Tom Kelly had a favorite word for the strange events that occur around the traveling carnival that is a big-league sports team: buffoonery.
As Twins manager, he might use it in reference to an umpiring call or an official scorer’s decision, or a rookie’s behavior. Sample TK quote: “That question right there, Souhan, that’s straight buffoonery.”
Over the past decade, “buffoonery” might have been the most useful word in the English language in describing the state of the Twin Cities sports scene.
When the Timberwolves hired Flip Saunders to replace David Kahn to run the team’s basketball operations, we became buffoon-free.
Consider the transformation: In 2010, Kahn ran the Wolves, along with his hand-picked coach, Kurt Rambis. Joel Maturi held the position of athletic director at the University of Minnesota and oversaw his signature hire, Tim Brewster.
Kahn fired Rambis, perhaps the only coach in Minnesota who was more passive-aggressive than his fanbase. Rambis was replaced by Rick Adelman, a coach worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.
Maturi fired Brewster, whose motivational slogans still resonate in the halls of the Bierman Building, causing young athletes to passionately run through the wrong doors at the wrong time, and then undertook a nationwide search before settling on the one working coach willing to take the job, Jerry Kill.
The University of Minnesota pushed aside Maturi, replacing him with Norwood Teague.
Finally, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor fired Kahn, The Man Who Chose Jonny Flynn Instead of Steph Curry, and replaced him with Saunders.
For the first time since Maturi became the athletic director at Minnesota in 2002, our market is filled with competent people in important positions.
The Twins are run by Terry Ryan, one of the best general managers in baseball over the past dozen years, and managed by Ron Gardenhire, who, for all of the team’s losing the past two years, has taken his team to six postseason appearances (and another if you include a lost Game 163) in 11 seasons.
The Wild is run by Chuck Fletcher and Mike Yeo, who have much to prove but are smart people who may learn on the job.
The Wolves are run by Saunders and Adelman, and while Saunders has a limited résumé as a basketball executive, he, unlike Kahn, has a chance of picking out the basketball in a lineup of fruit-shaped objects.
The Vikings are run by Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier, whose intelligence and foresight helped them earn a surprising playoff berth last year.
The Gophers athletic department is run by Teague, who demonstrated guts and independent thinking by firing the apathetic Tubby Smith and hiring a promising young coach in Richard Pitino.
Kill is a credible coach, and Pitino has made an impressive first impression in Minnesota, refusing to duck into the turtle-shell of low expectations.
It’s foolish to waste much time dreaming of championships. With four major sports and a Big Ten university, no major Minnesota sport has won a title since the Twins in 1991. What we can demand is competence and intelligent leadership, and for the first time in a long time, competence abounds.
Saunders has already impressed. Engaging Kevin Love by sending him to represent the team in the draft is a shrewd way to mend a difficult relationship between team and star. Kahn’s departure will help that, too.
Saunders can be as good in his new role as he wants to be. He has the knowledge and savvy to become an excellent basketball executive. If his goal is to return to the sideline, we’ll soon have another Wolves coach taking advantage of his cozy relationship with Taylor.
If his true goal is to build a sustainable winner here, he and Adelman will form one of the smartest and most experienced braintrusts in the game.
Replacing your top basketball executive with Saunders might not have produced positive reviews in many NBA cities. In the Twin Cities, it’s like firing someone who couldn’t play the triangle and hiring a concert pianist. This has a chance to work.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org