Retirement won’t slow former Gophers coach

by Jim Schortemeyer

His name sits immortalized on the chain-link fence, just above former Gophers greats Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor, at Siebert Field.
The name belongs to Minnesota coaching legend Herb “Ike” Isakson. But unlike the other names on that fence, Ike is still around. He’s at the field before the game, getting players ready, and after the game, sweeping sunflower seeds out of the dugout.
His jersey was retired, but his story with the Gophers is far from done.
“They just took my uniform away,” Isakson says with a smile.
Isakson, 71, still walks the sidelines in a new uniform — usually a Minnesota shirt and a simple pair of brown shoes.
But you won’t find the coach’s name mentioned in the media guide. Isakson stepped aside last season to make room for younger coaches. Although he doesn’t get any official credit, players say he’s almost as much a presence as he ever was.
“The only thing he hasn’t done is coach first base like he used to,” junior Ben Birk said. “He’s still here before the game, taking the tarp off the field. He’s always here.”
Isakson joined the team back in 1964 when his friend Dick Siebert asked him to do a little coaching.
“At that time Dick really only had one guy helping,” Isakson said. “He asked me to come out and coach as a volunteer, and it just went from there.”
Isakson has no wife or kids; just the game and the program of which he’s become an integral component. If he isn’t the heart of the team, at least he’s the main artery.
He does all the little jobs for the team such as straightening up bats and picking up balls off the field. Coaches appreciate the extra things Isakson always seems to be doing.
“He’s not afraid to work, that’s for sure,” assistant coach Rob Fornasiere said. “We get along so well because we both know what work is.”
Fornasiere sometimes visits Isakson during the week at Isakson’s Bayport, Minn., home and says the two have grown close over the years.
“We’ve spent a lot of time together in my 14 years with the team,” Fornasiere said. “He’s one of my closest friends in baseball. Gopher baseball is his life.”
Isakson retired from his job with the city of Minneapolis in 1976 and officially retired from Gophers after the 1997 season, but he still puts in long hours. Over the winter he built a helmet shelf and a bat rack for Siebert Field, his home away from home.
But it’s not all work for Isakson. He also invented a game for the team, in which the goal is to toss a baseball between someone’s feet when he’s standing on the field.
“I’ve never been scored on,” Isakson says with his brown shoes locked tightly on the grass of Siebert Field. “They’ve never scored legally. They’ve tried tying my hands behind my back or distracting me. That doesn’t count.”
As he was talking, sophomore Rick Brosseau approached from behind with a gigantic handful of baseballs. Brosseau sneaked up as close as possible before bouncing a ball off Isakson’s calf. Isakson just stood without flinching, knowing a move could mean a score. Brosseau pelted his legs before giving up and heading for the dugout.
“It’s good fun,” he says. “It keeps them loose.”
Little games are just one way Isakson connects with the stream of new players coming into the Minnesota program. Players call Isakson “Fiver,” after his old jersey number which hangs in right field, and everybody loves having an encyclopedia of amateur baseball hanging around.
“Fiver is great,” Birk said. “He’s so into high school baseball that when you show up in the fall he already knows your name, and you’re like, ‘Who’s that?’ And he’s always giving us football updates from our hometowns in the fall. But he loves that Stillwater football, where he’s from.”
While Isakson might pull for Stillwater in football, there’s no doubt where his true loyalties lie.
“I think Fiver bleeds maroon and gold,” Birk said.