It's only Wednesday morning, and this has already been the worst week in Minnesota sports in a long time.
On Sunday, Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders passed away at the age of 60 after losing his battle with cancer.
Late Monday night, Twins outfielder and fan favorite Torii Hunter announced his retirement after 19 seasons in the majors.
And now, Wednesday morning, Gophers football head coach Jerry Kill announced his retirement due to health reasons, effective immediately.
I wanted to dissect everything here, since it had been a while since I've written here. So let's start with the most recent and work backwards. I woke up just before 8 a.m. Wednesday, and the news about Kill was already about 15 minutes old. I had to do a double take when I first came across the news on Twitter to make sure I read it correctly.
Kill's health issues have been well-documented. He's a cancer survivor who has also suffered epileptic seizures in recent years, including two on-field incidents with the Gophers. Yet the last I had heard, it seemed as if Kill's health was on the up and up. At one point, he was driving his truck again -- a good sign, since it meant he was seizure-free for a long period of time.
I covered Kill in his first four seasons at Minnesota but have not been around the team at all this year, so I can't speak for anything this season. But when I was around him, Kill didn't care to talk about his health much. All he wanted to do was coach football, and he had done that well in helping rebuild the Gophers program -- and had endeared himself to Minnesota fans in the process.
I haven't encountered many coaches as genuine as Kill, who was always gracious with his time with the media. He was a coach at a major college football program, but he still felt relatable. Even this Wisconsin alum had to appreciate the work Kill did at Minnesota.
Kill's press conference Wednesday morning was aired live, and it was hard to watch. I've never seen someone with such raw emotion during a press conference. Kill made the point several times that coaching football has been his entire life for 30+ years; he doesn't know anything else. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch a man give up his dream, but he did so with his long-term health in mind. I wish nothing but the absolute best for Kill moving forward.
Two days before Kill's sudden and shocking retirement came perhaps a more predictable retirement as Torii Hunter called it a career. He broke into the majors with the Twins in 1997 and spent 12 seasons -- including his final year this past year -- with Minnesota. Hunter made stops in Los Angeles and Detroit after his first 11 years with the Twins, but came back to where it all started for what proved to be his final go-round.
Like Kill, Hunter was always a joy to cover from a media perspective. I grew up watching him make highlight-reel catches at the Metrodome and even got his autograph before a game once. (He was always more than willing to sign autographs for fans, something that stood out to me even this year. He'd been doing it for 18 years already but still found time to make kids' days.)
Some fans wanted Hunter back for one more year. Personally, I didn't think it would have made any sense for the Twins to bring Hunter back. They have several other young, promising outfielders in Byron Buxton, Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario -- a trio that can certainly cover some ground. Bringing Hunter back would have taken playing time away from one or more of those three. Hunter's production dropped off this season both offensively and defensively. He posted a career-low .720 OPS. On top of that, Hunter was a negative WAR (Wins Above Replacement) player for the first time in his career with a -0.8 WAR.
Yes, Hunter was undoubtedly a leader in that clubhouse and was a guy many of the young players looked up to. He brought the dance parties and the fun to the locker room, and I do think there was some value in Hunter's clubhouse presence. Plus, he was a go-to quote for the media. But from a baseball standpoint, it would have been a detriment to the Twins if they brought him back as an everyday player in 2016.
Lastly, and most tragically, Minnesota and the basketball community lost a great one Sunday with the passing of Phil "Flip" Saunders. Originally from Ohio, Flip made Minnesota his home. He was a mop-topped standout point guard with the Golden Gophers and broke into the NBA coaching ranks with the Timberwolves back in 1995. After a decade as the head coach of Minnesota, Saunders eventually coached the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards before a brief stint with ESPN. Saunders returned "home" to Minnesota to take over the Timberwolves' front office and, once again, the head coaching role.
When I think of the Timerwolves' glory years -- and yes, that franchise did have them -- I think of two people: Kevin Garnett and Flip Saunders. Those two were reunited posted by Garnett: a shot of him sitting in an empty parking stall reserved for Flip.
It's amazing to see how quickly Saunders' health took a turn for the worse. In August -- not long after he and the Wolves landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft -- he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. It was viewed at that point as a treatable form of cancer. However, signs started popping up that perhaps it wasn't as manageable as originally believed. The Wolves announced Saunders would miss the beginning of the year as he went through treatment. Later, the team said he would not return to coach the team this season, with Sam Mitchell taking over the head coaching duties. Then things went quiet in regards to his health, up until Sunday's awful news.
I did cover a few Saunders press conferences but never did get to know him. However, I'll never forget the excitement I had as a young Wolves fan many, many years ago when Saunders autographed my Timberwolves hat before a game. Even back then, he seemed so genuine and generous. The stories that have been shared in the days following his death have only confirmed it.
After the last several days of less-than-stellar announcements, Minnesota sports could use some positive news. On the plus side, the Lynx recently won the WNBA championship, and the Minnesota Wild are off to a good start. Those won't do much to help assuage fans in the Twin Cities who are mourning the loss of a head coach and the retirements of two beloved figures.
Sports gods, you owe Minnesota a few favors.