Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.

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Posts about College football

Jerry Kill opens up about epilepsy at a time when many are still silent

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: August 10, 2013 - 9:55 PM

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to Jerry Kill’s office on June 27 to interview him for a story about his epilepsy. I knew Kill had opened up about it at times, but I also knew it wasn’t his favorite subject. There I was, a new Gophers beat writer, coming off my first spring practice. We’d had some good conversations about football, but I wouldn’t have blamed him for holding back more on questions about his health.

Instead, he poured out his heart. The interview lasted one hour, and he did most of the talking, taking me through his journey with epilepsy. He talked about the low points, especially last fall’s Michigan State game, when he couldn’t make it back for the second half after suffering a seizure in the locker room. He mentioned how encouraged he’s been working with a new doctor, and how the bowl game against Texas Tech was the most important game he’d ever coached.

His wife, Rebecca, was another tremendous help in putting together this story, which is running on the front page of our Sunday editions. I also owe a great deal of thanks to Vicki Kopplin, the executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, Dr. Ilo Leppik, Kill’s new epielptologist, and Paul Rovnak, the Gophers associate director of athletic communications.

***

I’ve learned a lot about epilepsy over the past six weeks, and one thing that stands out is how difficult it is for most people to talk about. I spoke with Dr. Thomas Sutula, who chairs the Department of Neurology at the University of Wisconsin and is a past president of the American Epilepsy Society. He said he knows practicing doctors with epilepsy who won’t talk about it, because of the stigma that’s attached.

“It’s really a significant aspect of epilepsy, relative to other chronic disorders.” Sutula said. “It’s an age-old kind of problem. In other parts of the world, people who have this are put in the house and never see the light of day. And it’s cross-cultural.

“It’s remarkable how many people still have a hard time acknowledging that they have it, and how scary it remains for people that run into it with their co-workers.”

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that affects nearly 3 million Americans, yet it’s amazing how little the general public really knows about it. Sutula said he’s been working for 35 years, trying to do something about this. I told Sutula that Kill has begun to talk more openly about his condition in hopes of raising awareness.

“I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “I think it does tremendous good for people that have it to spread the word in the public spotlight. They can say, ‘Hey, I’m living with this and I’m getting by and things are working.’”

At this point, even a Badgers fan, such as Sutula, is pulling for him.

Two Gophers football players join O'Bannon lawsuit

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: July 18, 2013 - 9:33 PM

Gophers tight end Moses Alipate and wide receiver Victor Keise have joined Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA, multiple media outlets are reporting tonight.

Alipate and Keise are among the first six current college football players to join the lawsuit, which is challenging the NCAA's right to use their names and likenesses in video games.

The other four current players are Arizona linebacker Jake Fischer, Arizona kicker Jake Smith, Clemson defensive back Darius Robinson and Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham.

The 6-5, 281-pound Alipate, who was recruited as a quarterback out of Bloomington Jefferson, has converted to tight end for the Gophers and has yet to play a down heading into his senior season. Keise, from Coral Springs, Fla., has played sparingly heading into his senior season.

On Wednesday, the NCAA announced it would not renew its agreement with the video game manufacturer EA Sports.

Holiday Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl tie-ins will help Big Ten keep it fresh

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: June 24, 2013 - 4:15 PM

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is on a mission to make sure member fan bases don't think the bowl experience is getting stale.

Take Wisconsin, for example. The Badgers have been to the past three Rose Bowls. Nothing wrong with Pasadena, of course. But it's asking a lot for an average fan to get excited to keep returning to the same place year after year.

Before this stretch, Wisconsin played in a Florida bowl game for six consecutive years -- Tampa, Orlando, Orlando, Tampa, Orlando, Orlando. No matter how much you like warm weather and college football, that's an awful lot of Florida.

On Monday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 officially announced new six-year agreements with the Holiday Bowl (San Diego) and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (San Francisco). The contracts cover the years 2014-2019.

Unlike the current arrangement, the Big Ten won't stipulate that a certain team from the standings is going from to a certain bowl. This year, the No. 2 team is heading to Orlando, and No. 3 is heading to Tampa, for example. Delany said the next arrangement will have tiers and steps will be taken to ensure teams don't keep returning to the same regions for bowl games.

The Holiday Bowl will be in the top tier, for teams toward the top of the Big Ten standings. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl will bein the middle tier, along with the Pinstripe Bowl (against an ACC team) at Yankee Stadium. When finished, the Big Ten bowl slate likely will include games in New York, Florida, Texas, California and Detroit.

"Our goal was initially to create a national slate, and we feel like we’ve taken another step in that direction," Delany said. "We're looking to to broaden the group of opponents that we’re playing, but also to keep it fresh for fans and bowl communities, as well as our coaches and players."

Thumbs up from here. Who doesn't like San Diego? Meanwhile, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl has been underrated at AT&T Park and figures to get even better when it moves into the 49ers new Levi's Stadium in Stadium, in 2014.

Gophers make the grade in APR report; transfer Malik Smith closer to gaining eligibility

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: June 11, 2013 - 3:34 PM

Every Gophers athletics team received passing marks Tuesday, when the NCAA released its annual Academic Progress Rate (APR) report, and guard Malik Smith moved one step closer to gaining immediate eligibility after transferring from Florida International University.

FIU’s men’s basketball team received a one-year postseason ban for posting a multi-year APR score of 858, well below the 900 cutoff point. Athletes who transfer from a team that is banned from the postseason can get a waiver from the NCAA to compete at their new school without having to sit out a year.

The Gophers have filed for that waiver on Smith's behalf. He averaged 14.1 points as a junior last season for FIU and set a single-season school record by making 96 three pointers.

The latest NCAA multi-year numbers examine the school years from 2008-09 to 2011-12. FIU is paying the price for academic struggles under Isiah Thomas, the coach who preceded Richard Pitino.

Pitino has been credited for helping turn around FIU academically, as well as on the court, before becoming the new Gophers coach.

The annual APR offers a snapshot of how each team is performing academically. The Gophers football team’s multi-year APR increased from 932 last year to 955 this year. In 2009, under then-coach Tim Brewster, the Gophers posted a multi-year APR of 915 and were penalized with a loss of scholarships.

This year, five Gophers teams received perfect 1,000 scores -- baseball, men’s tennis, women’s basketball, women’s gymnastics and women’s soccer. Other notable Gophers scores included 955 for men’s basketball and 987 for men’s hockey.

Gophers join Big Ten push to strengthen non-conference schedules

Posted by: Joe Christensen Updated: May 8, 2013 - 11:59 AM

The first four-team College Football Playoff is coming after the 2014 season, and the Big Ten doesn't want to miss it.

By adding TCU to their 2014 and 2015 schedules, the Gophers were complying with the Big Ten's desire to strengthen non-conference schedules. Every team in the league -- including Rutgers and Maryland, who join in 2014 -- has at least one BCS opponent on its non-conference schedule for 2014.

That might help the Big Ten from getting overlooked when selection day comes for that first four-team tourney.

David Benedict, the Gophers executive associate athletics director, noted what could have happened last season, when Ohio State went 12-0. With a season like that, assuming they were bowl eligible, Big Ten teams should expect to land one of those coveted four College Football Playoff spots.

But because of the Big Ten's weak showing in non-conference play, there would have been no guarantees for the Buckeyes last season. After the conference championship games, Alabama was 13-1, Notre Dame was 12-1, Oregon was 12-1 and there were four two-loss teams from the SEC (Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida).

"I think the Big Ten doesn’t want to be in a position like last year, where we were the fourth-ranked conference in the country at the end of the season," Benedict said. "And we don’t want to be in position where our best team is on the outside looking in, come the end of the year.

"And the reality is, if we don’t make sure the league is scheduling the way we’ve now set it up, there’s a chance that we could be on the outside looking in. And we cannot as a league let that happen."

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