Gophers baseball coach Anderson hasn't forgotten where he came from, what got him there
MINNEAPOLIS—Nashwauk-Keewatin graduate John Anderson arrived on the University of Minnesota campus as a baseball walk-on in the fall of 1974.
That was a glorious era for Gophers baseball, with future Major League Baseball hall-of-famers Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor playing around that time. Anderson knew his playing days were numbered. He thought about finding a small college where he could play hockey, but legendary Gophers baseball coach Dick Siebert convinced him otherwise.
"I was in his baseball coaching class, and he tried to flunk all the players who were in it," Anderson said. "But one day he said to me, 'You want to be a teacher-coach? You got the highest score ever on my baseball exam, and I need some help. Why don't you stay?'"
Anderson did stay, and it is one decision he will never regret. After 37 seasons and nearly 1,300 wins, all at Minnesota, he is still going strong. The Gophers (36-13 overall, 17-4 Big Ten) are ranked No. 12 in the country, lead the conference standings and will likely be the No. 1 seed at next week's Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, Neb.
"It takes a lot of energy," said Anderson, who turned 63 on Wednesday, May 16. "It's a lot of work, but we've had great kids, and that keeps me invigorated. I've seen coaches stay too long, and it was ugly. I'm not going to be one of those guys."
'Always a Ranger'
Anderson spent his early years in Nashwauk before the family moved to Keewatin in 1963, the same year the Nashwauk and Keewatin schools consolidated.
Anderson said he played whatever sport was in season growing up, but his love of baseball flourished during summers spent at the family cabin on Swan Lake. He played summer baseball in the Greenway district, for Pengilly, and at night, he listened on the radio back at the cabin to the state's new team, the Minnesota Twins, and star slugger Harmon Killebrew.
"We had a very unique situation in that we moved to the cabin after school was out and spent our whole summer there," Anderson said. "All the small towns in the district, the Calumets and the Taconites and the Boveys, had a team. We had our own ballparks. We'd wear our blue jeans and T-shirts and a couple high school guys would coach your team. Then when it was all over, they'd pick you up and take you home. To me, it was like playing in the big leagues."
Every chance Anderson gets in the summer, he returns to the Iron Range and his beloved lake cabin, which he calls his "sanctuary." The extended family gathers every Fourth of July for his mother's birthday, and it reminds him of a simpler time when every Sunday the relatives would gather in Buhl, where his parents were from, and sit down and share a meal and the children would spend time with their cousins.
"I love coming home. Once a Ranger, always a Ranger, it doesn't leave you," he said. "I still consider myself part of the 218 area code and proud of it."
Anderson said he plans to spend more time at the cabin once he retires. He said it's got everything a guy could want: a sauna, a fire pit, a pontoon and a nearby golf course. Anderson said it's not the area's rugged natural beauty that makes it special, however, it's the people. He remembers hearing stories about the Great Depression from his grandparents but never remembered hearing people complain.
"I still enjoy the people and the values of the area, and it's had a big impact on my life," Anderson said. "That area was formed with people and nationalities from all over the world that came here because of the mining industry. It was a melting pot, and you learned very quickly the value of hard work. You can't wait for somebody to take care of you. Sometimes you have to find a way to take care of yourself."
Setting the example
Anderson tries to instill that same value of hard work in his players—that there is a direct correlation between what you put in and what you get out.
"He's got an incredible work ethic, and that inspires us," said Terrin Vavra, who leads the Gophers with a .397 batting average.
Vavra, who played for the Duluth Huskies in 2015, grew up in Wisconsin cheering for the Badgers. He didn't know much about the Gophers but remembers meeting Anderson for the first time and being impressed by his calm demeanor and how the players respected him.
When you've been coaching as long as Anderson, you don't get rattled because you've seen it all.
Vavra, a junior infielder, said he has no regrets about his decision.
"Coach Anderson expects us to put in our hardest work and our best effort and enjoy being with the people we're surrounded by," Vavra said. "As long as we do that every day, he couldn't care less about the scoreboard. I think that's what separates him from everyone else. He focuses on our experiences and our time here, rather than anything else. It's been nothing but the best so far."
That's not to say Anderson isn't a competitor. With a 1,280-858-3 record, he definitely likes to win. Anderson was asked if he ever had a losing season.
"I had one in ... 2015, I think it was," Anderson said, thinking to himself. "Was it 2015? We had one somewhere in there."
It was 2015, when the Gophers went 21-30.
"I try to forget it," Anderson said.
But that's it. One losing record in 37 seasons. Remarkable.
Anderson often gets asked how much longer he plans on coaching, and that can be an added challenge in recruiting. Anderson's contract goes through the 2020-21 school year.
"It's a fair question," Anderson said. "But regardless of what my contract says, my goal is to coach as long as I have the energy and the passion for it. I want to be fair to the kids. They deserve a coach who can give them their best and ensure they have a great experience. I'm a firm believer in that."
Anderson carries three baseball cards in his coaching binder. One of Siebert; one of George Thomas, who coached the Gophers for three seasons following Siebert's death in December 1978; and one of Paul Giel, the former Gophers athletic director who hired Anderson upon Thomas' resignation after the 1981 season.
The athletic department was strapped for cash. Anderson was serving as assistant coach, and Thomas was tired of being a part-time Division I head baseball coach. At 26, Anderson was the youngest head baseball coach in Big Ten history.
"It was timing," Anderson said. "It was the right place at the right time, and I'm not kidding you, I was available and cheap, so they decided, let's give this guy a chance."
Anderson certainly hasn't disappointed. He is the winningest coach in Big Ten history.
"I was shocked when Paul asked me if I wanted to do it," Anderson said. "I was scared to death that I was going to screw up a program that had great history and tradition. I never had any head coaching experience and wasn't much older than the players, but I said if I don't do it, I'll regret it the rest of my life, so I gave it a whirl."