There is a University of Minnesota graduate of notable accomplishment in the business world who has been e-mailing me views of Gophers sports for several years. Most of those were not favorable as to what the alumnus was witnessing in athletic endeavors.
That’s what made the latest e-mail a contrast, with his suggestion the Gophers deserved a tribute for a strong all-around athletic performance in the 2016-17 school year.
There are 23 sports (unless you count indoor and outdoor track and field as separate entities). A majority are based on individual accomplishment adding up to team point totals. Then there are the team sports: football, basketball (men and women), hockey (men and women), baseball, softball, volleyball and soccer.
Rowing is also a team sport, while operating largely in anonymity. Meantime, wrestling is individual, but at Minnesota, it has a tradition of being judged on team success.
So what we have being considered here are 10 team sports, with five for the women athletes (basketball, hockey, volleyball, softball and soccer) and five for the men (football, basketball, hockey, wrestling and baseball).
I think we need a power rating when it comes to the role of these teams in contributing (or not) to the successful 2016-17 for the Gophers. Remember, this is based on what took place on the fields and floors, not off them.
10. Women’s basketball. The only true failure among the Gophers squads considered was Marlene Stollings’ third team. A season after Stollings managed to miss the NCAA tournament with superstar Rachel Banham, the 2016-17 Gophers were 6-12 in the Big Ten (including 1-1 in the tournament) as the program continued its disappearance from the Twin Cities sports landscape.
9. Women’s hockey. You know it was a tremendous year for U athletics when a hockey team that goes 26-8-5 and reaches the national semifinals is placed here in the success rankings. Yet, the Gophers are the Alabama of women’s hockey when it comes to attracting recruits — there were only 35 schools competing — and 2016-17 was a falloff from the domination of recent seasons (including back-to-back national titles in 2015 and 2016).
8. Baseball. The Gophers were 7-0 to start the Big Ten, faltered and then had a chance to claim a second consecutive regular-season title last weekend by winning two of three from Purdue at Siebert Field. They blew that by losing the first two. On Wednesday, the Gophers opened the Big Ten tournament and rallied for a 5-4 victory over host Indiana. They will need to win the tournament to advance to the NCAAs and make this more than a what-might-have-been season.
7. Men’s hockey. Don Lucia’s Gophers were a factor on the national scene again, even with a 0-2 finish to the season in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. More than anything, the 2016-17 Gophers seemed to create a foundation for a return to glory with young talent on a 23-12-3 (14-5-1 Big Ten) team. And it’s time for that … the 15th season since the Don won a national title when the schedule opens this October.
6. Wrestling. J Robinson turned the Gophers into a national power as the coach. He was fired after the Xanax distribution and use scandal among his athletes, and assistant Brandon Eggum was put in charge. Eggum is low-key, and that probably was needed to quiet the storm. The Gophers finished seventh in the NCAA meet; good for this program, not great.
5. Soccer. Stefanie Golan was the first coaching hire for former athletic director Norwood Teague in June 2012. She took over a mediocre program and turned it into a winner. Last fall, the Gophers and star senior Simone Kolander won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. They lost an NCAA opener in a shootout to North Carolina State.
4. Football. On the field, Tracy Claeys’ bunch went 8-4 in the regular season. Amid chaos, the Gophers then came up with the most surprising effort of the 2016-17 sports year for any U team with the 17-12 upset and defensive masterpiece vs. Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. University President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle were looking on glumly at this noble effort, knowing they were going to fire Claeys.
3. Softball. Former AD Joel Maturi took a flier on 27-year-old Jessica Allister to take over a comatose program seven years ago. Fantastic. The Gophers swept the Big Ten, were 54-3 and rated No. 1 in the nation before being shut out twice by host Alabama in last weekend’s regional.
2. Men’s basketball. If we had this list a year ago, the performance of Richard Pitino’s hoopers would have held down the No. 10 position, and in capital letters. It was a nice turnaround.
1. Volleyball. National Player of the Year in Sarah Wilhite, in a sport with 334 Division I teams. Finished 17-3 in the toughest conference in the country. A second consecutive Final Four. Hugh McCutcheon took over an outstanding program and has improved upon it, turning volleyball into the most entertaining and vibrant sport on campus.