Father’s Day again will be a quiet event for the Saunders family of Plymouth, our sprawling western suburb. There will be chicken paprikash to consume in all its saucy glory, and U.S. Open golf featured on the largest TV screen.
One change from tradition is that Debbie Saunders will be in charge of the paprikash. Previously, she had served as the main assistant to her husband of 37 years, Phil (Flip) Saunders, who died last Oct. 25 from complications of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Chicken paprikash was a specialty of his mother, Kay, when he was growing up in Ohio, and Flip took it as a challenge to make it as well as his mom,’’ Debbie said. “I was there as a helper.’’
This will be the first Father’s Day for the Saunders family without Flip. It will be extra difficult emotionally, as was last Christmas, as was what would have been Flip’s 61st birthday Feb. 23, and other family birthdays that have passed.
Ryan is oldest of the kids at 30. Mindy is 28 and married. The twins, Rachel and Kim, are 24.
By all accounts, Flip was well-honed in the fatherly art of doting on his daughters. The relationship with Ryan was different. It included a mutual devotion to basketball.
“It was more than father, son; we were the best of friends,’’ Ryan said. “He loved phone calls. He had four or five cellphones in service at all times. When I still was an assistant in Washington after he left, we would talk 10 times a day.’’
Ryan was 9 when Flip was brought to the Timberwolves by Kevin McHale for the 1995-96 season — first as general manager, and 20 games into the schedule as coach. Saunders had that job until the middle of the 2004-05 season, and many times Ryan would ride to the game with his dad.
“He always took Highway 55 … never the freeway,’’ Ryan said. “I think one reason was to go past the main building for Golden Valley Lutheran College. It’s the Perpich Center for Arts now, but to him, it was always the place where his coaching career started.
“Whenever we were getting close to that building, he would hit his Barry White CD and play ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.’ ”
Flip Saunders was 22 and fresh from four seasons as the Gophers point guard when athletic director Bill Lundquist hired him in 1977 to coach at the two-year college in Golden Valley.
Saunders put together a high-scoring juggernaut in four years there, spent seven seasons as a college assistant for the Gophers and Tulsa, six seasons as a head coach in the CBA, and now here he was on reliable old Hwy. 55, heading to downtown Minneapolis to coach Kevin Garnett and spend eight straight seasons in the NBA playoffs.
Sing it, Barry.
Like father, like son
Ryan played at Wayzata High School and walked on at the university. He played sparingly over four seasons, and Tubby Smith gave him a job as a graduate assistant with the Gophers for 2008-09.
That was the season Flip sat out — between being fired at Detroit and being hired in Washington.
Flip added Ryan to the Wizards staff. He also was a Wolves assistant for his dad in 2014-15 and for Sam Mitchell last season. Ryan still is working for the Wolves as he waits for new coach Tom Thibodeau to announce a staff.
There was a gameday ritual for Flip and Ryan when they were coaching together: the morning shootaround, maybe lunch and then a movie.
“Any movie,’’ Ryan said. “He liked ’em all, particularly the silly comedies … the stuff with Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn. And even if we just had lunch, if you were at the movies, you had to get a tub of popcorn and a box of Raisinets. Those were necessities.’’
The Wizards were lousy in the standings and had some bad-news guys in the locker room, and Flip was fired on Jan. 24, 2012, in the middle of his third season. Ryan stayed on the staff with coach Randy Wittman through 2013-14.
Phone calls arrived from Minnesota. Ten a day. Including a share in the middle of the night.
“Dad didn’t sleep much … four or five hours a night,’’ Ryan said. “When he wasn’t watching taped basketball games, he was watching infomercials. You can’t believe the amount of stuff he bought after seeing an infomercial at 3 in the morning.
“The Pocket Hose. The ShamWow. He was as excited when a new supply of ShamWows showed up as he was about making an NBA trade. And gadgets. Anything new from Apple … he got it right away. He was Apple and Samsung’s best customer.’’
Debbie Saunders laughed and said: “I knew every year what I was going to get for my birthday — the new Apple phone. When the Apple watch came out, Flip was so enamored with it that he got one for everybody in the family.’’
What was Flip’s worst infomercial purchase?
“I’d say the golf club where you could put a wrench in it and adjust the head four or five ways,’’ Debbie said. “Flip hardly played golf, but he had to have that thing.’’
Father’s Day might have been quiet for the Saunders family, but July 4th was as boisterous and festive as Patriotic Phil could make it.
Flip and Debbie bought a place on Clearwater Lake near Annandale two decades ago. There was a large lawn and almost immediately a Wiffle ball game became a staple of the 4th celebration.
“It started off 2-on-2 … my dad and a friend against me and a friend,’’ Ryan said.
Soon, the number of guests — many from the Saunders’ former neighborhood in the Autumn Hills development in Plymouth — multiplied, and so did the participants in the Wiffle ball contest.
It became Flip’s team, the Oldtimers, vs. Ryan’s team, the Young Guns. There are now jerseys, hats, a sound system, introductions and a WWE-style belt, declaring the winning team to be the world Wiffle champion.
“Last year, we were led onto the field by a guy on a motorcycle,’’ said Steve Stinski, an Oldtimer, as well as the provider of properly emblazoned uniforms from his company, Spectrum Screenprinting.
There has been a tradition of midgame changing of rules, if Flip did not approve of what the score was indicating about the Oldtimers’ chances.
“A couple of years ago, we were tied after nine innings, and Flip declared we were going to have an NHL-style shootout,’’ Stinski said. “The teams would have an equal number of batters and you had to hit a home run.
“The twist was a teammate would be the pitcher. Flip threw me the biggest meatball of all time, I was able to hit a home run to win the game, and we celebrated like we had won the World Series.’’
Which was what Flip Saunders considered this to be — the World Series of Wiffle ball and Minnesota summer fun.
There will be 80 to 100 people at the lake again on this 4th, and there will be corn and grilled meats, and a huge cake and salads and other treats brought by the same longtime friends year after year, and the Oldtimers and the Young Guns will do battle to great hoopla.
What there won’t be is Flip.
“Last year on the 4th, it was just over a week since he had been diagnosed,’’ Stinski said. “He had not told many people, and you wouldn’t have been able to tell by the way he was into the Wiffle ball and the fireworks that he was dealing with something like that.
“I was aware, and there were a couple of times when Flip wandered down toward the lake by himself and stared quietly for a while, which wasn’t like him.
“We’ll have a lot of laughs on the 4th, as always, but there are going to be tears, too.’’
Tears from Minnesota folks who got to know him as Flip the neighbor, Flip the father of the Saunders kids, more so than Flip the coach.
“One of the great things about my dad was that inner circle of friends who were just raising families, like him and my mom,’’ Ryan said.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org