Sid Hartman
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There’s no question that the decision made by the Big Ten, the NCAA and the University of Minnesota to call off spring sports was a difficult but correct one.

It’s unfortunate, though, because this was shaping up to be one of the greatest years in the history of the university when it came to athletics and academics.

That main mark for academic success comes from the NCAA Graduation Success Rate, and it was reported in October that the Gophers had posted the highest number in school history with a 94% graduation rate.

That number takes into account all student-athletes who have come to the school over the past six years, going back to the freshman class of 2012.

What is perhaps most impressive is that the Gophers’ total ranked second in the Big Ten, trailing only Northwestern, one of the best academic universities in the nation.

Michigan was close to the Gophers with a 93% GSR. Michigan State and Penn State were at 91%. Iowa and Wisconsin were at 90%. Rutgers was at 89%. Ohio State and Purdue were at 86%.

“People, they don’t understand, we’re the highest-rated public school in the country with respect to student-athlete academic success,” University of Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle said. “The past two years our program has finished in the top 20 in the Director’s Cup, which measures your [athletic] success across all of your programs. We’re finishing in the top 6 percent. We’re having great, great success academically. We’re having great success athletically.”

That combination of academic and athletic success is the key reason why Coyle had his contract extended through 2023 by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents earlier this year. And you have to believe the academic success also played a key role in the decision to bring back Richard Pitino as the head men’s basketball coach.

GPA marks outstanding

On top of those graduation rates, the Gophers announced in January that their student-athletes continue to post historic grade-point averages across all sports.

The cumulative GPA for the athletic department was 3.33 for the most recent fall semester, the highest mark in school history.

Every sport posted a GPA over 3.10, and for the fourth straight semester the overall GPA for the athletic department increased.

Coach P.J. Fleck reported that along with the overall school numbers, the football program posted a school-record 3.21 GPA for the fall semester and has a cumulative team GPA of 3.17, also the highest in program history.

On top of that, 53 Gophers were named Academic All-Big Ten this year, including two academic All-America picks in defensive lineman Sam Renner and offensive lineman Blaise Andries.

The fact that the Gophers football players were posting those kinds of grades while also winning 11 games for the first time in over 100 years just goes to show you the kind of players Fleck and his staff are recruiting to the program. You don’t see many Gophers players getting into trouble, and if they do have problems they aren’t on the squad too long.

Gophers NFL talent

Last season, the Gophers had 10 players in the NFL: cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun (Colts) and Marcus Sherels (Vikings), linebackers De’Vondre Campbell (Falcons), Blake Cashman (Jets) and Damien Wilson (Chiefs), offensive tackles Donnell Greene (Jaguars), Nate Wozniak (Falcons), defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman (Falcons), safety Eric Murray (Browns) and tight end Maxx Williams (Cardinals).

The program is starting to turn a corner when it comes to producing pro-level talent, and it will show in the draft this year.

The Gophers had four players taking part in the NFL combine, the marquee event for draft prospects: linebackers Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin, defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. and wide receiver Tyler Johnson.

All four have a real shot to be drafted in April and play in the NFL. Not to mention that seniors such as running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who were not invited to the combine, could see NFL action.

That the Gophers have as many invites to the combine as Wisconsin speaks a great deal about how Fleck is succeeding at building a program that can produce talent at the next level.

“Eventually I think every player wants to be able to be put in a position where they could play on Sunday,” Fleck said about talking to recruits. “I don’t know how many people just want to play college football. ... They want to be able to maximize their talents, not only at this level but hopefully at the next level, as well.”

The fact is that when it comes to recruiting, it is a big selling point for Fleck and his staff when their players reach the NFL, even if it means they sometimes lose a player like Winfield before his eligibility is up.

Jottings

• Everyone in the Vikings organization is happy to see Teddy Bridgewater get a three-year, $63 million deal from the Panthers. The coaching staff and front office viewed Bridgewater as a franchise quarterback before he got injured in 2016.

• Gophers point guard Marcus Carr finished the season tied for ninth in the country in assists per game with 6.7. In the Big Ten, only Michigan guard Zavier Simpson averaged more. ... Daniel Oturu finished eighth in the country and led the Big Ten in rebounds per game with 11.3.

• The decision to sign Dan Bailey to a three-year extension made a lot of sense after the 31-year-old kicker improved from making 21 of 28 field-goal attempts in 2018 to making 27 of 29 last season. His 93.1% accuracy was the fifth best in Vikings history.

• ESPN on why newly signed nose tackle Michael Pierce fits so well as a replacement for Linval Joseph in Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme: “Pierce, who turned 27 in November, has gone from being an undrafted rookie from Samford in 2016 to one of the top young run-stuffers in the league with the Ravens. His 151 tackles in that span are the third most among defensive tackles in the AFC North.”

• The Vikings are going to have a lot of snaps available in the defensive backfield. Xavier Rhodes played 72.8% of defensive snaps, Trae Waynes played 70.5% and Mackenzie Alexander played 48.8%, and all have left via free agency or release.

• Earlier this month, Twins owner Bill Pohlad and his River Road Entertainment company announced they are going to help finance Spike Lee’s newest film, which will be a version of David Byrne’s ”American Utopia,” a successful Broadway play.

• Steve Goodson, who served as the special assistant to Tubby Smith for six seasons when Smith was coach with the Gophers, has been named the basketball coach at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com