Earlier in the season, Ryan Saunders made a commitment to talk to the Gophers booster club before Saturday night’s game against Penn State.
That was before he got a pretty big job change.
After Tom Thibodeau was fired Jan. 6, Saunders was promoted from Timberwolves assistant to interim head coach. The Golden Dunkers club expected him to be too busy to be their guest speaker, but he made enough time to return to his alma mater.
“My time here at the U was something that was always special,” Saunders told a crowd of a hundred in the Maturi Pavilion club room. “Riding through campus everything has changed. I suffered some injuries in college, but just the experiences you get to share with your teammates on the court. [Those] relationships are the things you remember the most.”
Saunders played for the Gophers as a walk-on guard from 2004 to ’06. He graduated with a degree in sports management in 2008. He and his late father, former Gophers player and Wolves coach Flip Saunders, always followed and supported the basketball program over the years.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino was disappointed to see Thibodeau fired but was excited about the opportunity for Saunders.
“Obviously, under difficult circumstances he has to dive in right there,” Pitino said earlier. “We talk a lot of basketball. We text back and forth throughout the season. He’s a huge Gopher fan. He follows us greatly. He wants us to win. As tough it is to see Thibs let go, because I have a lot of respect for him, I’m happy for Ryan to get a great shot.”
Saunders, who was in attendance with his wife, Hayley, at Saturday’s game, shared with Gophers boosters how he felt about achieving his dream of becoming an NBA head coach so unexpectedly.
“You never really know you’re ready for something until it’s thrust upon you and you’re put in that positon,” he said Saturday. “I’m really trying to take things day by day and hour by hour. I have great people around me, so I give all the credit to our staff and my family.”
Another Murphy milestone
Gophers senior forward Jordan Murphy, who is the program’s all-time leading rebounder, moved into third on the Big Ten’s career rebounding list Saturday.
His four first-half rebounds gave him 1,111, tying him with ex-Ohio State star Herb Williams, who played from 1977 to ’81. Murphy finished with 21 rebounds and now has 1,128.