Welcome to the first edition of The Fury Files, an interview that will hopefully become a running feature on TVFury and might even have a different name someday if I can think of something more original, yet still catchy. Subjects will range from sports figures to writers to broadcasters to people not involved in any of those things. I’ll conduct most of the interviews over email and they’ll hopefully be enlightening and entertaining. Maybe even educational.
The first guest is Tom Linnemann, who describes himself on his Twitter account as a “Johnnie, Contrarian/Jackass, Sports Guy, On-Air MN Sports Media Dabbler, Old Enough…to Party.”
Linnemann, a Melrose, Minn., native, is a St. John’s graduate and starred on the football team under legendary coach John Gagliardi. As the Johnnies’ starting quarterback, Linnemann went 27-3 and still holds several school records, including single-season marks for yards (3,489) and touchdowns (46). In 2000, Linnemann led St. John’s to the Division III title game, the Stagg Bowl, where the Johnnies lost a heartbreaking 10-7 game to powerful Mount Union on a last-second field goal.
He was also one of the major figures in The Sweet Season, the 2001 book from Sports Illustrated‘s Austin Murphy, which chronicled Murphy’s time on campus in the fall of 1999, and included an epilogue on the 2000 season. In the book, Murphy – who’s covered the NFL, college football, the Tour de France and everything in between during his three decades at SI – called Linnemann “the best quote I ever met.” Murphy also called him “the Namath of the MIAC” and wrote that he handled a huddle “the way Paul Newman would run a diamond heist.” As far as towering figures of cool, the only things missing were comparisons to Steve McQueen and Keith Richards.
Today, Linnemann works as a Buyer at Target. A popular figure with newspapers and television folks during his playing days, Linnemann remains a fixture on the Twin Cities media scene. This fall, on 1500 ESPN, he’ll pick NFL games with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan, and have some college football talk. He also works as a sportscaster for Fox Sports North, where he’ll co-host the Prep Zone. Finally, he makes frequent appearances on the popular RandBall, a blog by Star Tribune writer Michael Rand, Linnemann’s frequent partner in crime. In his spare time? Linnemann’s QBs coach for Wayzata.
Here, Linnemann talks about The Sweet Season, Gagliardi, dealing with a devastating injury, medical redshirts in D3, calling your own plays, being hated, the frightening rise of the Tommies, and much more. Thanks a lot for your time, Tom.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read The Sweet Season and I’m only a St. John’s grad, not one of the main characters in the book. A few Sweet Season questions:
* Ballpark figure on number of times you’ve read it.
I’ve lived it once and read it once. I didn’t read it right away because I was really anxious about it. Austin Murphy remains a good friend and it’s a phenomenal book. But it’s always interesting to see the same events that happened through a different lens. I remember games and nights and everything the way I remember it, so it is somewhat bizarre that everyone else who wasn’t there remembers it in the way that Austin did because they read about it. It’s one and the same I guess, but it’s like music: I like Guns and Fucking Roses because of the way that Slash shreds. He might love Axl’s wail. We both are fond—just in different takes.
* Back in the day, did you ever tell the ladies that you were “the Namath of the MIAC?”
I don’t mean to sound like a dick, but I didn’t have to tell ladies anything. SJU and the MIAC are small, small places. Not Melrose small, but to the point where you knew everyone who mattered. I had a great girlfriend at the time who went to Hamline. She was by far the hottest girl who has ever gone to Hamline and I doubt it’s even close. Everyone knows everyone. And let’s face it—I wasn’t exactly a wallflower. I think I was conservatively the most hated player in the conference for the better part of three years. Only Kip Sparby in basketball from St. Thomas knows what I’m talking about. He and I were the two lightning rods because we loved the pressure of being that guy. Cheers and boos all sound the same if you can drown out the tone. It’s all loud. And that’s awesome.
* If The Sweet Season ever becomes a movie, who plays you?
That’s an interesting question—if Sweet Season were a movie—who would play me? Even me, with one of the most developed egos this side of Hennepin County, has a tough time imagining that. It would have to be someone who was incredibly outspoken and confident but also had the ability to show the latent insecurity that drove him to succeed. And he would have to have messy, curly hair. Damn, the only person I can think of with curly hair is that ass clown Jonas Brother. And obviously I don’t want that. Let’s see…Zac Efron is too pretty…Justin Timberlake is way too cool…so I guess I’ll go with a 1998 Snoop Dogg.
* Do you ever hear from people who would only know you from the book, or meet someone who says they’ve heard of you because they read it?
That actually happens way more than you’d imagine for someone who went to a small D3 school in central Minnesota. It actually just happened this morning. My boss’ dentist was very excited to learn that I was in his department and I have no idea who this guy is. That’s a small, mini, infinitesimal version of what real celebrities must feel like. I can see why most celebrities are assholes because it feels awesome to hear that. Anyone who says it doesn’t is a liar. If that happened every day, I would be a much bigger asshole. I would gain eccentricities by the day. “I only eat Mac and Cheese with Gruyere, stupid. Bring me that.”
Overall this scenario is incredibly uncomfortable for me because I know that the person doesn’t know me but they shared my experience as a time-traveling ghost after it all happened. Every time I hear someone say that they’ve read it and I don’t know them, I immediately think of when I was rehabbing my broken leg, all I wanted my Mom to do was leave me alone so I could pleasure myself in my basement. “Nice to meet you, I like to jerk off too” isn’t the best conversation starter. But whaddaya do? It was real, it was raw, and it was a crazy moment in time.
Sort of related, sort of not. Early in that 1999 season, you broke your leg. How tough was that season emotionally for you as you rehabbed in an attempt to get back into action? And did the fact a writer from SI documented the season – a season you guys had a great chance to win a national title – add to the frustration at all?
That was a really dark time for me because I fell in love with being the quarterback for the Johnnies, a job I wanted so desperately and worked so hard to gain, and now it was all taken away from me in an instant by a guy named Frank Streit from St. Thomas. I actually played with Frank at the Minnesota High School All-Star game. I have his sticker on my high school helmet. And then he unwittingly ruined my entire life, or so it felt.
The worst part of being an injured athlete has nothing to do with the injury. Bodies heal, especially with all the technology and science. The worst part is the confliction that the team will go on without you and you know that as a teammate it’s your duty to want that. You were a major cog; now you aren’t even asked about anything in meetings. You are alone on an island hanging out with trainers instead of with your crew.
The fact that a writer was there to write a book had absolutely nothing to do with the misery of that injury. I don’t even care about that. I didn’t play QB my whole life so a writer would talk about me. I played because shortly after I picked up a football I wanted to be a college quarterback and I wanted to win a national championship. I wanted to lead, be out front, be with my best friends, and just fucking win. That’s all I wanted to do. And no matter how many wins the team has when you’re injured, you don’t get the drug high of winning. It’s like methodone: it’s fine, but it’s not anything that Iggy Pop would want.
You used an injury redshirt for an injury suffered in 1997 and returned for the 2000 season, which of course ended with the loss to Mount Union. It seems like injury redshirts are an accepted part of D3 football now, but at that time it seemed you took a little heat from people for the decision. Was there any negative feedback from people back then and did you have any doubts about wanting to return for that season?
Yeah, ask Brother Wilfred. I wonder if he’s still pissed, given that 10 million people have followed in that way. Blake Elliott got one and no one batted an eye. He was selfless and I was selfish for doing the exact same thing. When I got one, it was open season in the school newspaper The Record. In fact, I think Wilfred even wrote a letter to the editor saying how against the mission it was for me to take the redshirt. Imagine that—all I wanted to do was to play football for SJU and help them win, and a significant population of the faculty and overall community was against it?
I will say that John Gagliardi was unwavering in his support of me, as he has always been and he always will be, as long as I don’t become a football referee or kill someone or something terrible. But again, there were a ton of people who were vocal about it, which meant there were even more who harbored that sentiment but didn’t say anything. But those were the same people who watched in joy as a #8 seed won four playoff games on the road and went to the national championship game for the first time in 24 years. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and to pass judgment—and I guess at SJU, you’re a public figure, so that’s part of the territory.
You worked on the Johnnie radio broadcasts for several seasons after graduating. What led to your departure from the broadcasts, and is there any chance you’ll return to that role someday?
I want to watch the games with my son like I did with my Dad. But I’d be open to coming back. I’d love to come back. If they made it worth it for me to come back and they wanted to improve their broadcast tenfold, I’d be open to it.
You’ve obviously always been comfortable in front of a notebook or a camera, either as a subject or a broadcaster. When you were in school or even when you first graduated, did you ever have any desire to go into broadcasting full-time, perhaps following in the footsteps of fellow Johnnie Anthony LaPanta? Or are you content with your role as sort of an omnipresent freelance force in Twin Cities media, with your work on radio, TV and online?
Anthony LaPanta was the best man in my wedding. I’m the godfather to his daughter, Arianna. Our kids actually had a dual baptism at SJU from Timo. He’s so fucking good. People don’t realize how immensely talented he is. He researches better, he understands more—he’s the shit. And knowing him, I could never be as good as him. If I ever wanted to do it full-time, I stack myself up against him and I can’t compete. He takes some shit in this market but I’ll stand by him forever.
At this point, I’m content with my schizophrenic media dabbling because I get to do enough to have fun and enjoy it but not too much where it interferes with my day job. Would I do more? Of course. I would love to do college football.
I love being in a corporate setting because it’s super-competitive and it’s tough to argue with the compensation. I like having a nice house in Plymouth and wearing tailored suits. I’m not sure what will happen in the future in terms of what I want to do. But right now, I love working at Target and creating strategies because I like to compete for a truly dynamic company.
There have been people who have been extraordinarily great to me in this media market. Anthony, obviously. Brad Lane is a great guy who gave me a start at am1500 a long time ago to do a high school football show and the Hubbards are amazing people with the team they created.
Patrick Reusse is at the left hand of the father in my personal trilogy replacing the Holy Spirit. He is absolutely the balls. Reusse is the model for every small town kid who grew up loving town baseball and made it to the highest level in his profession. I wish he were my uncle. I never know whether he gives a shit or not about me but that’s how it works in small towns. I don’t care because I love him. He could try to run me over with his car and I’d still think he is awesome. We have similar takes on sports and life but we’re at least one generation away—I’d say one and a half.
There are a lot of other guys who are great in this market. Roufsie is a close friend, Mike Rand is deep within my inner circle. I just love being in the mix with such talented people. I do it because it’s fun, and that’s the only reason you ever really need.
Last year St. Thomas defeated the Johnnies in football for the first time since 1997, your second year at the school. Head coach Glenn Caruso has turned the program around and is lauded for his superb recruiting skills. People have always talked about how the Tommies could become a dominating force – like they are in other sports – if they had a coach who knew what he was doing. Now that they do, do you worry that we’re starting a decade of St. Thomas dominance in football? Or will this simply be like other times – late ’80s, early ’90s – when the Tommies have some success, but the Johnnies ultimately remain in control of the league?
Yes, St. Thomas beat the Johnnies last year in overtime. It was their first victory in the former rivalry in 13 years. Set your watch to it—if UST wins every 13 years because our kicker shanks an extra point, good for them. Maybe they’re the Red Sox and they’ve finally gotten over the hump. That remains to be seen. But we’re still the fucking Yankees. It would be great for the league if they did, as it would elevate the play so we could actually consider ourselves closer to the overall strength of the WIAC and prepare us better for the postseason. A good St. Thomas helps the league balance and I do think that they will be much better going forward. I don’t think they will dominate though. They’re not Mount Union or Whitewater. But I’m not sure that anyone is right now. It’s a really interesting time in the league. If either St. Olaf or Concordia is good, that puts half of the league in good light with SJU, UST, and Bethel. Kurt Ramler is doing a lion’s job at Carleton. It’s just hard to get kids that are that fricken smart.
Caruso has had a couple good years. Let me know when he has 50 of them, or even 10 of them. I don’t know the guy—never met him. So it’s hard for me to judge. Style is such a matter of preference and I guess I prefer John. I do think Caruso is doing a great job recruiting. He’s pounding the pavement. He’s everywhere. He deserves the players he’s getting because he’s so engaged in getting them. I think SJU recruits more on tradition while St. Thomas is recruiting on the future, but that’s just my opinion. Kids who are recruited nowadays are already so different than we were. It’s the difference between Gen X and Gen Y. Gen X recruits went to play for a program. Schools like SJU, Penn State, Florida State, Nebraska. Now, Gen Y kids are more wowed if the school looks like a Lifetime Fitness. I like health clubs but I’ll trade a cherry-wood locker to go 10-0 instead of 7-3.
People always ask me what is SJU’s secret. You can point to a lot of ways that SJU is different, starting of course with John, the greatest football coach in the history of the sport. But if you ask any coach, players make plays. You need players. Great players. If you get a few players who shouldn’t be there—guys who should be playing D2, small D1—you win. If you get ten of them, you have a chance to win a national championship.
Each time the Johnnies are a little unsettled at quarterback – 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008 – at the start of the year, they seem to struggle a bit, whether just at the start of the year or for most of the season. With Joe Boyle graduating, do you see a similar type of struggle for the Johnnies this season? And is there anything in particular with the way SJU tries to look for a No. 1 guy that lends itself to some of those early struggles?
The QB job is between two guys. Connor Bruns is a big young buck who played in Maryland and his brother is Nick Bruns, a good friend and teammate from the 2000 season. Nick transferred to SJU from SCSU because he got tired of losing. The other guy is John Ries, a natural leader, winner at Wayzata, great kid. I actually worked out with him this summer and I was super impressed with how he carried himself. He was asking me to videotape him so he could correct any issues. I appreciate how seriously he took it. Great leader. Ries hurt his foot in the spring but seems like he’s back ready to go. So it’s going to be fun. I might head up there sometime this week or next to see those boys go toe to toe.
The Johnnies’ problem wasn’t an inexperienced QB in those years. The problem is that they need a guy who shouldn’t be there. In 2001 they had that in Blake, but he was coming off a season in which he was the third option and my deep post guy so he had to grow into the icon that he eventually became. They need a gamebreaker at a skill position. Someone like Adam Herbst or Blake Elliott or Nate Kirschner or Jeremy Loretz or Ryan Murray or Matt Malmberg or Kurt Ramler. Hopefully, one shows up at two-a-days. I really hope so.
It’s obvious from watching you on things like the Linnemann Challenge that you still love hanging around quarterbacks. I also heard you worked quite a bit with Boyle. Have you ever had any desire to get into coaching, either at the high school or college level?
I’m coaching/consulting this season at Wayzata because I moved into the district and I’m about one mile from the stadium. My son will play for the Trojans. Brad Anderson was gracious enough to allow me in to help with their QB’s. They have a good one in Nick Martin but he’s a newcomer—never started—in fact, just started playing football a couple years ago after playing soccer his whole life. He has all the physical tools and he might be the best kid I’ve ever met. Super leader. It’s like in Superbad when Jonah Hill says, “Looking into his eyes is like the first time I heard the Beatles play.” He’s a coaches’ dream.
In terms of coaching, I’d love to do it full-time but I don’t think I could start at 33 years old unless I won the lottery or something. It’s actually why I love doing sports media; it’s the closest thing to playing or coaching without the 100 hours a week time commitment. It’s hard work to be a great coach and that’s the only kind of coach I’d want to be. It’s the most noble profession there is—like a teacher. It’s magic. But it’s a tough lifestyle so you have to give up a lot. In my case, the cost/benefit equation doesn’t work out right now. Hopefully in retirement I’ll convince someone to let me get into it.
Gagliardi will turn 85 in November, but, thankfully and incredibly, still doesn’t appear to have any interest in retirement. People know a lot about how he runs practice and the team. But how about during games – as a guy who started 30 games for him at quarterback, what kind of presence was he like on the field on Saturdays? It seemed like he would never be afraid of chewing someone out during the game, whether they’re wearing Johnnie Red or the stripes of a hated zebra. Was he big into speeches or was that a case where it’s he “wouldn’t want guys who need speeches.”
John wasn’t a rah-rah guy and that’s why I loved him. If you need a coach to preach fire and brimstone, then you’re not doing it right as a competitor. John’s message was always simple: Just do it. That’s it. You’ll get your shot, like Eminem—and you only get one shot. That’s it. It’s very similar to rap-battling, or so I’d imagine. John rightfully showed his displeasure when guys wouldn’t do the right thing. There are some epic stories about that, both players and referees. But I can honestly tell you that in the 30 games I started, he never yelled at me once. Never. I would stop by after a series and tell him if I saw something, or if I planned to come back to a play. But I mostly just talked to Jimmy [Gagliardi] and drank a ton of free Gatorade.
One time in the huddle a running back didn’t like the series of plays I was calling and rolled his eyes. So I called a timeout and told him to get the fuck out of the huddle. He wouldn’t, so I gestured to have them send in a new one. John walked a couple steps towards me and said, “What’s going on?” and I just waved him back. He was like, “Ok.” That’s trust. That’s coaching. Knowing when to push and when to just let it happen. John is a genius because he knows when to trust.
Kids that run the spread now don’t have a feel for anything. They just look at the coach on the sideline and he calls the play on his wristband. That’s boring, stupid football and I would not play in a system in which I am some kind of robotic conduit for a coach to play QB. I am no one’s robot.
One of Gagliardi’s famous methods was to let the QB call the plays. I believe you were able to do that during your time. To fans – and probably to most quarterbacks today – that probably sounds like a bizarre, completely foreign concept. What kind of effect did it have on you as a player? Did it ever get a bit overwhelming? What were the benefits to it, other than it must have just been really cool to know your coach has that type of trust in your judgments.
I called every one of my plays in college. That was one of the reasons I chose SJU over North Dakota or Montana State or walking on at the U. John F Elway didn’t get to call his plays. If you don’t want to do that as a QB, there’s something wrong with you. Sometimes John or Jimmy would offer suggestions. But they trusted me to call plays and I took that extremely seriously. I took that more seriously than my major because it was way more important than my major. I studied film and knew exactly what I was going to do on Saturdays.
I first learned football in high school from my coach Daryl Oja. We were running a lot of the Florida State offensive package they had with Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn when everyone else was running the Wing-T. No one threw it 20-30 times a game. So I learned by fire in high school how to read defenses, stand in the pocket, take a hit and throw over the middle. Kids that run the spread now don’t have a feel for anything. They just look at the coach on the sideline and he calls the play on his wristband. That’s boring, stupid football and I would not play in a system in which I am some kind of robotic conduit for a coach to play QB. I am no one’s robot.
There was only one time I was ever surprised and that was in the national championship against Mount Union. I was surprised that they were that good. Chris Kern, their CB who tried out with the Detroit Lions after transferring there from SCSU, was like playing against Deion Sanders in a video game. He was everywhere. He was a better cornerback than Tony Beckham, the kid who got drafted in the 4th round to the Titans from Wisconsin-Stout.
In terms of calling plays, there are a couple games that stand out. One is against Stout, when they were the #1 seed and an amazing team. They had a very clear strategy. They were planning to straight whoop my ass. Beat me up. I got tackled on run plays. They had this guy who went to camp with the Vikings—Jeff Hazuga, another former SCSU guy who had arm muscles the size of fat toddlers. He played end/backer and hit me every play. It was muddy so my gameplan changed to call running plays inside of him to take advantage of him wanting to kick my ass and just take the hits myself. Also, their linebackers were blitzing like crazy so I called a couple pass plays to Chris Moore and Aaron Krych, knowing that they weren’t going to go with the running backs very well—that they just wanted to hit me. We scored on them and then held on to win. I think they had almost a hundred yards in penalties, most coming on late hits to me. I have never been so beat up in my life. But we basically rope-a-doped them and beat a much better team than us. There was a photo of me after the game walking off the field that was in the USA Today. I look like a Ford truck commercial. I wish I had that picture. I remember the feeling of being completely depleted physically, more so than the marathons I’ve run since then. I was on empty and it felt fucking fantastic because we won.
My other favorite playcalling story was against Pac Lutheran out there in the national quarterfinals. They were the defending national champs, had a great team with a great QB, Chad Johnson. It was a driving rain all game and we went into overtime. The play that won the game wasn’t even a play. Nate Kirschner came back to the huddle and said, “Tommy, I can beat my guy to the corner.” So here’s the play call: “Blake, you and Jeremy just cross. Nate, get to the corner, I’ll throw it up high. Go get the thing. Lineman, pass block. On set. Break.” Nate caught the touchdown in the corner, we win. People can’t believe that. But the 10 other guys in the huddle could.
Your Top 5 Johnnie quarterbacks of all-time (excluding yourself). In order. And the reason for your No. 1 choice.
5. Alex Kofoed [Fury note: Most career TD passes at SJU)
4. Joe Boyle [Three-year starter, graduated 2011]
3. Willie Seiler [Led record-breaking 1993 offense]
2. Jeff Norman [Quarterback on 1976 national champs]
1. Kurt Ramler [Three-year starter, holds numerous records]
Ramler was a great player who put up ridiculous statistics and won a ton of games. He was a difference-maker every play. He was also a great leader. Just a Johnnie.
You’re the Twins GM. Three moves you do this offseason.
1. Regardless of getting nothing from it, I find a way to get rid of Delmon Young. He’s a cancer’s cancer. [Fury: Mission accomplished]
2. Have Kyle Gibson get surgery right now.
3. Get Nishi on a juice cycle so he can hit it out of the infield.
Most depressing Minnesota sports team right now: Twins, Vikings, Wolves, Gophers football or Gophers basketball?
Depressing? Twins. We expect them to figure it out. We expect everyone else to figure out how to not figure it out.
Anyone who follows Division III, the MIAC or the Johnnies is very familiar with John’s jokes, beliefs and history. But what’s one Gagliardi story that really stands out to you when you think back to your time at SJU, whether it’s on game day, a practice or off the field?
Man, there are so many of them that would only come out after a long night of drinking.
Well, in 1998 when I won the QB job and we went 10-0 in the regular season. It’s favorite story of all-time. I was competing against Corey Stanger, another local kid from Becker. Kid could throw a football so hard! Oh my God. I bet he threw it twice as hard as I did. He had a cannon. We battled like crazy in two-a-days, which is a weird spot. You’re battling against your teammate, someone in your family, for a job you’ve wanted your whole life. It was really conflicting. We battled and it seemed like every throw was going to decide it. Every time I dropped back all I could think about was if I threw a pick in skelly, that would be it. Abject fear.
We still didn’t know who was starting until about 5-10 minutes before the first game against Concordia-St. Paul. John walked up to me and said, “What play you gonna run first?” I said, “Cowboy,” and John nodded, then said, “You’re in until you punt, then Corey is in.”
First drive-Touchdown. Second drive-Touchdown. Third drive-Touchdown. Fourth drive-Touchdown. I came off the field and John said, “Now Corey’s in.” And I said, “I didn’t punt!” And John said, “It’s done.”