lack enough of them to count. If your Yacht Rock playlist includes them, you might be listening to soft rock, adult-oriented rock, or the West Coast Sound, but it’s not Yacht Rock. I’m not a purist about much, but This Is It.

So with Yacht Rock on the brain, football in the future, and desperate for an escape, I’m taking a self-indulgent journey into a world where Big Ten football programs are defined by Yacht Rock songs. To give us an even 20, talk some football-adjacent topics of interest too. I define “program” however I want…an arbitrary combination of the characteristics of the school, coaches, players, history, program image, recent record, fanbases, and my own personal biases…the best KIND of biases!

Let’s set sail.

The Song: Look Who’s Lonely Now (Bill LaBounty, 1982) 
The Lyric:
Look who’s lonely now
Welcome to the other side

Falling to average or below-average from the greatest heights is hard, and a mourning period is natural. History is replete with examples: The Spanish Empire. Cadillac. Lead. The list goes on. That’s what makes it so hard being a Nebraska fan.

It’s a comforting self-justification to tell yourself that you’re actually WAY closer to getting back than everyone thinks! I can see how that creates a predilection to be angry when the unenlightened-other doesn’t see things the same way. Nonetheless for virtually a year straight the entire Nebraska fanbase, coaching staff, and athletic department has seemed to be dedicated to forcing even the most sympathetic outsiders to roll their eyes. Not long ago Scott Frost was complaining about having to play the lower-rung Big Ten football programs. After pitching a fit about the Big Ten’s season cancellation and strongly-hinting at taking their ball and going…somewhere else, Bill Moos is complaining about playing the same set of teams they would have played if COVID hadn’t happened because they have to start with Ohio State. Who now is supposedly going to be their new rival? For…reasons? Oh, and they’re TOTALLY responsible for bringing back Big Ten football.

Well, congratulations, you've whined your way to a uniquely lonely place among Big Ten teams. You've made me agree with Badger fans with uncomfortable frequency and I’m not sure how I come back from that. Enjoy the winter.

The Song: Any Major Dude Will Tell You (Steely Dan, 1974) 

The Lyric:
I’ve never seen you lookin’ so bad my funky one
You tell me that your super-fine mind has come and gone
Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again

When I think of Iowa football I think stability. The Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz eras have been remarkable for their consistency in success and styles of play. Aside from a brief period in the late 90s, Iowa has been solid fundamental football, good defense, regular mid-to-upper tier bowl games, and a threat to punt at any time. So the internal program churn that has coincided with the pandemic has made this the most challenging year for Iowa that I can recall. I have no special knowledge or really any opinions on what is and isn’t truth for the current challenges to the Ferentz Administration, but somehow I doubt it’s going to be enough to bring the train to a stop. But then, I’m no major dude.

The Song: Sweet Freedom (Michael McDonald, 1986) 

The Lyric:
Always searchin’ for the real thing
Livin’ like it’s far away
Just leave all the madness in yesterday
You’re holdin’ the key when you believe it

The 2019 season was a cleansing experience for Gopher fans and the program overall, but it was neither the top of the mountain nor a sure thing to be repeated. It did not remove doubt or prove that we’ve become Big Ten elite. What it did do is show that the things we always thought we couldn’t do were not actually impossible. We can win the big game sometimes. We can get Gameday to campus. Recruits will come here. We can have a passing game as long as it’s run by a CPA.

For Minnesota fans that means no longer having to believe that we can never achieve more and that the 8-4 so many thought was the ceiling was artificial. 2020 begins with another big game against Michigan for The Jug. Minnesota has not beaten Michigan in Minneapolis since 1977, three stadiums ago. It’s not a lock either way. But we can win, and cut one more head from the hydra.

Sweet Freedom.

The Song: What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me (Chaka Khan, 1981) 

The Lyric:
When the chips are down?
What cha’ gonna do for me?

As a Gopher fan coming of age in the late 90s and early 2000s, it seemed like Wisconsin really had it made. Going from nothing to frequent Rose Bowls in less than 10 years, never having to doubt a bowl trip (except for 2001), and a (earned) dismissive attitude towards what was supposed to be their primary rival. Yet I’ve learned Wisconsin fans aren’t satisfied. Every Big Ten Championship Game loss to Ohio State, every lost Rose Bowl, all I hear is “same old Badgers, can’t win the big one”. Maybe that’s true…it’s a situation I still wouldn’t mind being in, and maybe I’ll be lucky to feel the same way in 2-3 years. Until then, for Wisconsin fans, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever enough.

The Song: Lotta Love (Nicolette Larson, 1978) 

The Lyric:
It’s gonna take a lotta love, to change the way things are
It’s gonna take a lotta love, or we won’t get too far

Lovie Smith supposedly has his best team at Illinois this year. Reflect on that for a moment. I’ll grant you that the trend has technically been upwards, but since 2016 Lovie has won 8 Big Ten conference games (yes, I know one was against Minnesota) and 15 games total, but I won’t be too rough since another one was last year against #6 Wisconsin. A chaos season in 2020 presents Illinois a unique opportunity. However Illinois has problems that go much further and deeper into their past than the current coaching staff. From experience, that change doesn’t happen overnight; there are still rough years ahead.

The Song: Sailing (Christopher Cross, 1979) 

The Lyric: 
It’s not far to never-never land/No reason to pretend
And if the wind is right you can find the joy/Of innocence again
Oh, the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see
Believe me

It’s too easy but I’ll still take the cheap shot: Northwestern is uniquely qualified for 2020 given that a non-trivial portion of their fanbase has always been empty seats and tarps. Their nice campus on Lake Michigan gives TV commentators convenient talking points as the camera pans across the empty stadium even in good years, but I’ve found Northwestern fans to be mostly good-natured about it and realistic unless they’re trying to convince you their main rival is actually Iowa. Best to accept fate as it is; Pat Fitzgerald is doing the best he can with what he can. When it’s good it’s pretty good and when it’s bad it’s 2019. Rig up those tarps and set sail, the lake breeze will make it all right again.

The Song: You Did Cut Me (China Crisis, 1985) 

The Lyric:
Hear my silence, see my blindness
A love ascending, and never ending
You did cut me, from the same tree
A love incision, my inner vision

Jeff Brohm is the second highest paid coach in the Big Ten. He’s 17-21 in three seasons. Purdue fans and some notable commentators think this might be the year. Purdue lost the core of their defense after last season. Jeff Brohm is the second highest paid coach in the Big Ten.

The Song: One Step Closer (The Doobie Brothers, 1980) 

The Lyric:
I know it’s risky now and then, what with all the what ifs and the whens
Who is there to say we’re wrong? To tell us it can’t be?

Tom Allen is the lowest paid coach in the Big Ten, and the greatest bargain. Indiana’s 2019 season was fun and it really felt like a big step especially for that program even without the bowl win they needed to break a streak going back to 1991. Like Illinois, 2020 presents a special opportunity for Indiana in a chaos season. Who knows if there will be bowl games at all, but even if not, they can make noise in the East Division this year, and set up nicely for 2021.  

Michigan State
The Song: Show You the Way (Thundercat, 2017) 

The Lyric:
Your heart is struggling baby
Trying to believe that there might be something you just couldn’t see
But what if I told you that it’s all so easy

The departure of Mark Dantonio after the 2019 season was like the final domino falling of many that affected the entire Michigan State athletic department for the past several years. Most of their misery has been of their own making, with tragic results far beyond win and loss records. MSU is hoping that Mel Tucker can show them the way from this dark place, and I’m sure it won’t take MSU fans much to believe that positive change is coming to East Lansing and that on the edge of darkness there’s a brightest light. Just remember that change doesn’t come without effort and pain.

The Song: Je Reviens (Gilles Rivard, 1981) 

The Lyric: 
I saw boredom, my enemy (J’ai vu l’ennui, mon ennemi)
Got lost in unknown land (Me suis perdu enterre connue)
Sleep during the day (Dormir le jour)
Look for the night in avenues full of strangers (Chercher la nuit dans des evenues plein d’inconnus)

Not going to lie, I mostly was looking for a way to shoehorn this song in somewhere and Michigan, the Harvard of the West, seemed like the most appropriate place to plop some Quebecois French. It’s convenient that the lyrics, such as Google Translate interprets them, fit so well.

I feel like I’ve been hearing about Michigan being BACK longer than Texas. I was a sophomore in high school when they shared the National Championship with Nebraska, and it’s been a slow downhill since then. Michigan remains stronger than Nebraska, and 2019 was actually a pretty good year, but Jim Harbaugh still hasn’t won The Game and Ohio State’s chokehold on the East Division remains unchallenged. For Michigan it feels like it’s been 9 straight seasons of growing ennui, truly an unknown land for this program. Who are all these strangers with us in the standings? What’s a Hoosier?

Ohio State
The Song: Mornin’ (Al Jarreau, 1983)

The Lyric:
Then higher still/beyond the blue until
I know I can/like any man
Reach out my hand/and touch the face of God

How can Ohio State possibly not feel good about where things stand? The only Big Ten program that has consistently challenged the SEC for the past decade (until Auburn ran into Minnesota, anyway) continues to reload. Every season for tOSU is like a walk on a bright summer morning; even the bad parts are pretty good.

Penn State
The Song: Fragments of Time (Daft Punk feat. Todd Edwards, 2013) 

The Lyric:
Familiar faces I’ve never seen
Living the gold and the silver dream
Making me feel like I’m seventeen
And it’s crystal clear/That I don’t ever want it to end

If you’d told me 10 years ago that Penn State would be where they are as a program right now I wouldn’t have believed you. The scandal that brought down the Paterno dynasty seemed to be pretty definitive, but here we are. James Franklin has done an extremely impressive job since coming to PSU from Vanderbilt and though they remain second in line in the East Division, the PSU program remains very strong and continues to head the right direction.

For a segment of the PSU fanbase, compartmentalization remains the rule. There are two versions, of which the selective memory group picking the fragments of time they like and discarding those they don't is larger and less nasty than the “We Was Framed!” group, but it’s still a shame. It prevents me from ever fully being able to pull for PSU.

The Song: Foolish Heart (Steve Perry, 1984) 

The Lyric:
Foolish heart hear me calling
Stop before you start falling
Foolish heart heed my warning
You’ve been wrong before, don’t be wrong anymore

Maryland hired Mike Locksely. He won 2 games in 2.5 seasons at New Mexico and punched one of his coaches. Granted he’s won 4 games at Maryland but, come on, we all know how this is going to end. I don’t know any Maryland fans, so I have to assume they’re all just holding their breath. Don’t get too attached, gang.

The Song: Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (Steely Dan, 1974) 

The Lyric:
I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground, where I come down
And if the folks will have me, then they’ll have me

I’m not going to make fun of Rutgers; I’ve always had a soft spot for them. You could make an argument that Maryland wasn’t gaining much (other than that sweet, sweet cash) coming to the Big Ten but there’s not much question this was a serious upgrade for Rutgers, and they seem pretty honest about feeling lucky to have landed somewhere decent during realignment. Greg Schiano, while a predictable hire, was also a decent one and he can’t do worse than Chris Ash. If I’m a Rutgers fan I’m feeling fairly relieved right now.

Kevin Warren
The Song: Nobody’s Business (Maxus, 1981) 

The Lyric:
One way or another, I hope you discover
We’re together but always alone
It’s your attention I need, do you have trouble focusing?

My personal opinion, shared previously on #TAWpod, is that the Big Ten was entirely justified in their original decision to cancel the season, and also justified in reevaluating that decision once they had a test and trace infrastructure. I was a vocal defender of this on Twitter. I also feel that the decision belonged with the Presidents and Commissioner based on medical advice rather than well-intentioned but less-informed ADs, coaches, players, and parents.

All that said, would it have hurt at all to be more transparent? To share background, medical reports, meeting summaries or even minutes? The entire process was carried out behind a curtain and developed a decidedly smoke-filled-room feel that only fueled further speculation. Was Kevin Warren obligated to share more? No, but that was his choice and his secrecy did not help his PR; it made a bad situation more challenging. That’s ultimately on him; it didn’t have to be this way.

Clay Travis, Lou Holtz, and the Like
The Song: What A Fool Believes (The Doobie Brothers, 1979) 

The Lyric:
But what a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power/To reason away

The origin song of all of Yacht Rock deserves a special place, and these guys have earned it. Clay Travis has made a virtual second career of misinterpreting and misrepresenting science, medicine, testing, and epidemiology. The inverse relationship between knowledge and self-confidence is a hallmark of our time.

Likewise Lou Holtz, whose single talking point has been comparing the risks college athletes, coaches, and fans would face from COVID to the risks faced by American soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy. Lou was 7 in 1944 and he's 83 now with the luxury of calling into ESPN from home so it's worth noting that neither risks are ones he has to take himself. If Lou ever starts selling insurance, you should pass on it because he clearly does not comprehend the differences in risk categories. National Socialism wasn't spread by aerosols and droplets, and the men at Omaha and Utah beaches were at least paid, knew what they were up against, and had the full force of American industry behind them. Comparing the risks they took to the the risk of playing football during a pandemic is both grossly disrespectful to those soldiers and symptomatic of the borderline unhealthy emphasis American society places on our entertainment. 

I'd explore that last point further but I’m up late on a work night writing a blog post that will be read by 150 people about a college football season I’ll be watching on TV.

These guys are not serious or knowledgeable about these subjects. That they are so confident in their assertions is warning in and of itself.

Actual Sportswriters
The Song: Lowdown (Boz Scaggs, 1976) 

The Lyric:
Hey boy, you better bring the chick around
To the sad, sad truth
The dirty lowdown

Actual sportswriters took a hell of a licking this summer reporting the news as they learned it. The narrative that developed that they somehow wanted the season to be cancelled and were skewing their reporting to push it is so obviously wrong that it barely deserves mention, but I’ll bite. What possible reason would these individuals, who work in an industry that is far from financially stable to begin with, have to try and kill a season that provides their very livelihood? If they were to be laid off as a result, how likely are they to find similar work after the pandemic? Cui bono? Non ea. We might not like the news they report, but that doesn’t mean there’s always a hidden reasoning behind it.

I’m grateful for their dedication, for suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and happy that they will now have the opportunity to report on one of the craziest seasons we’ll ever experience.

The Song: Keep the Fire (Kenny Loggins, 1979) 

The Lyric:
Believe the sun will rise with the dawn
That’s all you need to go on
But for tonight
Just keep the fire burning bright

We get to have a season, no matter how weird. Maybe we won’t get a full one. Who knows? Right now, December might as well be a decade away. Let’s enjoy what we have while we have it, and hope that everything turns out well. Someday things will be back to normal and we’ll all be able to tailgate together and sit on uncomfortable benches in the blazing hot August sun and bone-chilling November rain. Until then, keep the fire.

The Song: Takin’ It To the Streets (The Doobie Brothers, 1976) 

The Lyric:
You, telling me the things you’re gunna do for me
I ain’t blind and I don’t like what I think I see

The players stood up this year as a group in ways I haven’t seen before. I respect them for recognizing that they have a unique platform to bring awareness to racial injustice and privilege to groups who are often sheltered from it. They’ve simultaneously highlighted the complex but very real issue of college sports as a business for which they put in effort but receive limited compensation, and the world going forward will be different after this. And yes, even though I didn’t feel the decision should be made at the player’s level, they advocated for their season as well. They found a voice (really, several voices) this year, and I think we’ll all be better for it.

Sir Yacht
The Song: Sunny Hills (Bobby Caldwell, 1982) 

The Lyric:
There’s nothing more to tell
We wish you a fond farewell
Maybe you’ll find someone you can talk to

I know someone who spent 14 straight years predicting Minnesota would beat Wisconsin. Every year it was exactly the same thing…Wisconsin is a paper tiger, this is the year they’re vulnerable, and if you don't believe it then you're part of the problem. Well, eventually it did, but when you’re 1 for 15 is that an accurate prediction or is it just the odds? Given an infinite amount of time, even the most low-probability event is likely to occur at least once. 

In a long summer of non-stop prognostication and "insider" information Sir Yacht managed to be right about only one thing, and even then the details were wrong.

Anyway, this is a song about putting a troublesome relative away in a retirement home and never visiting them again.

OK friends, that’s it. Minnesota 38, Michigan 27. Row The Boat, Ski U Mah, Go Gophers!


Wednesday, April 15, 2020

My Favorite Iowa Fan

A couple weeks ago my wife and I were blessed with a son, our first kid. It’s been an incredible time of constant new experiences, terrifying moments of self-doubt, and a feeling of awesome responsibility. All of which is heightened by the fact that he entered the world at a time of, um, *gestures wildly at everything*. The experience of bringing him home after his delivery and knowing there was no nurse call button if we needed help, no way for his grandparents to come see him or give us a few hours to sleep, was one I’ll never forget.

The evening he came home, MLB Network was showing a huge moment in my life: Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Sitting on the couch, holding my new son, I got to relive those memories in early-90s resolution, and tell him about that great season as if he understood.

As a 9 year old baseball-obsessed kid I stayed up late (on a school night!) with mom to watch the game.  In the 10th Inning when Gene Larkin sent a deep single into left center field over a drawn-in outfield and Dan Gladden jumped on home plate, we hugged and cried and jumped around the living room. Moments after the game ended our phone rang and I answered knowing who it would be. My grandpa’s voice on the other line was filled with happiness as he told me to remember this moment; it was special and even if I was lucky there would be few like it. Then he said something else: “Keep the book. You’ll never forget this.”

After my son went to bed I pulled out a giant, dog-eared book I hadn’t looked at in years: “Total Baseball: Second Edition” by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. It’s a massive book, 2,600 pages and 8 pounds of baseball history and statistics up to 1990. Grandpa had lent it to me after watching me spend hour upon hour with it at his house. On the inside of the front cover in the poor handwriting of a 9-year old is this:

Grandpa was right. In his memory, this is the story of my favorite Iowa fan.

My grandpa was born in 1928 in a small town in northeast Iowa. His father was the son of German immigrants who owned the local meat market. Nearly everyone in town was either a German immigrant or a 1st or 2nd generation American. Services at the church his grandfather had helped found and build were still in German until 1942, and the cemetery in is thick with German inscriptions in Teutonic fonts.

He was the middle of three kids and musical talent ran in the family. His older brother was a talented trumpet player, his younger sister a great singer, while he played trombone and tuba. But as much as music, he and his brother loved baseball. His brother, taller and more athletic, played for the local town ball team until being interrupted by World War Two where he was an aircraft mechanic in the USAAF, and then an emergency infantryman during the Battle of Bulge. He came home from war a different and troubled man and never played baseball or trumpet again. Grandpa was too young, only 17 in 1945. He eventually spent two years in the Navy during Korea, posted to a naval reserve air station in Kansas after training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago, where he spent his only day “at sea” on Lake Michigan.

Like many rural kids west of the Mississippi before major league expansion, grandpa adopted the closest possible teams to follow: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Bears, and the Iowa Hawkeyes. His Cubs and Bears fanhood was necessarily limited to radio and newspaper until he finally got to Wrigley Field during naval training. However, an occasional trip into Iowa City was possible even for a rural kid and he had detailed memories of playing his trombone and tuba during high school band days at Iowa Field (now Kinnick Stadium). Planning to be a music teacher, he started at Wartburg College, a private Lutheran school in northeast Iowa because he was able to get financial assistance through his church. Naval service interrupted his studies and he never graduated, though he went on to have a very successful career in mortgage banking.

He was married in the early 1950s to a girl from a nearby small town and they had two daughters; the oldest was my mom. They moved all over Iowa as his career progressed, and then in the mid-1970s a promotion brought them to Minnesota. By then grandpa had added the Minnesota Twins to his teams due to proximity and his company's readily-available box seats at Met Stadium, but he maintained his Bears and Hawkeyes allegiances. He made it to Iowa games most years, especially to see his nephew in the marching band. His fanhood fell somewhere in between casual and die-hard; I don’t have strong memories of watching Iowa sports with him, but he spoke glowingly of Bump Elliott, Lute Olson, Hayden Fry, and Nile Kinnick.

I’m sure it’ll shock you to learn I was a weird, awkward kid. Cripplingly shy, challenged at making friends, and afraid of doing most things. My parents were concerned but their efforts to get me interested in what “normal” kids were interested in like sports and music mostly failed. I read encyclopedias for fun.

Luckily I grew up a 10 minute drive from my grandparents. In the summer of 1989 my recently-retired grandpa told mom to bring me over for a day. When I got to his house he had laid out three ring binders, plastic sleeves, and multiple boxes of brand-new baseball cards. He told me we were starting a baseball card collection and we spent the whole day sorting cards by league, team, and alphabetical order. He told me about his own collection, how valuable it would have been if his mom hadn’t thrown it out while he was away at college. He told me stories about the 1927 Yankees, Murderer’s Row, Carl Hubbell’s 1934 All-Star Game, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and the player he had grown up idolizing, Lou Gehrig. Lou came from German immigrants too.

I left that day hooked, and went back to grandpa’s house several times that week to watch the Twins and the Cubs and learn the game. My parents saw a transformation start that summer; dad didn’t have to force me to play catch in the side yard. I started to make friends at school, getting invited to birthday parties and sleepovers. I started playing little league and nearly every day we played pickup baseball at the field near my house. Sundays were always for watching baseball with grandpa. Kirby Puckett was my Lou Gehrig but I liked Kent Hrbek too since I was a 1st baseman.

After the magic 1991 Twins season I doubled-down on baseball, digging deep into the history, player, and team statistics. The math I learned from SLG, OBP, and ERA did more to prepare me for a career in chemistry and healthcare than high school algebra. I used Total Baseball statistics to build all-time Twins teams into my Nintendo games. No internet on my family’s IBM PS1, after all.

My baseball “career” ended in high school when I realized it was too late for me to learn to effectively hit curveballs and I focused on music instead, which led me to the University of Minnesota. I talked in more detail about that decision on the most recent TAWpod. That said, my parents were from Iowa and didn’t go to college, so my allegiance was at least theoretically up for grabs. But grandpa never pushed Iowa on me though I’m sure he would have been thrilled to see me go there. When I picked Minnesota I wondered what he would say; I needn’t have. He was thrilled because I was going to be in the band, and he said Hayden Fry had called Minnesota a “sleeping giant”. 

In college he was there for most concerts and watched every game he knew I was playing at, hoping for a glimpse on TV. When he saw me in the front row at Williams Arena he made sure I knew. When I was home for Christmas he asked what it was like to get to see a future legend like Marion Barber III. He doubted Dan Monson was going to turn the basketball program around and was right. He tried to learn hockey but his eyesight made it hard to see the puck. He never stopped following Iowa, and while I wouldn’t say he became a Gopher fan, he was always my biggest fan. Close enough.

After college the Twins got better and we talked more baseball again. Now we watched college basketball and football together too. He was still always there for me, in my career and personal life. He helped me prepare for my job, gave me life advice, picked me up when I was down. He slowed down, in body and mind as age and idleness caught up with him. But there was always a shine in his eyes when we were together.

In November, 2014 he suffered a bad fall and broken hip, then another fall that severely injured his neck, followed by more complications that led to a month of hospitalization. Thanksgiving was spent in the hospital, and by Saturday, November 29th it was becoming clear that he probably wouldn’t leave. I spent that day in his room with him. There were difficult things to discuss; surgical options (risky), medical options (none), and the inevitable what-ifs that eventually come for us all.

Despite the constant stream of friends, family, doctors, and nurses, he didn’t want to talk about that. Iowa had lost to Nebraska in overtime the day before, and he was hoping for some measure of revenge on the universe by a #22 Minnesota win at #14 Wisconsin. The constant interruptions prevented us from watching the game so I gave him score updates from my phone. When Minnesota was up over Wisconsin by two touchdowns in the first half it was the happiest I’d seen him in weeks. As the lead slipped away in the second half he remained optimistic; as a Gopher fan I knew it wasn’t to be. I don’t remember much from that day but what I do remember is that when the game ended he grabbed my hand (no small feat with all the tubes in his), smiled and said “Don’t worry, we’ll get ‘em next year.”

Unfortunately the Gophers did not, in fact, get ‘em next year and regardless he wasn’t around to see it. He died in his sleep in hospice on December 3, 2014. After a long day my parents had taken my grandma home to get sleep and I was alone with him, holding his hand as he took his last breathe. I had a silent moment with him between the time the nurse confirmed he had passed and my parents return. So much of what I am, my love of music, the fulfillment I find in sports, the ability to make friends, my sense of self-worth, and occasional bursts of confidence was due in large part to him, a man who decided to spend an idle summer day in 1989 starting a baseball card collection with his grandson.

I had not opened Total Baseball: Second Edition in nearly a decade. When I did it two weeks ago it didn’t bring me sadness. The memories were all good, and the legacy he left me will live on for my son. Someday this book will belong to him, if he wants it, in memory of a great-grandpa he never got to meet but would have undoubtedly loved and supported him in the same unconditional way he loved and supported me. I can only hope to do half as well as he did.

2,600 pages are a lot, but it’s time to read it again. Much love, grandpa. I hope you got to meet Lou Gehrig.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Fleck, Year 3 Part 3: Reelin' In the Years

Your everlastin’ season you can feel it fadin’ fast
So you spend a lazy Sunday crunchin’ numbers on the past
Would you know a Special Season if you held it in your hand?
The Gophs you take for granted I can’t understand

The 2019-2020 sports season has begun its death spiral towards the wet, hot summer in earnest. It won’t be long before we stop basking in the waning glory of 2019 and turn our attention to the hope of 2020 and try to learn what it means to have expectations. For today, let’s reel in the third-years of Gopher coaching history.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Fleck, Year 3 Part 2: The (Post-Bowl) Situation

This is a post-bowl update to Part 1 in a series evaluating where Minnesota is at in Year 3 of the Fleck era. If you haven’t read that already, maybe go do it. Or don’t. I’m not your supervisor.

We took the Christmas decorations down at our house this past weekend, and I hate how bare and dark the house it looks now. It’s a feeling I’ve had since I was a kid; my family has always gone all-out with Christmas decorations, and I’ve always felt joy with their arrival and emptiness with their departure. The feeling is similar to the end of college football season. Anticipation, excitement, now the void.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looks Like We Made It! A Team Blooms in Tampa

If Future Frothy approached you in his flying Delorean back in August and told you that on January 1st Minnesota would be 11-2 with two wins over Top 15 teams and a bowl win against #12 Auburn, what would you have thought? Let’s assume he also told you that Auburn’s three losses were all against Top 10 teams and three of their wins were against Top 20 teams including Alabama? I’m assuming once you cleaned up your pants from being approached by a time-traveling giant you might not have believed it.