EAST GULL LAKE — Dutch Cragun is a passionate man, who knows how to throw a party.
That combination makes the annual University of Minnesota athletic department fundraiser at Cragun’s Legacy Courses a fun, intimate and unique event.
Thursday night’s dinner party of about 175 U of M alum, fans and athletic department staff was no different. The night was highlighted not only by the food and keynote speaker, Gopher’s head football coach Jerry Kill, but also by a first, brief glimpse — for some — at new men’s head basketball coach Richard Pitino, all be it through a personal video message.
Dan McHale, Pitino’s assistant coach, spoke on the head coaches’ behalf and talked about sustainability.
Kill stressed the process of building a program from the foundation.
They both talked about the importance of strength and conditioning and developing athletes. And both echoed bringing in student athletes that fit their style.
What both programs need, and part of the event’s purpose, is the procurement of funds to create state-of-the-art practice facilities for all Gopher athletics.
“We’re in the 11th hour of finishing a plan,” said Gopher Athletic Director Norwood Teague. “I wish it would have gone a little bit quicker, but we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on a university campus and we’re part of a university enterprise so we have to make sure we’re being good team players with everyone. We’re on the verge of announcing what we want to do and we’re starting to put together things that will be interesting to present to the public.”
Teague said day-to-day operations for all programs is difficult. Sites like TCF Stadium, Mariucci Arena and Siebert Field are great venues, he said, but the problem is practice space.
“We have got to get more square footage,” said Teague, who was hired a few days before last year’s fundraiser at Cragun’s. He said his first year was a blur, without a whole lot of surprises. But he reiterated the importance of updating facilities not only to help improve Minnesota’s teams, but also make things easier for student-athletes.
“This is affecting class times,” Teague said. “Athletes have to get up at 5 a.m. just so they can get practice time at our indoor facility.
“We’re going to get there but it’s really hot on my mind right now.”
Kill said the improvement of practice facilities would be a benefit not only to his program, but to all Gopher programs.
“It’s essential,” said Kill. “It’s just the way it is in athletics. Right now we have a new stadium but we’re not over there a lot because it’s mostly for the games. But I think as an athletic department, from academics to all facilities, we’ve just outgrown our area. It’s an arms race in athletics and so for us to be competitive in the Big 10 we have to catch up.”
Maybe one surprise for Teague’s first year was the hire of the 30-year-old Pitino, which surprised many.
“I knew in my gut that he was the right hire,” said Teague. “I really did. Luckily for us he has validated that more and more; just the way he handles himself, the way he handles the program, the staff that he hired and the accountably that he’s raised with our kids. They’re working harder than ever before. It’s going to pay off, but I don’t know how quick it’s going to pay off because we have some holes to fill, but they’re doing the right things and they’re recruiting very well.”
Both Teague and Kill talked about the expansion of the Big 10 with the inclusion of Rutgers and Maryland.
“I think we’re the premier league in the country and I think it’s over — the expansion,” said Teague. “The institutions in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) have signed their rights to the league. That really is going to prevent, in many ways, the ACC teams from being plucked and any teams wanting to leave. You never say that it’s totally ended, but I think for awhile now it’s settled down. I think we ended up in a good place. I’m from the East Coast so I understand the benefits of Maryland, because they’re a major player in the fifth-largest TV market in the country with Washington, D.C. It’s a very wealthy market. Then you have Rutgers, in New York City. We’re in a good place.”
Kill wasn’t sure if adding Maryland and Rutgers would help with recruiting, but he said it has and will continue to give the college a lot of money.
“All these changes in the conferences are because of football and money,” said Kill. “I think we get 25 million with them stepping in.
“It does open some things up (for recruiting), but you need to concentrate on the relationships you build and the people you know because we can’t take a bunch of risks when you’re turning a program around. We need to make good decisions.”