Flip Saunders: Keeping his head in the game

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2013 - 6:32 AM

It's clear that former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders wants to coach somewhere. So he's keeping his options open. "If the right situation comes along? I'll evaluate that."

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Former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders talked with ESPN commentator Dan Dakich during halftime of the Gophers-Indiana game at Williams Arena on Tuesday.

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Flip Saunders is not taking a year off.

OK, so he's not prowling a basketball court in his unique style, exuding enough kinetic energy to light a city block. He's not coaching.

But he's busy.

Saunders is working as an NBA analyst for ESPN, regularly requiring trips from his Medina home to Bristol, Conn. He dives into both the NBA and the college game. Every minute he's not on air or in a meeting, he's watching 10 games at once, college and pro.

"I'm more in tune, college-wise, than I have been in a long time," he said.

Just last week, as the NBA's trading deadline approached, Saunders fielded calls from around the league from friends asking advice.

He is in constant touch with coaches around the country, such as Randy Wittman, who took over the Washington Wizards when Saunders was fired just over a year ago. And his son, Ryan, who's on Wittman's staff. He talks about three times each week with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who became his friend while Saunders was coaching the Detroit Pistons. In fact, the two met Tuesday, after Saunders took in the Gophers-Indiana game and Izzo went to watch Apple Valley star Tyus Jones play at Prior Lake. Saunders also does a weekly radio appearance with Dan Barreiro on KFAN and has regular contact with Wolves owner Glen Taylor.

He and son Ryan produced a software program for game analysis for the website gametimeconcepts.com. He is also working on a program for all levels of play that will take players and coaches from the first team meeting through practice structure and fundamental drills. He was in the middle of a demonstration of that program when the host at the restaurant came up, said hello and asked Saunders the question he hears, oh, about 100 times a week.

When are you coming back?

To the game, of course.

Saunders played at the University of Minnesota and was an assistant there. His long coaching career included a decade directing the Wolves. So when is Saunders, 58, leaving the periphery and returning to the game he's loved since he was a boy?

"I'm keeping my options open," he said. "If the right situation comes along? I'll evaluate that. I want to be able to build something, want to go to a place where something can be accomplished.''

Near-misses still hurt

But just when and where? Saunders remains coy. He insists he loves what he's doing, loves having more time for his family -- a wife, son and three daughters who all went to the University of Minnesota. Saunders recently went to Florida to watch his twins, Rachel and Kim, win another national championship as part of the Gophers dance team.

But he admits that nothing compares to the adrenaline rush that comes with coaching or being a part of a front office working together.

Saunders has made his mark and has plenty of money. He's too young to be done, too old to go to the wrong situation. But the people who talk to him now have the feeling he's ready for something.

"I expect him back," Wittman said. "He's antsy. Flip is a coach. He is a coach who misses coaching, I think. In talking with him, I can tell it's burning in his belly."

Said Taylor: "He is definitely keeping in touch with basketball, and his work with ESPN has kept him in touch with people. It looks to me like he has an interest to get back into basketball. He has the energy and the contacts to do it."

Saunders admits to missing coaching, but also talks with interest about being a general manager. At one point he will talk about the joy of working with people, the next the lure of assembling a team.

There is no question Saunders carries a feeling of unfinished business. He has coached 1,147 NBA games and won 638 of them. But he hasn't won a title. He coached in four Western Conference finals in five years -- one with the Wolves and three in Detroit -- but couldn't knock down that door.

Even now he speaks of the seventh game of the Wolves' conference semifinals against Sacramento in 2004 as the sweetest moment of his career. "When we won that game, I really believed we'd win the championship," he said. "Of course I didn't know at the time that Sam [Cassell] had torn the labrum in his hip."

When he speaks about the near-misses in Detroit, about injuries that derailed championship efforts in the spring of 2006 (Rip Hamilton), 2007 (Rasheed Wallace) and 2008 (Chauncey Billups), Saunders sounds like a man wanting another chance.

Recruiting? No problem

And what about college? Again, Saunders won't commit other than to reiterate the line he's given for years, that he always envisioned himself returning to the college ranks one day. There is the persistent rumor that he'd like to coach the Gophers, a team he still loves and follows, but Saunders won't touch that one.

At least not specifically. But he does cite names such as Rick Pitino and John Calipari as proof that moving back to college from the NBA can work.

"You've coached basketball 24-7," he said. "Offense, defense, game situations, game preparations? You've been through it so much you're more prepared."

Asked if recruiting would be a problem, Saunders laughed, citing his success recruiting when part of Jim Dutcher's staff at Minnesota.

"I'll say this. Recruiting is basically selling yourself, your organization," Saunders said. "When you go into a home, talk to these guys, most of the players are coming out of AAU situations. They all think they'll play in the NBA. ...I can say I know what it takes to be in the NBA. I scoff at the idea that I wouldn't want to go to college because I couldn't recruit."

It's the fit that matters

Saunders isn't about to say that college is where he wants to go. It's only clear that he wants to go somewhere. His most recent coaching experience, at Washington, taught him that the situation has to be right. He was hired and given a four-year, $18 million contract in the spring of 2009. He took over a team filled with veterans that was considered a playoff contender. Then everything changed. Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room and were suspended. Owner Abe Pollin died, ultimately resulting in the selling of the franchise. Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld then decided to rebuild, trading away veterans Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Antawn Jamison.

"If you're going to get back into it, it has to be a good situation," Saunders said. "You want the camaraderie, but you also have to have the players and the tools to help you win -- and you have to have a voice in it."

But you can bet he'll be back, somewhere. His track record shows that. He missed a full season after being fired by the Wolves then went to Detroit. After Detroit, he missed a full season before signing on in Washington. And that four-year deal with the Wizards is about to run out. His work as a consultant for Boston coach Doc Rivers during last year's playoffs had to whet his appetite.

"I want something where I can make a mark," he said. "That is the biggest thing. I want to build something that can flourish."

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