Struggling sports look to rebound

Both football and men’s basketball suffered losing seasons last year.

Jack White

Head coaches of Minnesota’s “Big Three” sports Richard Pitino, Tracy Claeys and Don Lucia  all spoke at the Gophers Road Trip event in Rochester, Minn., on June 8, and each talked about necessary improvements that need to be made. 

Football finished 5-7 in the regular season, and the men’s basketball team’s eight victories out of 31 games were the fewest total since the 1967-68 season. Men’s hockey did not make the NCAA Tournament after a loss in the second round of the conference bracket. All three coaches have pressure to succeed as soon as next season.

Pitino searches for consistency

Despite leading the Gophers to a National Invitation Tournament championship in his first year at the helm, head basketball coach Richard Pitino has hit a down period with his team.

Pitino is 51-51 in his time at Minnesota and has yet to earn an NCAA tournament berth. The Gophers have suffered two consecutive losing seasons and didn’t secure a spot in the NIT in 2015 or 2016.

“I was always concerned about taking a step back in year three,” said Pitino. “We took a bigger step than we needed to, but I think in year four, we will have our most talented team, our most experienced team.”

The Gophers will look to bounce back through the experience of older transfer students. Senior guard Akeem Springs transferred from UW-Milwaukee, and senior forward Davonte Fitzgerald will be eligible to play this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules.

“It was difficult to run offense last year because we were not a good shooting team,” Pitino said. “I think with Davonte Fitzgerald will really help; he’s a very good shooter. You look at Akeem Springs — he’s a very good shooter. So this is much more of a complete team.”

Claeys counts on Leidner, recruits

Minnesota’s football team is coming off of a losing season and barely ended it with a bowl game. The main factor getting the Gophers their Quick Lane Bowl appearance was their academic progress report rather than their 5-7 overall record. 

Redshirt senior Mitch Leidner has played in at least 10 games since his freshman year, and he is in his final year of collegiate eligibility. The team will look for Leidner to step up after throwing 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2015. 

Minnesota also has a top-50 recruiting class via scout.com and rivals.com, which remained intact despite changes in Minnesota staff after former head coach Jerry Kill’s departure due to health concerns. 

“You can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a mule; it just isn’t going to work,” head coach Tracy Claeys said. “Recruiting is a big part of it, so we got done with the season, [and in] recruiting this year, we felt like there were 10 kids in the state of Minnesota that were Big Ten-type quality kids, and we were able to keep eight of them at home.”

Lucia meets pressure as end of contract looms

Minnesota’s hockey team has been solid in conference recently, winning the title in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the Big Ten for the past five years in a row. 

The Gophers haven’t been as impressive in the postseason. The team advanced to the National Championship in 2014, but has declined since. Minnesota fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2015 to in-state rivals Minnesota-Duluth and failed to earn a spot in the postseason tournament this year after losing in the Big Ten Tournament championship. 

“We were so close,” Lucia said. “Last year was disappointing and rewarding all at the same time. When the year began, basically half our team was new; we had a large senior class, three upperclassmen turned pro. … When the year began, we had our struggles, but the rewarding part of it as a coach was watching how much our team improved throughout the year.”

The team went just over .50 last season, posting a 20-17 mark, and has a losing record of 5-13 against in-state opponents over the last two years.

Lucia’s contract ends after the 2016-17 season, and his performance at the head of a program which last earned a national title in 2003 has seen increased scrutiny from fans of late. 

Eyes are on Lucia as well as the other “Big Three” coaches to succeed, especially in new athletics director Mark Coyle’s first year.

“[I’m] meeting with head coaches from each sport,” Coyle said. “I want to hear from them, and then we can start to make some decisions.”