Just before the start of the Gophers basketball intrasquad scrimmage on Sunday evening, an image of a young, baby-faced Philip “Flip” Saunders flashed across the Jumbotron in the arena he loved so much.
As the team and a modest crowd observed a moment of silence for the former Gophers point guard, a sound as slight as a sniffle could be heard. But moments earlier, Williams Arena was abuzz with stories, memories and choked-up condolences for the family of Saunders, an Ohio native who many said adopted Minnesota as his own.
“In sports, when you get recognized by one name, that’s how you know you’ve really made it,” said Quincy Lewis, who played for the Gophers from 1995 to 1999 and now works for the U. “You can just say ‘Flip’ and everyone knows.”
Saunders, who passed away Sunday a few months after beginning chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, came to the Twin Cities as a 6-foot, scrappy teenage guard, playing at Minnesota under Bill Musselman and Jim Dutcher from 1973 to 1977 before embarking on a 38-year coaching career that included stints at Golden Valley Lutheran Community College in St. Paul and as one of Dutcher’s assistants from 1981-86.
Lewis was a freshman with the Gophers when Saunders began his first stint as Timberwolves coach. Later, he played for Saunders when the Timberwolves signed him as a free agent for the 2003-04 season.
“We always had a sense of pride, having a Gopher on the bench,” Lewis said of Saunders, tears threatening. “It wasn’t until I really played [for] him that you really got the full genius that he is as a basketball coach and a basketball mind.”
On Sunday, fans remembered moments long before Saunders’ time in the NBA, recounting his goofy role in the Gophers’ old “pregame warmup” spectacles during the ’70s, when the team would perform acrobatic-like drills to entertain fans.
“They used to put on quite a show,” said Denny Siems, who along with his wife, Deb, and their neighbors Denny and Dori Lynde have followed the Gophers around to road games for decades.
Beyond the laughs, though, was a sense that Saunders left his print on a program that saw many struggles before he came and has seen plenty of struggles since he left. Paul Helgerson, a St. Paul native and season-ticket holder since 1963, remembers watching Saunders as a player, with a quick admiration. In his senior season, Saunders combined with future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale to lead Minnesota to a 24-3 record.
“At that time, he was kind of a savior to the program,” Helgerson said. “He and McHale and those guys, in those days, sort of revived everything.”
Even since, Saunders remained involved with the Gophers. Each year he invited coach Richard Pitino to Timberwolves practices to speak with the team, Pitino said.
“It was because I was the Gophers coach,” Pitino said. “He loved the Gophers and this university was obviously extremely important to him.”
Gophers fans in the stands on Sunday showed the love went both ways.
“His legacy will live on,” Lewis said. “Because it’s supposed to. I mean he’s Flip. He’s done it. It’s just a tremendous loss for all of us and basketball around the state of Minnesota.”