When Richard Coffey spoke to the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team on Monday, players perked up and listened. Coach Richard Pitino, too. Teams, the Gophers included, often bring in guest speakers throughout the season, especially during hard times, as a means of mixing things up and finding inspiration. But Coffey has a particularly unique perspective.
First, he’s a motivational speaker. Inspiring is what he does for a living. Secondly, he’s a former University of Minnesota player, one who despite being very undersized at his position, led the Big Ten in rebounding in his senior year, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight in his last two seasons. He’s also a military veteran, a Gophers fan – present in the Williams Arena stands more often than not during home games – and the father/ mentor/ trainer of Amir Coffey, the shining light of the Gophers 2016 recruiting class.
“With the life he lived, he really had a great message and I think it really stuck with our players,” senior Joey King said. “We had a great practice yesterday. Just what he’s been through with his military career and then moving into basketball – he’s done all the types of things that a lot of us players aspire to do. He went through a little rut in his career, losing some games, and he was able to pull himself out of it. It’s something that we need to really take into account, listen to him and learn from him because he’s accomplished a lot of things.”
This year's team heads into Michigan (Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. CT) on a seven-game losing streak and 0-6 in the Big Ten. The Gophers went through some brutal struggles when Coffey was on the team as well. In his first two seasons, from 1986-87 to 1987-88, Minnesota dropped 21 consecutive league games. The following two seasons, the struggles paid off with big runs in the NCAA tournament.
Pitino said Coffey’s message revolved around relying on courage when confidence dwindled, focusing on improving in small ways and taking responsibility.
“When we’re out there on the floor, we only have each other,” King said. “Mr. Coffey was correct -- No one is going to save us. We’ve just got to come out and compete on every single possession. Coach is going to do what he can to put us in a position to win and then we need to execute.”
As a 6-6 forward who became an elite collegiate rebounder, Coffey had a special effect on Jordan Murphy. Murphy is similar in that he rebounds as if he’s bigger than he is and, like Coffey, has had to play small forward, power forward and center at different points this season. He currently leads Minnesota with 8.1 a game.
“The guy is 6-6 and he led the Big Ten in rebounding,” Pitino said. “And especially for us, not a good rebounding team, it was all will, it was all heart, it was all desire.’
Pitino said he’s also considering bringing in Minnesota volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon to talk about the evolution of his team from last year – from 19-12 in 2014 to advancing to the National semi-finals this year. Pitino said McCutcheon told him the difference with a roster that didn’t undergo dramatic changes was that “people started to figure it out.”
“It’s like when you’re going on a diet and you’re trying to figure out how to lose weight and you’re doing a million different plans,” Pitino said. :It’s nice to nice to have a different voice …whoever’s got that magic potion I’ll take it. But I don’t think it’s as complex as we’re making it out to be.”