Phillip Daniel “Flip” Saunders is a name synonymous with Minnesota basketball. After a remarkable four-year career at the University of Minnesota, Flip went on to mold the two most inspiring eras in Timberwolves’ history. As the franchise immortalizes his legacy, we remember a life that was taken far too soon.
Flip’s Early Life and Career
Flip grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and excelled on the basketball court from a very young age. After his senior year of high school in 1973, he was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball – the state’s honor for its most outstanding player – having averaged a monstrous 32 point per game that season. Flip leveraged his success into a scholarship with the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers where you can still find his name across the record books. He ranks third in career free throw shooting (.809) and ninth in assists (295). He led the Gophers to 70 wins over four years, highlighted by a senior season in which he teamed up with Ray Williams, Mychal Thompson, Kevin McHale, and Osborne Lockhart to finish 24-3.
Our thoughts are with Flip Saunders' family as we mourn a Gopher great. pic.twitter.com/QXKc0XTxCC— Eric W. Kaler (@PrezKaler) October 25, 2015
Once graduating, Flip began his coaching career at Golden Valley Lutheran College in Golden Valley, MN, where he racked up an astonishing 92-13 record over four seasons, including a perfect 56-0 mark on his home court. Since then, he’s been one of the most well-respected coaches around the world of basketball.
In 1981, he became the assistant coach at his alma mater where he helped the Gophers win the big ten title during his first year back. And following a brief stint at the University of Tulsa, he headed for the pros in 1988.
After seven fruitful seasons as a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), during which Flip won two championships, two coach of the year honors, and still holds the title as second winningest coach in its history (256 wins), he joined the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves as General Manager in 1995. There, he would work with his former college teammate, Kevin McHale.
Godfather of the Timberwolves
1995, coincidentally, was the Wolves’ first year with another familiar face: Kevin Garnett. Shortly into the season, after getting off to a disappointing 6-19 start, Flip replaced Bill Blair as the team’s head coach. He hardly looked back.
Flip and Garnett proceeded to usher Wolves faithful through the most exhilarating years of their existence; a run of nine seasons during which they only missed the playoff on their first and final opportunities. His first full season at the helm, Flip led the Wolves to their first playoff appearance. The very next year, their first winning record. In 1999-00, their first 50 win season. And in 2003-04, their first division title, playoff series win, and conference finals berth. The Target Center was rocking through the winter and into the spring, and Flip’s vision was a big reason why.
After a tumultuous 2004-05 season in which the Wolves missed the playoffs for just the second time of Flip’s tenure, McHale opted to part ways with his wing-man on February 12th, 2005.
But that didn’t stop Flip from achieving continued success in the NBA. He went on to replace Larry Brown as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, where he would help set that franchise’s record for wins in a season (64-18). He also led the Pistons to three straight central division championships and three straight conference finals appearances.
Following a stint with the Washington Wizards, Flip was hired back as head coach of the Wolves for the 2014-15 season. His return to Minnesota marked another pivotal switch in the wellbeing of the franchise. Over Flip’s nine year hiatus from the frozen tundra, the Wolves failed to make the playoffs once. In fact, they’ve still never achieved a winning season without him leading the way.
After trading Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, and drafting Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine, Flip was able to rejuvenate a dying organization in less than two years. The city had hope for its basketball team once more, and it is no coincidence that Flip was the curator.
Death and Commemoration
On August 11, 2015, Flip announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer. He planned to return to his role as head coach, but would relinquish duties to Sam Mitchell while he received treatment.
Shockingly, after being hospitalized for more than a month following complications in September, Flip died on October 25, 2015 at the age of 60.
I've been thinking for 30 minutes of what to say but words can't describe how special and important Coach Saunders was to me. I want to thank you coach for giving me the opportunity to play in the NBA and achieve my dream. I know the man above has a special place for you in his kingdom and this world, this league, this family will never be the same. I love you coach and I'm going to miss you so so much.
But as the Wolves enter into a new era of success, Flip’s fingerprints can still be seen anywhere you look. From putting together the young nucleus of Towns and Wiggins, to his son Ryan who remains as an assistant coach, to the players who compete in his honor. The Saunders legacy will never be lost amongst Minnesota sports culture.
And tonight, before their game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Wolves will immortalize one of their legends. A ceremony that shouldn’t leave a dry eye in the house is slated to start at 7:15 and culminate in a permanent banner being risen to the rafters of Target Center in Flip’s name. Every fan in attendance will also receive a commemorative Flip Saunders coin, which he was known for designing every year.
Tonight is well deserved: Flip passed away with more than 1,000 professional victories under his belt, finished 17 seasons as an NBA head coach with an impressive 654-592 record, seven 50+ win seasons, four conference finals appearances, and a Minnesota Timberwolves fan base forever in his debt.
Rest in Peace, Flip.