Years of mediocrity have not jaded Minnesota sports fans. “Gullible” is such an ugly word, so let us call the local fan base “trusting,” or “hopeful.” A cynic might say we are in denial, but we fans don’t much care for psycho-babble.
I grew up in a family that always saw the black cloud behind the black cloud, which only makes me fonder of my fellow happy idiots. True, I am tempted to think of Minnesota as the land of 10,000 losses, but then I look at the calendar. Spring is in the air. Another year without March Madness seems trivial when one contemplates the imminent perfume of tulips and the sizzle of overcooked meat on the backyard grill.
We are so sanguine, in fact, that it would not shock me to learn that my fellow boosters actually approved of Gopher basketball coach Richard Pitino’s latest brilliant spin on a season that is bad but not atypical by Pitino standards.
“People don’t realize the difference between a win and a loss,” said the philosopher-coach. “There’s a fine line. So, you don’t need to just blow up the program and change everything.”
Some day, I hope, Kellyanne Conway is going to endow an Emeritus Professorship of Alternative Facts at Liberty University, and Pitino will have a new, if somewhat tardy, second career.
Another one of those fine-line losses came crashing down on Pitino on Wednesday night, when the Gophers’ last chance for a winning Big Ten season — and slim hopes of an NCAA bid — evaporated vs. Maryland, along with a 16-point halftime lead. The Gophers needed 39 minutes and 58 seconds to accomplish the feat at the barn on Wednesday. Whether this was also a career-killer for Pitino remains to be seen, but at least it might spare us of yet another three-year contract extension. And so, again, we can be hopeful.
And yet, we are so…trusting…that when an authority figure with the gravitas of young Pitino spins like crazy, even now we pause and think, “Perhaps he is correct. We have always assumed that a win is a win and a loss is a loss, but perhaps a loss is not really a loss. Perhaps it’s a sort of ineffable thing, really just a concept that dangles by that fine line that sometimes unfairly suggests that our beloved rodents are, well, losers.”
This is a man who not only has the right but the duty to consider himself a lucky fellow. How many power conference basketball coaches can say that they got their job solely because of their last name? It’s true. Around here, we like tribalism, cronyism and nepotism, but we draw the line at meritocracy. (We will probably have to address another son of a famous coach, Ryan Saunders, in another jeremiad.)
In his first season as coach here (2013-14), Pitino’s lads shocked the world by going all the way…in the NIT. The next year, the Gophers regressed to their mean with a 6-12 Big Ten record. At which point rumors started to fly. Pitino, we were told, was thinking about taking the coaching job at Alabama. A lateral move at best, but Pitino got a $400,000 per year raise from our cash-strapped university.
And treasured columnist Sid Hartman assured us that the best was yet to come.
Pitino, Sid told us, had recruited “a great collection of athletic wings and guards who should be able to help immediately with Pitino’s pressure style of defense and fast-break offense.”
The Gophers then went on to compile a Big Ten record of 2-16 the following year, and Pitino keeps getting pay hikes even though the Gophers have had just one winning Big Ten season and this, Pitino’s seventh year here, looks like another loser.
So if Pitino is spinning with a sense of urgency not often shown by his players, we should not be surprised. Back in November, you might recall, he claimed that his charges were on the cusp of a brutal trio of games unprecedented in collegiate history. “There’s nobody in the country, in my opinion, who has a harder three games in a row.”
Sure enough, our boys then took on Oklahoma, Butler and Utah, and lost to all three. There are those, sadly, who would say that the Gophers lost not because of the difficulty of the schedule but because Pitino is, in fact, a lousy coach. Pitino, however, would say that the losses just proved his prescience. Fun fact: As of this writing, all three foes are under .500 in their conferences. Just like the Gophers.
About that Alabama rumor: It might not shock you to learn that this scuttlebutt seemed to track back to the most influential sport columnist in Twin Cities history and, I’m proud to say, a man whose bilious disdain I treasure to this day. Yeah, Sid Hartman himself. Sort of.
Hartman is now 99 years old and, if, we are to believe our most trusted source of news, is still a working journalist. I say this because Sid’s not-so-recent picture and name sits atop the same delightful and picaresque column that he launched 75 years ago.
For those who actually believe that a man who turns 100 next month is still writing a newspaper column — or anything else — I am compelled to ask this question: Do you realize what 100 years old looks like? I don’t happen to know anyone that old, but it’s not an absurd question. According to the most recent data, there are more than 340,000 centenarians on our planet. There could be a lot more now, depending on things like the coronavirus and the soaring cost of deductibles. But, with any luck, there will be one more 100-year-old in March, which is when Hartman hits the century mark.
That said, “Sid Hartman” is now a brand, not an actual columnist. I could tell you who Sid’s ghostwriter is, but whistleblowers are not held in high esteem these days.
When I worked with Sid at the Minneapolis Tribune many decades ago we always said that there would never be another Sid Hartman. And yet there is! Just another reason for the local fan population to feel good about our quality of life.