Souhan: Minnesota’s sports franchises change players, coaches but not results

The popularity of modern professional sports is built on change. Change drives the news cycle and the accompanying speculation that in turn drives fan interest.

As recently as the 1990s, the NFL shut down for months at a time. Eventually, the league shrewdly discerned that it could be just as popular in May as it is in October, and that realization has created a modern sports landscape in which free agency can be as important as a championship game or series.

The promise of transformative change drives fan interest in free agency, trades, coaching decisions, coaching changes and player development.

Minnesotans might want to acknowledge that the illusion of change rarely alters reality. When a Minnesota team fails, franchise DNA is usually found at the scene.

The Vikings have existed for 61 years. They have never won a league championship or Super Bowl. They have produced great teams, coaches and players. In January 2023, with a new general manager, coach, offensive and defensive schemes and a couple of key personnel additions, they are again on the verge of another playoff appearance that will leave them short of a title.

The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991. If the Vikings have been cursed by being just good enough to disappoint in the postseason, the Twins have been cursed by injury.

Before and after their championship seasons, the Twins have seen almost all of their great players' careers damaged or shortened by injuries, and they have rarely, since 1991, made it to a postseason in which all of their most important players were available to them.

The injury list includes Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Ervin Santana (in a playoff game at Yankee Stadium), Johan Santana (in a playoff game at Yankee Stadium), Cristian Guzman, Kent Hrbek, Rick Aguilera (after agreeing to become a starter in 1996), Francisco Liriano, Josh Donaldson (missed his only playoff series with the Twins) and virtually the entire, once-promising, 2022 squad.

The Wild shocked the hockey world by advancing to the conference finals in 2003, their third season. They have never returned. They have not won a playoff series since 2015. They have tried winning by developing their own players, by splurging in free agency, and now by building around a young superstar. Their results have almost always been identical.

The Timberwolves' brand has been dysfunction. This season, with a new, admired basketball boss, new ownership moving in and having made the NBA's biggest trade of the offseason, they are again disappointing relative to expectations, and again often look dysfunctional on the court.

Minnesota United are about to start their seventh MLS season. In only one of those seasons have they won a playoff match, in 2020 when they won two.

Gophers football has finished ranked in the Associated Press top 20 three times since 1962. They ranked 18th in 1999 under Glen Mason, 20th in 2003 under Mason and 10th in 2019 under P.J. Fleck.

That 2019 season ranks as the best the Gophers have produced since 1962, and it raised hopes that Fleck could elevate Minnesota to the status of Big Ten championship contenders. Instead, this year, with one of the nation's best running backs, a slew of quality sixth-year seniors and the easiest schedule Minnesota will ever have, they went 5-4 in the conference and settled for a badly named bowl played on a sloppy baseball field.

Gophers men's basketball has officially won two NCAA tournament games over the past three decades. One victory was by Tubby Smith, who was immediately fired following the greatest non-sanctioned success in recent program history, and one was by Richard Pitino, who was fired two years later. Wish Ben Johnson luck in transforming a program that generally has excelled only when it cheats.

The outlier for Minnesota sports remains the Lynx. They won four titles in seven years, narrowly missed a fifth, then went to the league semifinals after losing four of the five stars from their championship years. Their failure in 2022 only served as a reminder that they had been either great or highly competitive for 11 straight seasons.

The Lynx should bounce back. Gophers women's hoops should develop into a power. The Gophers' lower-revenue sports should continue to excel.

When it comes to Minnesota's most popular men's teams, changing players is easier than changing franchise DNA.