It was a phone call you never want to receive, but you knew it was just a matter of time before it would come. Flip Saunders died Sunday after being in a coma for close to six weeks at the University of Minnesota Hospital, on life support and with little chance of surviving.
He had contracted Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had one more treatment to go at Mayo Clinic when he contracted pneumonia, sources said, was hospitalized and never recovered.
This column doesn’t have enough space to tell a lot of great Flip Saunders stories from when he played and coached for the Gophers and coached the Wolves. We spent a lot of time together over the 43 years I’ve know him.
One long conversation we had was when he was going through treatment. He was feeling so good, he was confident he would be back at Target Center shortly after the first of the year.
From the time the 2015 draft was held and the Wolves were fortunate enough to get the first pick in Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns, Flip was the happiest coach in the NBA. All he would talk about is how lucky the Wolves were to add Towns to 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and predicted a title in three years.
Close friends speculated he would coach for three or four years and then he hoped his son Ryan, a Wolves assistant coach, would be ready to take over as head coach and Flip would concentrate on his job as president of basketball operations.
When Rick Adelman didn’t come back as Wolves coach after the 2014 season, Flip talked about trying to find the right successor. Flip was a great salesman, and he sold Wolves owner Glen Taylor on the idea that he should also be the coach. It wasn’t easy, because Taylor didn’t want him doing both jobs.
But knowing Flip for 43 years, from the day he stepped on the court at Williams Arena, and being close friends, there never was any doubt he was going to return as coach. That was his life.
It’s so sad he should die with everything beginning to go just the way he wanted it.
Dutcher on Saunders
Jim Dutcher, who coached Saunders with the Gophers and then had him as an assistant coach for five years, talked about Saunders as a player.
“He was the one guy we felt we could not play without,” Dutcher said. “He ran the team. In high school, Flip averaged 32 points per game. But when he was running the point for us, he just got everyone else involved. He didn’t shoot that much. He just ran the team. But he led us in assists, he led us in free-throw percentage. So even though we had three No. 1 draft choices, Flip was our most valuable player.
“The good years, he was there with Osborne Lockhart, Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson and Ray Williams. Three of them were picked in the first round [of the NBA draft]. And Osborne played nine years with the Globetrotters, but Flip was voted our most valuable player that year. We went 15-3 in the Big Ten [in 1976-77], but Michigan was 16-2.”
Dutcher praised Saunders’ ability as a college coach. “When he joined my staff in 1981-82, he worked with our guards, and all three guards made first-team all-Big Ten in their career: Darryl Mitchell, Trent Tucker and Tommy Davis,” Dutcher said.
Flip was always a gym rat. “You couldn’t get him out of the gym,” Dutcher said. “He was just a very, very intelligent player. And as a coach, he was really good at relaying information to the players.”
Saunders had his chances to be the Gophers head basketball coach, turning down three athletic directors: Mark Dienhart, Joel Maturi and Norwood Teague.
Among the many who will miss Saunders is a guy named Chad Hartman, who spent a lot of time with him and did play-by-play for Flip when he coached a La Crosse, Wis., CBA team and for 11 years for the Wolves during Flip’s first stint as head coach.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org