A popular tweet circulating in recent weeks summed up 2018 thusly: It lasted 10 years.
You can take that however you want, and the tweeter probably wasn’t thinking at all about Minnesota sports. But wow, it does feel like some of the year’s biggest stories happened a long time ago. With that in mind, here’s a look back at the year that was — and the 10 biggest Minnesota sports stories in 2018:
10. A hockey changing of the guard for two teams
The past year saw some major shake-ups at both the pro and college hockey levels. The Wild jettisoned General Manager Chuck Fletcher and hired Paul Fenton as his replacement in hopes of building on six consecutive playoff appearances with only two series victories. The Gophers men’s hockey team, meanwhile, transitioned from head coach Don Lucia to former St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko — all while Minnesota Duluth was in the midst of winning the NCAA title.
9. The death of St. John’s coach John Gagliardi
The October death of Gagliardi at the age of 91 left a hole in the college football world. His 489 victories — the vast majority of which came at Division III St. John’s — are the most in NCAA history. He will be remembered for the wins and his unorthodox coaching style as well as the relationships he built with players over many decades.
8. Paul Molitor fired, Rocco Baldelli hired
While firing Molitor after a 78-84 season — even on the heels of his being named manager of the year in 2017 — wasn’t necessarily surprising, it still represented a significant shift for the Twins. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine handed the keys to the team to the 37-year-old Baldelli and charged him with both getting more out of the team’s young core of players and finding ways to more meaningfully implement analytics into day-to-day operations.
7. Gophers football takes back the axe
The Gophers’ 37-15 victory at Wisconsin in the regular-season finale, above, was significant on several levels, but more than anything it seemed to have a cathartic effect on a tortured fan base. Defeating the Badgers for the first time since 2003, winning in Madison for the first time since 1994 and doing it convincingly gave Gophers fans bragging rights, gave P.J. Fleck a signature victory and launched Minnesota into bowl-eligibility.
6. Kirk Cousins signs $84 million contract
During Super Bowl week, Cousins was in Minneapolis. He was stationed on “radio row” at Mall of America, where I remember shouting a question at him about whether he was going to sign with the Vikings as a free agent. Little did we know — or maybe some people already did? — that Cousins in March would indeed sign a guaranteed $84 million contract to be the Vikings’ quarterback for three seasons. His signing capped a whirlwind process and created a ripple effect on the team’s roster.
5. The Jimmy Butler holdout and trade
Gallons of ink and acres of online space (maybe exaggerations) were spent between September and November chronicling the rumors and whims surrounding Butler’s request to be traded by the Timberwolves. The timing of it, coming just before the start of training camp and after the Wolves’ first playoff season since 2004, was one thing. The constant reports of where he might be going … the disruptive nature of his return to practice … and the disastrous 4-9 start to the season before he was ultimately dealt? Ah, we’ll never forget General Soreness.
4. Lindsay Whalen’s seamless transition
One of the most successful and famous athletes to ever come out of Minnesota had a whirlwind year. Let’s see: She was hired in April as the Gophers women’s basketball coach, and spent her summer in a dual role while still playing for the Lynx. By August, she announced she was retiring from the WNBA — barreling headlong into her new role. And all she’s done so far is start her coaching career with 12 straight wins. It was all amazingly seamless, but should we expect anything less from a legend?
3. Twins great Joe Mauer retires at the age of 35
Though this decision started to feel inevitable given the hints leading up to it, the retirement of one of the greatest Twins of all-time — you might have heard Mauer is from St. Paul? — still ranks high on this list. His prime didn’t last as long as anyone wanted, and concussions robbed him of the ability to fully produce throughout the length of his $184 million contract. But make no mistake: The 2001 No. 1 overall pick, who played his whole professional career for the hometown team, absolutely lived up to the hype. Three batting titles as a catcher and an MVP award only tell part of the story, but that’s plenty on its own.
2. Minnesota gold at the winter olympics
The Winter Olympics quickly became the Minnesota Olympics as several local athletes provided some of the biggest moments for the Americans. Jessie Diggins’ dramatic finish to win a cross-country skiing gold medal was a part of it, as were myriad contributions from Minnesota players on the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s hockey team. Those who stayed up very late also won’t forget John Shuster and the gold medal-winning men’s curling team. It was a nice antidote to any Super Bowl and Vikings hangover that still lingered (see No. 1).
1. First a miracle, then a Super Bowl letdown
Maybe this is cheating a little because Stefon Diggs’ walkoff touchdown catch in the divisional round of the playoffs and U.S. Bank Stadium’s hosting the Super Bowl probably were worthy of separate entries. But they feel intertwined in a way, and their combined power puts them at the top of the 2018 list. Diggs’ spectacular catch and run made Vikings fans believe that this was finally the team’s year of destiny. Minnesota went into Philadelphia the next week needing just one more win to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Instead, the Eagles earned a 38-7 rout on the way to a championship. The Super Bowl was still tons of fun, but the juxtaposition of the Diggs catch and rival fans taking over Minneapolis was pretty jarring. And yes, that all happened in 2018 even if it feels like five years ago.