Gophers’ road trip shows statewide support

The athletics department’s 16-stop trip ends Thursday.

New Minnesota men's basketball head coach Richard Pitino talks to Gopher fans about getting to know his team during a stop along the Gopher Road Trip: Chalk Talk press tour on June 17, 2013, in Willmar, Minnesota.

Emily Dunker

New Minnesota men’s basketball head coach Richard Pitino talks to Gopher fans about getting to know his team during a stop along the Gopher Road Trip: Chalk Talk press tour on June 17, 2013, in Willmar, Minnesota.

Jace Frederick

WILLMAR, Minn. — The Gophers’ 1,800-mile, 16-city road trip is showing fans around Minnesota that they matter.

“Gopher Road Trip Chalk Talk 2013,” which began May 16 and ends June 20, features speeches from athletics director Norwood Teague and various University head coaches. The cities range from Jackson to Hibbing.

“[The people of Minnesota] support us in so many ways, and we’re certainly not entitled to their support,” Teague said. “We want to show that we have a great vision moving forward and that we appreciate what they do.”

The tour allows people to get to know an athletics department in transition.

Teague became athletics director a year ago and has made several significant decisions since then, including the hiring of Richard Pitino as coach of the men’s basketball team in April. Pitino replaced Tubby Smith, whom Teague fired in March.

“They’re all keen to find out where [the department] is headed and what we’re all about,” said second-year volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon.

Attendance for the free outings has been stronger than expected, Teague said. There  were hundreds that showed up at the stop in Willmar on June 17.

Pitino said it’s great to get out and see the different towns and people Minnesota has to offer.

While he’s been on similar tours as an assistant with Louisville and Florida, he said this trip is different because nearly all Minnesotans cheer for the Gophers.

 “This University’s owned by the entire state of Minnesota and not just the metro,” Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl said. “It’s strongly supported by this area.”

Teague said the road trip serves as a “marketing-type event” for some of the less-publicized sports. Each coach gives a report of the program he or she represents at every stop.

The bus tour allows the coaches to spend time together, McCutcheon said.

“We’re all kind of insulated in our own little bubble of whatever sport we’re playing,” he said. “Here we get to come out and represent the University as a whole.”

Although every coach speaks, the high-profile coaches receive most of the questioning. 

Fans in Willmar asked Pitino about recruiting, forward Mo Walker, the possible addition of a practice facility and transfer Malik Smith. The coach cracked jokes and told stories, causing the audience to break out in laughter. Pitino said his main message is to show supporters his appreciation.

“A lot of what we do is because of them,” he said.

Pitino’s message came across loud and clear to some fans.

“It just makes us feel important,” said Bev Marcus of Willmar, who’s been a Gophers fan for more than 40 years, “like we really count.”

The trip comes to its final stop in Walker on June 20. Teague said he hopes to make it an annual event, though the stops could vary from year to year. He said overall the trip’s been a success.

“It’s just a great chance to see our donors, our fans, our alumni, and it’s great to build relationships,” he said. “It’s great for them to see and hear from our coaches, and it just builds great support.”