Gophers baseball coach John Anderson will lead his team into the NCAA tournament on Friday at Siebert Field against Canisius, just the second time the Gophers have hosted an NCAA regional in his storied career.
Anderson has long been considered one of the best college baseball coaches in the country, but it may be time to recognize him as the best coach the Gophers have ever employed.
What’s amazing is that until 2012, Anderson worked every year with a one-year contract.
He also had one of the smallest budgets in the Big Ten, and despite being the winningest coach in Big Ten history, he still made $100,000 less than Michigan coach Erik Bakich this season.
And while the reopening of Siebert Field in 2013 was the culmination of decades of work, it was Anderson who led the fundraising effort for the stadium, which received no contribution from the university.
The project cost $7.2 million and was paid for primarily by private donations. Anderson led the fundraising effort with the help of current Twins manager and former Gopher Paul Molitor, who was the chair of the fundraising committee.
It wasn’t until 2012 when then-athletic director Joel Maturi gave Anderson a five-year extension that he had long-term security.
He got an extension on that deal in March 2016 when interim athletic director Beth Goetz signed him through the 2021 season.
Yes, Anderson’s success comes from both his record and his longevity.
He is in his 37th season, and the only other Gophers coach who can claim a longer tenure is Ralph Piper in gymnastics. Piper coached for 39 years at the U, but they were not consecutive seasons like Anderson’s.
Anderson also has won, constantly.
He has just two losing seasons, and this weekend will be his 19th NCAA tournament. He has a 1,285-858-3 record (a .599 winning percentage), and the win total ranks 18th all-time in NCAA Division I and is the most ever for a Big Ten coach.
Last weekend Anderson won his 10th Big Ten tournament title after capturing his 11th Big Ten regular-season crown. He first won the Big Ten regular season in 1983, and to do the same thing 35 years later is an incredible testament to Anderson’s ability.
Bernie Bierman, the great Gophers football coach, won seven conference titles during his run in the 1930s and 1940s, with four outright and three ties. And while you wouldn’t always compare football to baseball at the college level, the fact is they both have to recruit and win.
J Robinson was as respected as any wrestling coach in the country, and he won six Big Ten team titles in his 30 seasons.
Don Lucia won eight conference hockey titles between the WCHA and Big Ten in his 19 seasons.
Brad Frost has won five conference crowns in his first 11 seasons as the women’s hockey coach and is the closest challenge Anderson has in terms of conference crowns.
Bierman, Robinson, Lucia and Frost have the benefit of having won at least one national title in their tenure, something that has eluded Anderson.
In basketball there really isn’t any coach who compares as the program has won just nine conference titles total since 1895 and only three since 1970, including their vacated 1996-1997 crown.
When athletic director Mark Coyle, who already has made some bold hires in P.J. Fleck, Bob Motzko and Lindsay Whalen, considers the kind of coaches he wants to bring to the U, someone like Anderson has to come to mind.
He has worked with 11 athletic directors, and in that time there have been nine football coaches, five basketball coaches and six university presidents.
Improved all year
Anderson said that coming into this season he knew that the team had veteran, talented position players, but that the pitching staff was going to be younger and need time to develop.
“I knew we could play defense. We’d be strong up the middle with [shortstop] Terrin Vavra being healthy,” Anderson said. “We lost six pitchers from last year, including our closer who had a fabulous year in Brian Glowicki, so we kind of had to rebuild our pitching staff, and pitching coach Ty McDevitt has done an outstanding job, and we’ve gotten some help from our freshman class, which has been huge.
“I think the fact that we’ve been able to play defense and score some runs helped the young pitching early in the year gain some confidence and they’ve really improved.”
Anderson said that Vavra is playing his first season in a long time without any pain. Previously, Vavra had a stress fracture in his lower back in high school that never healed properly.
Vavra leads the team in average (.385), home runs (10) and RBI (55).
“We always knew he had ability and special talent,” Anderson said. “But the fact that he is healthy and the contribution he is making now on our ballclub has been phenomenal.”
Anderson also had high praise for Minnetonka graduate Luke Pettersen, the senior second baseman and leadoff hitter.
Pettersen has scored a team-high 54 runs and is third in on-base percentage at .415.
“He’s had a wonderful career here, and I’m not sure anybody could have predicted it out of high school based on his tools,” Anderson said. “But just again the motivation, the confidence, the belief in his ability and his willingness to just put in hours and hours and hours of work every day to improve his game.”
When it comes to that young pitching staff, Anderson said the Gophers have had young staffs before but this is the most talented freshman pitching class he’s seen.
“Patrick Fredrickson is a freshman, Sam Thoresen from Minnetonka. Our closer is Max Meyer from Woodbury. We’ve had help from Ryan Duffy and Adam “Bubba” Horton, two lefthanders in the bullpen as well. Josh Culliver, another freshman who’s a righthander. We’ve been fortunate,” he said. “Those guys have really stepped up in a way that I wasn’t sure we were going to get in the first year in the program.”
Yes this has been a remarkable season for Anderson and the Gophers and they still have a chance to win the one thing missing from Anderson’s résumé: a national championship.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • firstname.lastname@example.org