Insider Randy Johnson
The voice on the other end of the line was the familiar deep baritone, maybe a little more weathered and sporting a trace of a Carolina drawl.
"How are things up in Minnesota?" John Gutekunst asked.
Gutekunst, who coached the Gophers football team three decades ago, was calling from Greenville, N.C. He had just finished his second official day on the job as a defensive analyst for the East Carolina football team. When coach Scottie Montgomery called, needing someone to fill a vacancy for the rest of the season, Gutekunst obliged.
At age 73, "Gutey" once again was bitten by the coaching bug.
"What they needed was an experienced set of eyes in the press box during game day to help with the adjustments," said Gutekunst, who lives near Chapel Hill, N.C., and has been retired, on and off, since 2009.
Any assistance Gutekunst can provide would be good for the Pirates (1-5), who rank last among the 130 FBS teams in total defense (599.5 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (47.8). And it gets tougher for ECU on Saturday, with a trip to No. 22 Central Florida, the nation's top-scoring team (47.5).
"They've played some good teams," he said of the Pirates, pointing to then-No. 16 Virginia Tech, No. 18 South Florida, West Virginia and defending FCS champion James Madison. "It's almost like what I call, 'Ready, fire, aim.' They're playing aggressive, but some of the younger kids were getting out of place."
But how do those 18- to 22-year-old players relate to a coach who's more than 50 years their senior?
"Oh, they think I'm crazy," Gutekunst deadpanned. "Especially coaching defense, you've gotta have fun. … The thing I try to sell the kids on — being an old baseball guy — is the ump says, 'Play ball!' He doesn't say, 'Work ball!' "
That Gutekunst is back coaching is an interesting tale.
In 1985, he moved from Gophers defensive coordinator to head coach after Lou Holtz left for Notre Dame, and Gutekunst's first game was a victory over Clemson in the Independence Bowl. The Gophers went 6-6 the next year, finished third in the Big Ten and lost to Tennessee in the Liberty Bowl. He had three 6-5 seasons — 1987, '89 and '90 — but the Gophers weren't invited to a bowl in the days of 18 or 19 games (as opposed to 41 now).
When told of the Athletes Village that's being built at Minnesota, Gutekunst looked back to the early days of the Gibson-Nagurski complex, once dubbed the "Taj Ma Holtz," but a facility that's now dated. "I was trying to get lights on the practice field so we could stay out when it started getting dark at 4," he said. "No, no, we didn't get them."
After a 2-9 season in 1991, Gutekunst was fired. He held assistant jobs at Rutgers, Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina and East Carolina before retiring in 2009. He returned for a two-year stint at Columbia, took a couple of years off, then worked as linebackers coach at North Carolina A&T in 2013.
"I did that for a year, then I had three years where I sort of got it out of my system — I thought," Gutekunst said. "What you miss is the players, the competition, the camaraderie."
Gutekunst still follows the Gophers, watching games when he can. "I hope he gets them going," he said of coach P.J. Fleck. "He's certainly created a lot of enthusiasm."
He doesn't get back to Minnesota often but visits Green Bay, where his son, Brian, is director of player personnel for the Packers.
"I've always said, 'The game that's most important to me is the next one.' " Gutekunst said. "Until a week ago, it was my grandson's soccer game or flag football game or swimming meet. But now it's actually a game with real players and a lighted scoreboard. I'm very, very, very lucky."
Gutekunst will help East Carolina for the rest of the season. "Just that," he said. "It's a young man's game now."
Maybe, but for a least for half a season, there's room for a 73-year-old who's young at heart.
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune.