The most famous coaching comeback in Minnesota sports occurred in the fall of 1945, when Bernie Bierman returned from World War II service as a Marine officer to again take charge of Gophers football.
Bierman had coached the Gophers for 10 seasons, 1932-1941, with a record of 63-12-5 and five teams voted as national champions.
The Gophers had an exceptional roster in 1949, and a first trip to the Rose Bowl was anticipated. They finished 7-2, 4-2 in the Big Ten (with losses to Michigan and Purdue) and Bernie’s war veterans headed to the NFL and other pursuits.
The Gophers finished 1-7-1 in 1950 and Bierman was forced out as coach at age 57. His record for six postwar seasons was 30-23-1.
Bud Grant, one of Bernie’s boys from that ’49 team, had a notorious comeback with the Vikings. Practicality was Bud’s byword, as seen recently with his much publicized garage sale, where an autograph required a $25 purchase of Coach Grant’s used merchandise.
Bud put together a Hall of Fame coaching résumé from 1967 through 1983 with the Vikings, retired, and then allowed a desperate Vikings CEO Mike Lynn to bribe him to return. Grant took the Vikings from Les Steckel’s 3-13 to 7-9 in 1985 and quit again, taking a sweet contract as a consultant with him.
Glen Sonmor had a nice run as North Stars’ coach from 1978 to 1983, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1981. He came back early in the 1984-85 season and couldn’t turn around a sagging team (22-35-10).
Other Minnesota comebacks featured prominent Gophers coaches leading pro teams: Herb Brooks took over the North Stars for 1987-88 and conducted a one-season disaster (19-48-13). Bill Musselman returned to lead the expansion Timberwolves in 1989 and was fired for pushing too hard for victories (51 in two seasons) rather than draft position.
Now, Flip Saunders returns, hiring himself to coach the Wolves and hoping for a quick return to where he had this star-crossed franchise from 1997 through 2004: the playoffs.
Such coaching comebacks haven’t been overly successful around here in the past.
Plus Three from Patrick
My top three Minnesota pro coaches since 1961 (in order):
• Tom Kelly (Twins, 1986-2001). Won two World Series, stuck with it through low-budget losing and kick-started a return to winning in 2001.
• Bud Grant (Vikings, 1967-1983, 1985). Eye for talent plus consistency of approach equals success.
• Jacques Lemaire (Wild, 2000-2009). Brought credibility to our new NHL product from Game 1 to the end of his eight-season run.