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.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
The Gophers just fell another step behind in college football's arms race. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Northwestern has received the green light to build "the multipurpose lakefront facility that football coach Pat Fitzgerald says will be a 'game-changer' for his program."
From the story:
Donations have poured in despite the Wildcats' 5-7 record last season. Sources said construction of the two-building complex will begin by early 2015 and should take about two years to complete.
The school will announce Friday, the Tribune has learned, that it is launching a new fundraising campaign and that Mark and Kimbra Walter have donated $40 million to be used for athletics and law school scholarships. Mark Walter, a graduate of NU's law school, is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
NU officials have been tight-lipped since unveiling plans for the project in September 2012. The price tag for the facility on the shore of Lake Michigan is likely to exceed the original estimate of $220 million.
This project was first announced in September 2012, but there are new renderings, and quite frankly, they are stunning. The Chicago Tribune reports that the cost likely will exceed the original $220 million estimate.
Last July, Gophers AD Norwood Teague unveiled a $190 million plan to drastically upgrade the school's athletic facilities, including new practice facilities for the football and basketball teams. Teague has since said that the school is close to announcing the results of a fundraising feasibility study, and he keeps saying he feels good about it. But it's been relatively quiet.
ESPN commentator Dan Dakich, a former Bowling Green coach and interim head coach at Indiana, said on Thursday’s broadcast of the Gophers-Penn State game that Minnesota can’t afford not to build a facility. Dakich called Minnesota high school basketball the nation’s best-kept secret, and said there “are Minnesota kids all over Division I.’’ Dakich said if Minnesota finally builds a practice facility comparable to other Big Ten schools and starts keeping top in-state kids at home, the basketball program could take off.
Last December, the Big Ten Network's Gerry DiNardo held nothing back in his assessment of Minnesota's football facilities. Here's an excerpt from that story:
DiNardo tours the entire Big Ten twice each year — during spring practice and preseason camp — giving him a firsthand look at what the Gophers have compared with their competition.
“You can make a case that they’re 12th of 12 [teams] when it comes to resources in the conference,” DiNardo said. “Facilitieswise, it’s not even close.”
By that, DiNardo means the indoor practice facility, weight room and nutrition areas. He said it’s nice for Minnesota fans to have 5-year-old TCF Bank Stadium but notes that players spend about 10 days per year there, counting spring practice. They spend almost every other day on campus in the training facilities, and those aren’t helping recruiting, DiNardo said.
“A prospect wants to know where he’s going to go every day,” DiNardo said. “Training table, for example: I often see at Minnesota they eat in the hallway, and it’s food with Bunsen burners underneath.”
The Gophers do indeed hold their training table with catered meals inside the entryway to the Gibson/Nagurski Practice Facility. It’s a high-ceilinged room filled with Gophers memorabilia — a nice place to visit, but hardly a dining room.
“When [recruits] go to Nebraska, by way of example, when you walk into their training table, it looks like a restaurant,” DiNardo said. “I mean, it is decked out. Wisconsin just built brand new facilities. They have juice bars — it’s a kitchen, it’s a restaurant.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, Fitzgerald had this to say on National Signing Day:
"A lot of other universities have made the decision just to do the stadium. We've put the priority on student-athletes with a 365-day facility. We already have everything we need to win, but now we'll be able to compete facility-wise with anyone in the country."
University of Minnesota athletes don’t have to look far to see the importance of bone marrow donors.
Longtime Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last June, and a bone marrow transplant from his brother helped save his life. Oakes is in remission and back coaching the baseball team, as Samuel Gordon writes in today's Minnesota Daily.
Gophers wide receiver Connor Cosgrove was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. He didn't need a transplant, but he has spoken to the team about the importance of registering healthy donors.
The football team and an organization called Be The Match are hosting a bone marrow registry drive on Wednesday from 1-4 p.m., in the Gophers locker room at TCF Bank Stadium.
Be The Match focuses on finding potential donors ages 18-44, so it is critical that they register as many college students as possible. Their research shows that younger donors are best for patients because they provide the greatest chance for transplant success. Donors between the ages of 18 and 44 are asked to donate more than 90% of the time.
The registration process is quick, simple and painless. Potential marrow donors simply need to complete a registration form with contact information, health information and sign an agreement to join the Be The Match registry. Those who will be registering are encouraged to bring personal identification (such as a driver’s license or passport) and contact information for two family members or friends.
After the paperwork is complete, all potential donors have to do is have the inside of their cheek swabbed. Their information will be stored in the Be The Match registry. This is the national registry where doctors turn to when their patient needs a marrow transplant and there is not a known matching donor in the family.
Hello, and welcome to my new blog.
I’m Joe Christensen, the new Gophers football beat writer for the Star Tribune. I swapped places with Phil Miller, who is moving to the Twins beat this year, joining La Velle Neal.
I’ve spent the past 15 years covering Major League Baseball, including the past eight at the Star Tribune. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it became tougher and tougher to be gone so many nights with a wife and two young kids at home.
Last summer, I went to my editors requesting a change, and I don’t think it could have worked out any better. College football always has been a passion of mine, dating to my time covering Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily in 1994.
After graduating from the University in 1996, I covered prep football for Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. And later, during my time on the Dodgers beat, I had chances to cover USC, UCLA, as well as the Rose Bowl. That said, I’ve got a lot to learn before I’ll consider myself an expert on college football.
While covering baseball, I viewed my Around the Majors blog as a chance to take the readers along for the ride. I’ll post breaking news here, when something happens with the Gophers. And I’ll work to bolster our coverage with bonus items that I find interesting or amusing along the way.
Thanks for stopping by. You can also follow along on Twitter -- @JoeCStrib.
Only 41,062 tickets were sold to the Gophers' game against Purdue last Saturday, already the smallest crowd in TCF Bank Stadium's four-year history, and it looked like there were several thousand no-shows, too. It's a shame that so many Gopher fans missed the most impressive victory of the season so far.
But Jerry Kill said Tuesday he knows who is to blame for such a dispiriting turnout: He is.
Well, sort of. It's not really his fault that the Gophers don't draw well, but it is his responsibility, he said, for making sure that changes.
"If we continue to win, that place will be packed out and we'll have to build on to it," Kill said at his weekly news conference. "If you don't win, that's the way it is. ... It's our job. It's not our fans -- I'm not going to blame anybody. We've got to put a good product out there. That's what I was hired to do a year and a half ago, and that's what we'll do."
Kill said he has been heartened during his tenure here to discover that there are plenty of enthusiastic fans out there, and that negative opinions are offset by positive ones.
"There are a tremendous amount of people that have stuck by the program," Kill said. "There's enough passion in this state, and enough passion in this room. We start winning games, and expect it every week, and all of that stuff will come."
While Kill was praising Minnesotans who has supported him, his boss was trying to keep discouraged fans from abandoning the program. Athletic director Norwood Teague last week wrote an explanation for his and Kill's decision to cancel a two-game series with North Carolina and pay an $800,000 termination fee to do it.
Over the weekend, Teague sent a letter via email to season-ticket holders, hoping to reassure those who were especially critical of the decision. Kill, Teague and the athletic department received dozens of complaints about the North Carolina series, and Teague acknowledged that the move wasn't well-received. But "I also want to personally assure you that even if we don't always agree on decisions," Teague wrote, "I will always be guided by the best interests of athletics and the entire university community."
The controversy is a matter of tactics, not strategy, Teague said.
"While we may not agree on every decision, I have heard broad agreement that rebuiding the Gopher football program is a priority, not only for the team and its fans, but also for Gopher athletics and the university," Teague wrote. "I will continue to work closely with Coach Kill to implement a plan that builds a winning tradition that inspires pride, fills the stadium with fans, leads us to bowl games, attracts top student-athletes, and generates revenue."
In an effort to create a loud and electric atmosphere for Saturday's game against Syracuse, the Gophers' only night game at TCF Bank Stadium this year, Minnesota put more than 5,000 upper-bowl tickets on sale shortly after last Saturday's victory over Western Michigan.
Gopher fans apparently know a bargain -- the tickets were snapped up by Monday evening.
There are still tickets available to watch the Gophers try to improve to 4-0, but all in the better reserved sections, priced between $40-90. Assuming those tickets move by game time, it could give the Gophers their first sellout of the season.
And nobody is rooting for that more than Jerry Kill. The coach emphasized how much the fans at TCF Bank Stadium helped his team on Saturday -- and that's with a mediocre crowd that the university announced as 44,921 tickets sold, but looked like several thousand fewer, certainly a smaller crowd than one week earlier against New Hampshire.
In discussing the Gopher defense's stand on Western Michigan's final possession, Kill said, "To be honest, I think the crowd had something to do with it."
The Broncos, apparently having communication problems, were penalized five yards on first down for having five men in the backfield. After a sack and a short run, they faced third-and-18.
"The crowd was tremendous on third down," Kill said. "If we're on the road, that may be a little bit of a different story."
Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder's pass was broken up by Michael Carter on third down, and receiver Jaime Wilson was stopped short of the first-down marker on fourth down, cementing the Gophers' victory.
Carder "was trying to check (change) plays. I can't tell you how important it is when that stadium is loud and it's third down, how tough that is on the quarterback," Kill said. "Everybody's calling plays on the line of scrimmage right now. Communication to get 10 guys to do the right thing is not easy."
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