An easy way for a University of Minnesota representative to win over a roomful of Owatonna residents is to bring up the name Jason Williamson, who will be a freshman for the Gopher football team this fall. It doesn't hurt to bring along Paul Bunyan's Axe, the traveling trophy the Gophers won back from Wisconsin last season.

The university's Deputy Athletics Director John Cunningham was the guest of the Noon Rotary Club Monday afternoon at the Owatonna Country Club. He gave a general update on the state of Gopher athletics and answered questions from the audience.

Addressing whether the Gophers might red-shirt Williamson, Cunningham pointed out that under a new NCAA rule, players can appear in four games and not lose a year of eligibility. He also said that coach P.J. Fleck seems to have the attitude, "If you can play, you'll play."

He's been told by members of the coaching staff that Williamson is very quiet and a very hard worker. Williamson early enrolled at Minnesota in order to participate in spring football. The annual spring game is Saturday, April 13 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Cunningham was just back from Des Moines where the Gopher men's basketball team won their opening-round game in the NCAA tournament before losing on Saturday with All-Conference player Jordan Murphy sidelined with an injury. He said a strong finish to the season after some had written off the team paved the way for an appearance in the tournament. He called the win over Louisville the best outing of the season for the team.

"We have a lot of pieces in place, a lot to look forward to and be proud of. And I think the other thing people forget is Richard Pitino is a 36-year-old head coach and he's still young, he's still learning but he's growing. We know he can recruit. The guys love to play for him. And really I think that the best days for Gopher men's basketball are ahead of us."

He also said the football team faced a similar scenario after a tough stretch of losses left them in a must-win game at Wisconsin in order to become bowl-eligible. Minnesota whipped the Badgers and reclaimed Paul Bunyan's Axe, which Cunningham brought along with him to Owatonna.

He reported the Gophers athletic budget stands at 121-million-dollars, which ranks eighth in the Big Ten. Cunningham said the addition of the Athletes Village is a boon to recruiting. He said student-athletes can train, study and eat all in the same location.

"We are really building a foundation to be successful and win for a long period of time. And that goes back to everything we are doing from a facilities standpoint to a coaching standpoint."

Cunningham lauded over the coaching staff at the university. He mentioned volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, saying when others come calling on him it's not other colleges but rather national teams from around the world that want him on their bench.

He said Lindsay Whalen's hire as the women's basketball coach has been a wild success with attendance going through the roof of The Barn. "She's an absolute treasure to be around...I would give Mark Coyle a lot of credit for going out and convincing Lindsay that it was time to put away her basketball career, come back home and coach the Minnesota Gophers."

Regarding Williams Arena, Cunningham said some sort of renovation will be necessary for the nearly 90-year-old building. He said wider concourses and on-site kitchens would make a big difference.

He was asked whether Minnesota could get in the rotation for the Big Ten men's basketball tournament. Cunningham said after 2024 the site of the tournament will be open for bids. Right now the event is shared by Chicago and Indianapolis.

A fan asked whether the Gophers might be able to sign Rochester John Marshall standout Matthew Hurt and Cunningham quickly said he can't comment.

Minnesota supports 25 sports and about 700 athletes. The Gophers were 19th in the Learfield Cup standings, which take all sports into account. Minnesota has won 19 Big Ten titles since the 2015-16 school year and has 57 All-Americans over the last two school years.

Cunningham said the Gopher Road Trip will again include a stop in Owatonna this year. The event brings a cross section of Gopher coaches to communities around the state.

Cunningham filled in for Athletics Director Mark Coyle who was returning from Connecticut where the Gophers women's hockey team played in the national title game, falling to Wisconsin.



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