My Q&A with Minnesota's John Anderson - The third most-famous person from Hibbing, Minnesota

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John Anderson is pure Minnesota.

From his roots in the Northern town of Hibbing to his close relationship with the former Hall of Fame Gopher coach Dick "Chief" Siebert. He played under the famous coach, learned everything he knew from him and then, even to his surprise, took over the University of Minnesota program that Siebert built at the still-wet-behind-the-ears age of 26.

Since that first season in 1982, Anderson's charges have only once won less than 30 games (27 in his second season). Challenging for the Big 10 title has almost become an afterthought, as Anderson has coached the Golden Gophers to six straight Big 10 title game appearances. He also ranks as the 17th in active coaching victories in all of Division I with 941 Ws.

His road to the coaching reigns wasn't what he planned. He started the 1977 season as a pitcher on a team that featured National Player of the Year Paul Molitor. But an early arm injury ended his season pre-maturely and eventually, ended his playing days as well.

That '77 team would go on to a No. 1 national ranking and play in the College World Series. But it turned out to be a seminal year for the future long-time skipper, as he became the team's student manager, soaking up all the coaching instruction he could from Coach Siebert.

I caught up with Coach Anderson in the Minnesota dugout a couple of hours before their Saturday double-header with Ohio State this past weekend.

Me:
I've followed your program for a long time now, even back to when I was a little kid, seeing you guys come to Omaha a couple of times and then in the last five or six years you guys have come out West to play in Southern California and had some success on those trips. But I have to say, my first question is, were you REALLY voted the team MVP over Paul Molitor in 1977?

Coach Anderson:
Yep. That is accurate.That team had a lot of great players, I think 12 of them ended up being drafted. And by the end of the year, it became a case where nobody cared who got the credit for the success as long as we were winning and we were focused on getting to Omaha. And I started the year as a pitcher but had an injury that kept me from pitching. So I became the student manager, Coach Siebert's right hand man, setting up practice, hitting fungoes, took the abuse from "Chief" when it was needed and I think the guys on the team appreciated what I did for us.

Me:
(laughs) That's great, but MVP?

Coach Anderson:
In fact, interesting story, we were coming back from Iowa after winning the Big 10 on the last weekend of the season and I'm in the back of the bus playing cards and Chief calls me up to the front of the bus. He tells me that we have to have a vote for the team MVP. So he has me hand out slips of paper to everybody on the bus. I go back and collect them and hand them to Chief. A few minutes later he stands up in front of everybody and says, "Dammit, you guys get serious here! You just voted our student manager as MVP. Quit screwing around and vote again." So I passed the pieces of paper out again, they all voted and I got one more vote that time than I did before. (Laughs)

Me:
(Laughing) Awesome.

Coach Anderson:
Yeah. So Chief said, "Alright, if that's what you guys want. That's what we'll do." And honestly it was a humbling experience.

Me:
Okay, let me ask you this: pessimist, optimist or realist, which one are you?

Coach Anderson:
I'm a realist. Ideally, it's a place you want to be. I always stay grounded in reality.

Me:
Well the reason I ask is because you guys are 34-10 now, which is about as good of a track record as you guys have had, since it matches last year's win total already.

Coach Anderson:
Well I think it's a reflection of the attitude of the team itself. They've taken great interest in being a team. They've had the same consistent work ethic all year long. And the leaders of the team have handled things on and off the field really well. And I think the other thing is we've gotten contributions from a lot of different people. If you look at our team, our starting pitching and our defense has kept us close in every game. We've got a lot of wins on the back end of games and I think that's a reflection of our depth.

Me:
Comment quickly on your feelings on the state of college baseball, with the common start date and some of the things they're going to be doing with scholarships and how they're divided up. What's your take on the game right now and how does it affect your program?

Coach Anderson:
Well I think for a while there college baseball was out of control. People were beginning to run their teams however they wanted and were allowed to do their own thing. I think with things like the APR, people just started to take a look around and say, "What's going on here?" So I think it was time to make rules and they are rules that give hope to more programs. I mean, we have to look out for the betterment of college baseball. I'm sure the people that have had those advantages, don't want to give up those advantages. And I don't blame them. I do think it's going to give more programs a realistic chance to make it to Omaha. It is going to stabalize things. People aren't going to be able to over-recruit as much. They're not going to be able to bring guys in mid-year and fill the holes in their roster. And I think the programs in the Big 10 have been leaders in the APR since they came out with it. I mean, it's not going to affect our programs that much because that's how we've been operating all along. It's going to make players make better decisions, because all those programs aren't going to be able to run people off anymore.

Me:
Have you been encouraged by the facility upgrades and the money that the Big 10 teams have been putting into their programs lately?

Coach Anderson:
Well, I've been here a long time... some say a little too long actually. But we've seen a lot of coaching changes in our league and they've made these changes because they want to upgrade their program. I've noticed in the last two or three years, the programs from top-to-bottom have gotten better. And they're going to keep getting better. There's more good, young, energetic coaches out here now. You look at Penn State and that new facility they're playing in, they've got a new coach too. Michigan State has a new coach and plans for a new stadium, along with playing in Oldsmobile park downtown. Michigan is about to do a mass upgrade to thier place. Indiana hired a new coach and are building a new stadium. Our whole league has improved on the field and will continue to improve in the future.

Me:
I was walking around campus this morning and noticing all the new stuff you guys have got here. The Mariucci Arena is awesome. That new tennis center is great. You guys have that new football stadium being built. What's the latest on the baseball stadium and any new news about something in the future here?

Coach Anderson:
Unfortunately it's been more of the status quo. The Metrodome has really helped us a lot and we use it as much as we can. We've been able to play a lot of home games in February and March because of it. But the Metrodome is probably going to go away by 2011 or so.

Me:
Yeah, that's what I'd heard.

Coach Anderson:
Yeah, so it's not in the long-term plans. And because of that we're really at a crossroads here... (slight pause)... If you want to maintain the history and tradition of your program, you've got to show committment. Your facilities are a statement to the committment of your program. Kids want to know where you play, where you practice. I'm just disappointed that here's a program that has the history and tradition of 130 years on this campus and the university doesn't want to embrace that and inspire others to keep that history and tradition going. That's my despondent response. If you look at our history, it's been the most consistent and successful program in the history of this school.

Me:
I did want to ask you a little bit more about Coach Siebert. What was it like to play for him and how did he influence you to become a coach?

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Coach Anderson:
Well I think I'm in coaching because of him - and George Thomas, who was an assistant here. I was in Chief's baseball coaching class that he taught here and, I'll be perfectly honest with you, he tried to fail all the baseball players that took it.

Me:
(laughing) Oh... that's hilarious.

Coach Anderson:
... because he looked at it as an opportunity to teach us about the game. And I had scored the highest grade ever in his class, so he told me, "You know what? Maybe you'd be a good coach someday." And eventually he started having failing health and arthritis. But I was going to leave after my injury and try to start over at a small school somewhere, but he convinced me to stay and help him and be a coach. So I'm here today because he saw something in me and that I could be a decent coach. So I stood next to him and Coach Thomas and learned from two great people. He was a real fundamentalist.

Me:
Was he one of those gruff-and-grumble type of guys?

Coach Anderson:
Oh yeah, he had a grumbly and gravelly voice - guys still imitate his voice. And the best part was he didn't mince his words at all, let's put it that way. We had a tribute to the '77 team last week and I was telling some of the kids that it was different back then. There was no sugar-coating things with Coach Siebert. He would tell you like it is. The old story always was, if you didn't hear from him you were doing good. Because, if you weren't playing well, he wasn't afraid to let you know about it. So I told my team it's a lot different today.

Me:
So you're saying that you are easier on them than he was...

Coach Anderson:
I'm MUCH easier, much more compassionate. Chief was straight-forward and to the point. But he also taught me how important the fundamentals were. If you could perform the fundamentals of the game successfully, you'd have a good baseball team. He put heavy emphasis on the fundamentals and practiced them. And that stayed with me.

Me:
I would've liked to have been a member of the media in those days.

Coach Anderson:
Oh yeah, he was great. He would tell you what was on his mind. There was no holding anything back. I can remember many instances where he'd go up and down the line crabbing and bitching and the guys would sit down there at the other end and laugh and try not to let him see them doing that. You just tried to stay out of his way.

Me:
About scheduling. You guys have always taken trips out West to Southern California and I know you guys have gone to Arkansas and Florida State, among other places, the last few years. What is your philosophy about that? Is that something you do to help the RPI?

Coach Anderson:
First of all, I try to schedule people that you want to play against and enjoy playing against. I've always believed in scheduling competition so that you're going to be challenged. Because if you don't get challenged I don't think you get a true handle on what kind of team you have. The skill level and the ability to evaluate the talent on your team. I think it also exposes your weaknesses and lets you know what areas you need to work on to get better. So I think competition is what makes you a better team.

Unfortunately, since the sun belt schools have been so much further ahead of us when we've gone down there to play them, it's made it harder to win those games there. It's going to be interesting now with the same starting date to see what happens when we play them and they're playing game one just like us. I mean, they'll have more days outside on the field playing some inter-squad games, so they'll have a little bit of an edge in preparation, but at least it's game one. It's not like they're not going to throw some guy on the mound that is already 4-and-0 and has got 40 innings under his belt already and your guy is throwing his first pitch of the season. That's where I've noticed the biggest difference, in pitching. They're pitching has always been further ahead of ours. We might have a guy throwing a great game, but have to pull him after three or four innings because of the early season pitch count.

And I've always said, in the South, they haven't had to spend as much time recruiting pitching like we do. Study the statistics, they might have had four guys throw 80% of their innings. And we've usually got 12 guys that have a decision on our team. And no one with 11.7 scholarships can recruit that kind of pitching. They've had to put less money into pitching - we've had to put more. And that's going to change now. They're already complaining about the number of games during the week. They're saying, "Geez, how are we going to play all these games? We're going to have to play games on Tuesday and Wednesday now." Well, welcome to the club boys.

Me:
(Laughing)... yeah well, no duh.

Coach Anderson:
You guys didn't feel sorry for us when we were complaining about compaction, now you guys got it and you don't like it. So I don't feel sorry for those guys. They're going to find out when they're putting their No. 9 or No. 10 guy out there on the mound and the bats on the other side don't change. You're going to see more 13-12 games and it's going to affect how they recruit. They're going to have to put more money into recruiting more pitchers like we always have.

College baseball is going through a big change now. I mean, we've wanted greater change. We wanted to change the RPI system.

Me:
No argument here on that one coach.

Coach Anderson:
We've wanted to go back to more regional seeding. We didn't get everything we wanted, but it's a good start. I mean, we know the highest RPI's are still in the South. We can win a conference series up here and the RPI can go down. But in the SEC and Big 12 they can lose a series and their RPI can go up. So to me the RPI system is skewed and it's not a system to accurately determine who the best teams are in college baseball.

Me:
Hey, I agree.

Coach Anderson:
The committee members say they don't use it too much. But that's the first thing they bring up as an argument when you DON'T get into the tournament.

Me:
It's always been amazing to me to see you guys, for example, this year, you beat UC Santa Barbara, Pepperdine, Arkansas, Ole Miss. In the past you've beaten people like UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton, but late in the year you hear people say, "Well, look at the schedule they played. Look who's in their conference." I've always thought, "well look at who they beat."

Coach Anderson:
Yeah, it's tough. I mean, we can't help it where we're located. I don't have another Division I school to play in our state. We lost four games with Michigan and one with Penn State, we can't make up those games with Division I teams. So I could play local non-Division I games, but people say those games don't count. We've got North Dakota State and South Dakota State playing D-1 now, so that helps. But we're still talking about missed class time, budget problems, etc. We can't just reschedule games like they do at Michigan or Ohio State or Illinois. We're isolated here. And I don't appreciate that people use that against us. We can't do anything about it.

We won the Big 10 in 2002 and didn't get into the NCAA tournament. They had teams out there with losing records in their conference getting in.

Me:
Yep, you guys and Northwestern State both won your conferences and had good records but neither of you got in. I remember that.

Coach Anderson:
I've always said, the more different programs that get access to the NCAA tournament, the better it is for the sport. It's going to spread the interest in college baseball. The more teams, the more interest, the better for everybody. That's just how it is. People don't realize that. That's what college football and basketball have done. Look how popular those sports are.

Me:
I agree. But I don't think you're going to get the teams in the West and the South to agree.

Coach Anderson:
I mean, you have to hope for that. You have to look at the bigger picture. What happens when there are only 50 or 60 programs left playing baseball?

Me:
What about the amount of money you guys are putting into baseball?

Coach Anderson:
I tell people all the time, we're using three facilities to practice and play games, this field, the indoor practice area and the Metrodome. So that's three facilities we're spending money on to have a program. We're traveling all over the country to play games, and then these guys come around and say we're not committed? Most of those teams are putting their money into recruiting and one facility and we're putting it into travel and three facilities. And then I hear people say we're not committed to baseball. You've gotta be kidding me? You can't have a program in this part of the country unless you're committed to it.

But when you don't have a chance or access to the NCAA tournament, then athletic directors and administrators ask, "Why are we spending all this money?" I mean, I saw Iowa State and Wisconsin fold their programs because they didn't have any hope. And that's why the Big 10 actively pursued changes in the sport because they didn't see much hope for them if things stayed the way they were. They wanted to drop their programs.

Me:
Was there really thought to dropping the Big 10 down to Division I-AA as I heard about a few years ago?

Coach Anderson:
Yeah. Yeah. There were schools in the league saying, "Look, we're spending a boat-load of money on coaches, scholarships and travel." Because travel in our league isn't cheap either since we're so spread out. Some leagues just take buses to travel, we have to hop on planes. And again, Athletic Directors started saying, "We don't want to keep spending this money, because we're not getting anywhere here." But the league convinced some of them, before we do that, let's try to affect change in the game. So people invested in their programs to try to make our league better. In my opinion, this is a last hurrah.

Me:
Well, you're a lifelong Gopher, so would you say, with only one season under 30 wins, is you job perpetually safe here?

Coach Anderson:
Well I would never say perpetually safe. Obviously I hope I've earned some credibility here and get some mutual respect for what we've done. You know, I've been loyal to the University and they've been loyal to me. Hopefully we can keep that going for a long time.

Me:
I read where you were born in Hibbing, Minnesota. What other famous people are from Hibbing?

Coach Anderson:
Oh boy, there's more than you think. Well, there's Kevin McHale.

Me:
Yep, that's one that I knew about.

Coach Anderson:
There's Bob Dylan.

Me:
Actually that's the other one I knew about.

Coach Anderson:
There's been a lot of hockey players from up there. Greg Gambucci. Gino Cappaletti. There's been some successful athletes from that area.

Me:
So would you say you're a Dylan fan?

Coach Anderson:
Oh yeah, I'm a Dylan fan. I've been to a couple of his concerts and own a lot of his music. So yes, absolutely.

Me:
That's great. He's a beauty.

Coach Anderson:
Yeah. My mother, after I graduated, move back to Hibbing and lives just a couple of blocks away from where he was raised.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert