The tradition of the Turkeys on Thanksgiving morning started in 1978 at the St. Paul newspapers, to point out particularly boorish or overly officious individuals on the national sports scene.
The Turkey of the Year was a grand slam from the start. The initial winner, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, went on to slug Clemson’s Charlie Bauman after he intercepted a pass late in the Gator Bowl.
Thirty-seven days after the first Turkey, the winner was fired. Talk about immediate gratification.
The next four winners were the combination of commissioners Pete Rozelle and Bowie Kuhn (1979), Bobby Knight (1980), George Steinbrenner (1981) and Billy Martin (1982).
Valid as were those honorees, the Turkey founder began to contemplate the true purpose of these awards. There had to be more to the celebration than merely going down the list of Sid Hartman’s close personal friends.
The founder named himself Turkey Chairman and recruited a Turkey Committee of bright, diverse and objective statewide sports followers, issuing this mission statement:
“The Turkey Awards are dedicated to improving the Minnesota sports scene with annual honors intended to increase accountability, to motivate toward future success and, in extreme cases, to get somebody canned.”
This task of greater importance was launched in 1983, with Gophers athletic director Paul Giel selected as Turkey of the Year. Giel had overseen the football program fall to amazing depths, accepted Joe Salem’s in-season resignation and then seemed incapable of finding a replacement.
Calling out Giel didn’t stand up as well as Woody Hayes. After the selection, the Chairman learned Paul was hospitalized that week because of a heart problem. While there, Giel received a visit from booster Harvey Mackay, with the information that Lou Holtz — done at Arkansas — would come to Minnesota.
The deal was made. Giel enjoyed two seasons of a full Metrodome with Sweet-Talkin’ Lou, and served as AD through 1989. He died in 2002 at age 69, remembered as the Gophers’ tailback for the ages (including a very close second in the 1953 Heisman voting).
The last four years of the Turkeys being St. Paul-based produced Vikings coach Les Steckel (1984), Holtz as he was leaving for Notre Dame (1985), university President Dr. Kenneth Keller (1986) for spending large sums on the president’s residence and ignoring athletics, and Twins owner Carl Pohlad (1987), for being such a lousy public speaker during the festivities celebrating his team’s first World Series victory.
Steckel seems like a layup all these years later, but the players had just started to quit on the rookie coach by that Thanksgiving morn, and there was no indication Vikings decisionmaker Mike Lynn would gas him after one (3-13) season and lure back Bud Grant.
Thus, it was prescient when the Turkey Committee went to the final phase of the mission statement — to get somebody canned — for the first time with Steckel.
The Turkeys relocated to Minneapolis in 1988, with Lou Nanne the first winner after the move. Yeah, the North Stars had fallen in the standings, but the Chairman would like a do-over on that one, since Louie remains a Minnesota sports treasure.
The previously mentioned Lynn was the 1989 winner. He called the Chairman early on Thanksgiving to say, “It’s about time.”
What a beauty … Remarkable Mike.
Kent Hrbek was named in 1990. He threw Ron Gant off first base and assisted greatly in other areas to give the Twins a second World Series title in 1991. Grade: A+.
The Vikings’ Chris Doleman was named in 1991 on his way to a seven-sack season. He had 27 over the next two years, 89 for the rest of his career and wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Grade: A+.
The ’90s came and went, with Mr. Pohlad (1998) becoming the only two-time winner over his payroll slashing. The Turkey of the Year went to Clem Haskins in 1999, with tears in the Chairman’s eyes, since Clem remains his favorite all-time Gophers coach (all-sports category).
Terry Ryan won in 2013, after Year 3 of the disaster that ruined all budget projections for the new Target Field. That one hurt, too. Grand human being, but the Turkey Committee could never forgo its objectivity.
Ryan was followed by 25 Years of the Timberwolves and their relentless futility (2014), the Grim Reaper following the death of Flip Saunders (2015), Men’s Athletics at the University of Minnesota with its dwindling crowds and results (2016), and then in 2017, in the Turkeys’ 40th year, the committee revolted and decided it was time to honor someone deemed a major Turkey in all of this:
That was supposed to be the end, but the defrocked Chairman retreated to a small basement office last December and took one more shot at using a Turkey for motivation:
The Authentic Turkey [TAT] awards were revealed on Thanksgiving morning 2018 for the sole purpose of selecting Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, in a desperate quest for him to do less new-age babbling and more coaching — to put behind what was then a 4-13 Big Ten record and seek actual significance.
Two days later, his players started on the Road to Significance by bringing home Paul Bunyan’s Axe with the first victory over Wisconsin since 2003.
Since that day in Camp Randall Stadium, Fleck’s Gophers are 8-1 in the Big Ten, 12-1 overall and another victory over the Badgers here on Saturday will send Minnesota to the Rose Bowl (at a minimum) for the first time since Jan. 1, 1962.
Forty years of the Turkeys and one year of TATs and now it’s so close, long-suffering Gophers fans can taste it:
A return to the Rose Bowl … to join the holy names of Murray Warmath, Bobby Lee Bell and Sandy Stephens.
After 41 years of poking and prodding, agitating and sledgehammering, the Minnesota sporting public has arrived on the cusp of the impossible, and as the voice of the Turkeys, it is time to announce:
Our work here is done.
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(Note: I recently signed a two-year contract to continue at the Star Tribune through 2021. So, presuming ongoing mobility, that would make me available to cover Fleck’s first game as the Notre Dame coach on Labor Day night 2021 at Florida State.)