The Gophers’ Coaches Caravan returned Monday after a two-year, pandemic-forced hiatus. With one-liners, anecdotes and nuggets of information shared at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, it was like the once-annual event never fell off the calendar after 2019.
While the new frontier of name, image and likeness (NIL) rules collides with the NCAA transfer portal and hangs over the future of college athletics, there were some lighter moments on the first caravan stop. Here are some highlights:
NOT A ZERO
Football coach P.J. Fleck, entering his sixth season at Minnesota this fall, said basketball coach Ben Johnson and soccer coach Erin Chastain didn’t take full advantage of their debut seasons at the U.
“You screwed it up,” Fleck said. “… You can’t call Year 1 ‘Year 1.’ Year 1 is ‘Year 0!’ You’ve gone through Year 0, my friends. And guess what: Next year is No. 1. Don’t give (AD Mark Coyle) a head start on numbers when you don’t need him to.
“Just make up your own stuff like I do!”
Regardless of what year number it was last winter, Fleck left impressed with Johnson’s team in the 2021-22 campaign.
“Ben, I mean this wholeheartedly, the way they play and how hard they play defense and how fast they go up and down the court, you can see what’s coming in the future,” Fleck said. “I think it’s very easy to see where our basketball program is headed.”
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
When Coyle first introduced Fleck, the AD asked the capacity crowd a question: “How many of you didn’t think he would be here this long?” Coyle asked.
“Me too,” Coyle answered.
With Fleck, Minnesota went 9-4 a year ago, and with an 11-2 season in 2021, Fleck holds two of four times the U has won nine or more games since 1905. In November, Coyle signed Fleck to a new seven-year contract with a $350,000 raise to $5 million per year.
Fleck, a half hour later Monday, got a chance to respond to his boss. “It was a joke. Hahaha,” Fleck said. “Some of you don’t want me here still. ‘You haven’t left yet, but I’m gonna get you this year.’”
Volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon and Fleck had a power lunch for two at Athletes Village in April, and Fleck said over that hour, the New Zealand and Illinois natives talked in earnest about enjoying their lives in Minnesota.
With seven straight runs deep into NCAA tournaments, McCutcheon was the most successful of the four coaches in Chaska. He shared a tidbit about their “shaky” 1-3 start to the 2021 season.
“Mark gave me a call … and he was freaking out a little bit,” McCutcheon said to the crowd’s laughter. “Mark, give me a little bit of breathing room. I get it, expectations are high, but we’re gonna be OK.”
The U finished 22-9 and advanced to the Elite Eight. Given McCutcheon’s sterling resume, that anecdote might have been the most embellished one shared in the hourlong presentation.
JUMP FOR JOY
After the Gophers football team snagged Paul Bunyan’s Axe from Wisconsin at Huntington Bank Stadium in November, the U’s stadium operations played “Jump Around,” which brought glee to Gophers fans because that hip hop song is tradition at the Badgers’ Camp Randall Stadium.
“A lot of you thanked me and thought that was so cool,” Fleck said. “If there is one thing that I have zero control over, it is the DJ for the game.”
The Gophers soccer team — which is welcoming back roughly 20 players from 2021 — added two potential starters via the portal in the offseason: central midfielder Sophia Romine (Wisconsin) and center back Gabbie Cesarone (Washington University in St. Louis).
“(Cesarone) is going to be a stud on the back line,” Chastain gushed.
The Coaches Caravan has three more stops: Rochester on May 24; Stillwater on June 6; and Brainerd on a date that has yet to be announced. … The Gophers’ student-athletes have a record 3.44 grade-point average, with the football team at 3.6, Coyle shared. Some “ohhs” came from the crowd on those stats. … Gopher Athletics is 11th in the Director’s Cup standing for overall Division I athletic success after the winter seasons, “which means we are in the top five percent,” Coyle said. … Fleck said J.J. Guedet, a presumptive starter at right tackle on a remade offensive line in 2022, will able to go through summer workouts without limitations after missing all spring practices with an undisclosed issue. … Chastain, a Plymouth native and Wayzata High School graduate, was hired at her alma mater in July and said she is feeling more settled as she started to move into her new home Monday.
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