Making sense of the strangest four days in Minnesota sports

University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill

A few hours after University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill announced his resignation Wednesday, at a tearful press conference that left even the most cold-hearted observers aching for him, Gopher senior associate athletics director Dan O’Brien stopped by Kill’s office to find him in the midst of an hour-long snooze. On the saddest day of his professional life, a tortured Kill found a rare stretch of uninterrupted peace.

“I don’t remember the last time he took a long nap,” O’Brien said.

Kill’s resignation was the final stunner in a tumultuous four days that left many of us in the Minnesota sporting world in need of a little peace ourselves. The death of respected Timberwolves coach and executive Flip Saunders, the retirement of Twins star Torii Hunter, and the unexpected resignation of Kill meant saying goodbye to three adopted Minnesotans indelibly associated with their teams — and with us.

Sunday’s announcement from the Timberwolves that Saunders – equal parts basketball savant, impresario and raconteur – died of complications from treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma left the entire organization shaken in a way I’ve only seen once, when budding Boston Celtics superstar Reggie Lewis collapsed and died on July 27, 1993, at age 27. 

On Monday, the Timberwolves brought out interim coach Sam Mitchell, general manager Milt Newton and six players to speak with reporters, a proceeding that felt like a wake, and not an Irish one. 

Almost four months to the day after Saunders introduced overall No. 1 draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns and hometown product Tyus Jones in the Mayo Clinic Square atrium, at a press conference filled with excitement and promise, the 60-year-old Saunders was gone, succumbing to a cancer that he and the team believed treatable. Saunders was such a force that even when he took a turn for the worse, many of his players and Timberwolves employees still believed he might walk through the door any day, bouncy and energetic, ready to tackle the next big task.

When point guard Ricky Rubio said, “What we have over here is a family, and we lost our dad yesterday,” he wasn’t being trite. It articulated Saunders’s importance to a historically flawed organization desperate to remake its public image. Owner Glen Taylor, who fired Saunders as coach in 2005, brought him back in 2013 to oversee the project, and Saunders — the only coach to take the Timberwolves to the playoffs — was still putting everything in place when he lost his life.

Saunders grew up in Ohio, but his seasons as a point guard for the Gophers in the 1970s bought him a ton of local goodwill that never expired. Saunders had a small-town way and touch that endeared him to people. Yet he wasn’t beneath calling into a radio talk show to take on a caller or host whose opinion he didn’t like.

Flip Saunders
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Flip Saunders was such a force that even when he took a turn for the worse, many of his players and Timberwolves employees still believed he might walk through the door any day.

Before a game last February, when Saunders ranted about a cheeky in-house video lampooning Kevin Love’s return to the Target Center, it sounded so contrived that I asked him, “What do you care? Love thought it was hilarious.”

His response: “It doesn’t matter if he thinks it’s funny. You have to decide what you want to do as an organization.”

Then he looked me right in the eye. “Would San Antonio do that? No. They wouldn’t do that.”

Saunders continued from there, and he was right: If you aspire to be a first-class organization, act like one. And a first-class organization would have celebrated one of its former All-Stars, not made him the butt of a gag. 

Later, trying to make light of things, I got Saunders aside and whispered, “You know, San Antonio wouldn’t have screwed up his contract in the first place,” meaning the early opt-out clause that forced Saunders to trade Love to Cleveland.

“You’re right,” he said. 

That was Saunders at his essence – passionate and relentless, yet willing to listen and respect another opinion. 

Hunter’s retirement news came earlier than expected. He told several of us in September he was only “20 percent” sure he would be back. I didn’t believe him. Hunter talked the same way last October when Baltimore swept his Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series before signing with the Twins two months later. I guessed he might look elsewhere, pursuing an elusive world championship, since the Twins couldn’t guarantee the 400 at-bats he wanted. Instead, he chose family over baseball. Give the 40-year-old Hunter credit for knowing when it was time.

Players cited Hunter’s positive vibe as a key to overcoming the 1-6 start that left most Twins fans fearing another 90-loss fiasco. His post-game victory dance parties, augmented with disco lighting and a smoke machine, weren’t an original idea; Manager Joe Maddon conceived the concept in Tampa Bay at least three years earlier. Players loved it regardless. Hunter debuted Club Torii on April 17, the night Trevor Plouffe beat Cleveland with an 11th-inning walk-off homer, and it continued after home victories through the end of the season.

Some fans took issue with Hunter’s political views, particularly his view of same-sex marriage, which he opposes on religious grounds. That’s the one topic he wouldn’t discuss all season, on or off the record. Otherwise, Hunter turned his locker area into an open door for teammates and reporters. In a clubhouse with so many young players of different ethnicities, Hunter was the cool uncle everybody gravitated to. That’s tough to replace. Better for him to go now than risk a Brett Favre, staying a little too long, tarnishing a memorable farewell.

Give the 40-year-old Torii Hunter credit for knowing when it was time.
REUTERS/Gregory Shamus
Give the 40-year-old Torii Hunter credit for knowing when it was time.

Minnesotans accepted and celebrated Saunders, Hunter and Kill because they embraced and celebrated Minnesota. They espoused our best qualities — hard work, grit, passion and determination — without acting like they were better than anyone else. That’s tough to pull off.

Hunter left the first time for money — who could blame him? — then returned to be a mentor to Aaron Hicks and Byron Buxton in the same way Kirby Puckett was for him. He paid it back, and forward. 

Kill introduced accountability to a program known more for entitlement than performance. The task of returning the Gophers to Big Ten prominence proved so monumental that Kill, an epileptic and a cancer survivor, jeopardized his health to see it through. Here’s hoping Tracy Claeys gets the chance to finish Kill’s work.

We’ll miss them all. God works in his own way, and I can imagine Saunders at the pearly gates, arguing with St. Peter for more time. I never accepted the Timberwolves-are-cursed storyline, dismissing it as an excuse for the franchise’s serial incompetence. Now, with cancer claiming Saunders and visionary Lynx chief operating officer Conrad Smith less than three years apart, I’m not so sure.

We will see Hunter and Kill again, Hunter likely as a special assistant to Twins general manager Terry Ryan, Kill perhaps as the master fund-raiser Minnesota lacked since Bob McNamara died last year. Kill walked away two days before the groundbreaking for the Athletics Village he pushed for, but at least he walked away with his life ahead of him. In a week filled with melancholy, that’s a victory to cherish.

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