What a year 2016 was in Minnesota sports. Between the Timberwolves, Gophers, Vikings and Wild, there wasn’t a lack for big news.
This year including a mentally crushing missed field goal, two professional head coaching changes and a leadership change over at the University of Minnesota. The Twins had one of their worst seasons in franchise history and parted ways with their general manager.
We opened a brand new $1.1 billion football stadium, and the biggest golf event in the world came to Minnesota this year. The Vikings lost their offensive coordinator, lost their head coach for at least one game and missed the playoffs after starting 5-0.
A legendary coach was fired after the discovery that his team was involved in a drug ring. And the Gophers football scandal? We’ll get to that later. Other than that, it was just another year on the Minnesota sports scene. Here are some of the top stories.
Wide left, 2.0. Up until this year, among the most painful memory for Vikings fans was Gary Anderson’s miss in the 1999 NFC title game against Atlanta. Now, there’s a new “wide left.” The Vikings hosted the Seattle Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium in one of the coldest games in NFL history. Blair Walsh had a 27-yard field goal to give the Vikings what would have been a 12-10 victory. Not only did he miss it left, it never had much of a chance. Vikings fans were freezing, angry and bitter.
Walsh never recovered. He had issues for most of the 2016 regular season and was released on Nov. 15.
The first coaching change of the year came on Feb. 13. The Minnesota Wild had clearly become disconnected with Mike Yeo. The players weren’t getting his message, and the team was in an awful slump. The Wild fired Yeo after a loss to the Boston Bruins, their eighth straight loss at the time. With Yeo as head coach, the Wild never made it past the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs.
He was replaced by interim coach John Torchetti, and the Wild made it to the playoffs before losing to the Dallas Stars in the first round.
University of Minnesota senior guard Rachel Banham had a night to remember in February. She made national headlines by scoring 60 points in a double overtime Gophers victory at Northwestern. It wasn’t just the fact that she scored 60, it was the efficiency with which she did it. Banham finished the day 19-of-32 shooting, including 8-of-15 from three-point range and 14-of-16 at the free-throw line. Once learning of the feat, NBA star Kobe Bryant reached out to her on Twitter to congratulate her. She wound up being the Big Ten Player of the Year, led the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament and is the program’s all-time leading scorer. She came back for an extra year after tearing an ACL in the 2014-15 season.
Gopher Basketball Has Worst Season In Program History
8-23, a player’s dismissal from the team and three players suspended after video of a sexual encounter surfaced on social media. That sums up the 2015-16 Gophers men’s basketball season. Richard Pitino’s third season with the Gophers was one to forget. Minnesota went just 2-16 in Big Ten play, and Carlos Morris was dismissed from the team. Nate Mason, Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer missed the final four games of the season due to suspension after a video of an alleged sexual encounter appeared briefly on Dorsey’s Twitter account. Dorsey left the program after the season.
What a difference eight months makes. The Gophers are 12-1 heading into Big Ten Conference play, and there’s talk they could be an NCAA Tournament team in March.
The St. Thomas men’s basketball team didn’t win its own league playoff title last year, but the Tommies were hoisting the NCAA championship trophy when it was all said and done back in March. St. Thomas, under coach John Tauer, won the MIAC regular season title with an 18-2 mark before losing to St. Olaf in the MIAC Playoff title game. The Tommies went onto beat four teams ranked in the top-15 in the NCAA Tournament to win the national title. They faced No. 2-ranked Benedictine in the championship game and claimed an 82-76 victory to finish 30-3 on the season. It was their second national title in six years and first under Tauer as head coach. Taylor Montero, who had 27 points and 11 rebounds in the title game, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
In a 15-day stretch, St. Thomas beat teams that were ranked 11, 1, 4 and 2 on the way to the national championship.
The Timberwolves did the best they could with what they had in the 2015-16 season after the unexpected death of Flip Saunders. They made a splash in April, one they hope will bring them back to the playoffs and more. Glen Taylor announced Tom Thibodeau was hired as the Timberwolves’ coach and president of basketball operations. They also brought in Scott Layden to be the general manager, replacing Milt Newton. It’s a work in progress and fans remain cautiously optimistic about the Timberwolves despite a slower start than most were anticipating.
The Vikings had an obvious need for a wide receiver in the NFL Draft back in April. With the No. 23 pick, the Vikings took Laquon Treadwell out of Mississippi. Treadwell still has a lot to learn in the NFL. He’s recorded one catch for 15 yards this season and has also seen time on special teams with one tackle. It’s far too early to know if he’ll eventually take a big step or be a bust.
The University of Minnesota athletic department was still reeling after Norwood Teague resigned following allegations of sexual harassment against fellow employees. But the Gophers made a splash and appeared to be heading in a positive direction when it was announced in May that Mark Coyle would take over as athletic director. He was most recently at Syracuse, but also spent time at Boise State and also ran operations at Kentucky with the basketball program. The department needs leadership, structure and stability, and Coyle has work to do, but he says he’s up for the challenge.
Bruce Boudreau is a big name in NHL coaching circles, so it was a big deal back in May when the Minnesota Wild announced he would be the team’s next head coach. He had previously spent parts of five seasons with both the Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals. The Wild have currently won seven straight games and are second in the Western Conference with 40 points. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the Wild reach the playoffs. The Wild are looking to take the next step, and Boudreau has been known for his playoff struggles.
The Timberwolves made an interesting choice with the No. 5 pick in the June NBA Draft. They chose point guard Kris Dunn out of Providence, one of the top guards in college basketball last year. The Timberwolves chose him knowing he can play both at point guard and off the ball. But what did the choice mean for the future of Ricky Rubio? Speculation was rampant that the Timberwolves would trade Rubio, and they still might. But for now, Dunn is providing depth off the bench with 4.3 points and 2.5 assists per game. He’s gaining valuable experience before he’s inevitably asked to take over the starting point guard spot.
The Twins finished the regular season 59-103, but they didn’t need to wait that long to make changes in the front office. They’re historically known for their loyalty, but they surprised many on July 18 when Terry Ryan was fired as general manager. It was one of the toughest and most emotional decisions Dave St. Peter has had to make as team president. Something had to change. The Twins got off to a disastrous 0-9 start and never recovered. Ryan took over as GM in 2011 and was also in that spot from 1994-2007. Over his 18 seasons, the Twins had a .474 winning percentage. The Twins haven’t won a playoff game since 2004, that’s 12 years.
A normal practice on Aug. 30 became anything but as the Vikings franchise quarterback went down with a devastating injury. Practice ended after just 25 minutes that day as Teddy Bridgewater’s leg crumbled during non-contact drills. Bridgewater went down and players were visibly emotional on the field. He was rushed to a hospital to keep his leg intact. The end result was a dislocated knee, complete tear of the ACL and other structural damage. Suddenly, a season filled with so much promise was nothing but uncertain.
General Manager Rick Spielman knew he had to do something with his franchise quarterback out for the season. Just a few days after Bridgewater’s injury, the Vikings traded their 2017 first-round draft pick and a 2018 draft pick for Eagles QB Sam Bradford. It sent the team a message that Spielman felt the Vikings could compete for a playoff spot and make a run with the rest of the roster that’s in place. Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. It’s possible that he’s back for the 2017 season as well, as it’s not known how long it will take Bridgewater to rehab his injury and resume football activities.
It was an electric atmosphere on Sept. 18 as the new $1.1 billion home of the Vikings, U.S. Bank Stadium, officially opened for its first NFL game. The Vikings had a 10-7 lead at the half against their biggest rival, the Green Bay Packers. Blair Walsh’s 47-yard field goal in the third quarter was enough with a stellar Vikings defense to earn a 17-14 victory.
One of the best and most respected coaches at the University of Minnesota was fired on Sept. 7. J Robinson was getting set for his 30th season as Gophers wrestling coach, but was let go after an investigation revealed his athletes were both using and selling Xanax. It was also noted Robinson offered immunity to athletes who turned over the drugs. A student athlete who came forward during the investigation said Robinson sat on the information for more than a month, until the wrestling season was over, before reporting anything to school administrators. Robinson led the Gophers to three national titles.
The Twins went in new direction after letting go Terry Ryan as general manager, announcing the hiring of Derek Falvey as chief of baseball operations and Thad Levine as general manager. Both are heavily involved in the advanced statistics and analytics side of baseball, and both say there are determined to dig the Twins out of their current rut. It’s the first time in recent memory the Twins went outside their organization to restructure the front office. We won’t know for some time if the moves will pay off.
The biggest event in golf came to Minnesota in 2016 as Hazeltine National Golf Club was the host for the Ryder Cup. It was a week-long party for golf fans. Fans filled the course for practice rounds, making meaningless shots feel like Sunday afternoon at a major championship. The Americans got out to an early 4-0 lead on the first day. Team USA wound up winning the Ryder Cup 17-11, needing only 14.5 points to keep the cup on U.S. soil.
There were plenty of story lines throughout the week as well. Among them were Danny Willett’s brother bashing Americans for their on-course behavior, an American fan calling out Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, being challenged to make a putt for $100 and of course, making it to set off a social media storm. The Sunday singles match between McIlroy and Patrick Reed felt more like a WWE match than a golf event, and they both laughed about it after as friendly competition.
It’s experience that if you went, you’ll never forget.
The Minnesota Lynx have been a dynasty when it comes to the WNBA. The Lynx were seeking their fourth championship in six years and second straight in 2016. It came down to Game 5 against the L.A. Sparks in October, and a last second shot. But the Lynx were denied the championship as Nneka Ogwumike rebounded her own blocked shot and scored just before the buzzer to give the Sparks a 77-76 win and the WNBA title. Lynx fans were shocked, and we’ll find out how much longer the corps of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen will stay together. But it also says a lot about the organization when the goal every year, at minimum, is making the WNBA Finals.
What a weird season for the Gopher football team. They finished 8-4 and by most standards, that’s a successful year. They’re headed to the Holiday Bowl, but the Gophers didn’t get a signature win this year. They lost to Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State. At least three of those four were winnable games. Minnesota will face Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, but many fans feel more could’ve been accomplished this season. The biggest question: Will Tracy Claeys be back as head coach?
The Vikings offense became challenged this year after the injuries to Adrian Peterson and the offensive line, but nobody was prepared for the man responsible for leading the offense to leave the team. Norv Turner resigned as offensive coordinator on Nov. 2, leaving the team stunned. The Vikings have had one of the NFL’s worse rushing offenses all season, and the offensive line has had trouble keeping Sam Bradford upright. Pat Shurmur is now the offensive coordinator. It was just one more thing in a tumultuous football season that’s still ongoing.
Totino-Grace Tops Eden Prairie For Prep Bowl
There is a new chief in Minnesota Class 6A high school football, and it’s a school that’s actually playing up two classes by its enrollment standards. Two years ago, Totino-Grace had a chance to beat Eden Prairie in the Prep Bowl, but a two-point conversion attempt failed. The Eagles had another chance last year at the 6A crown, but lost to Osseo in the semifinals. Totino-Grace capped off a 13-0 season this year with a 28-20 win over Eden Prairie to claim the 6A Prep Bowl.
As if the Vikings hadn’t had enough injuries, their head coach had to miss a game with eye issues. Mike Zimmer had four eye surgeries, that’s right, four, to fix what was eventually diagnosed as a detached retina in his right eye. He missed the Vikings 17-15 loss to the Cowboys, but was back the next week as Minnesota beat Jacksonville. It’s kind of fitting for as many injuries as the Vikings had this year that their head coach would have to have surgery.
The Gopher football team was the subject of scrutiny most of the season, but most especially in December. Four players were suspended after the team’s first game for what was first an unspecified violation of team rules. Then, allegations of sexual assault came against Kiante Hardin, Carlton Djam, Tamarion Johnson and Dior Johnson. Those players were then barred from TCF Bank Stadium for at least one game when the victim of the alleged assault filed restraining orders against them.
That process was eventually resolved in court, but the situation was far from over and is still ongoing. A police investigation didn’t result in any criminal charges. But after a school investigation, 10 players were suspended, including the original four allegedly involved in the incident. The school couldn’t release details due to student privacy laws, and the team threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl unless the players were reinstated. Players argued those involved in the incident didn’t get their due process before being suspended.
Two days later, the findings of the investigation were released and the players went ended their boycott. Coach Tracy Claeys defend the team’s boycott on Twitter, and indirectly went against the suspensions handed down by his two superiors, Athletic Director Mark Coyle and President Eric Kaler.
It’s been a mess of a process all the way around, and it won’t get cleared up until the suspended players get hearings in January. We’ll know a lot more after the Holiday Bowl, including if Claeys will still be the head coach.
It was a crazy and busy year in Minnesota sports, one filled with as much controversy as triumph. Local fans want nothing more than some normalcy in 2017, and perhaps maybe a reason to celebrate something positive?