Farewell to a great coach and great person

FitzbeatsquarePhil “Flip” Saunders, president, part owner and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has passed away at age 60. Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in August; he was hospitalized following a setback in September.

Saunders is the winningest and most successful coach in franchise history. The team announced just Friday that Saunders would miss the entire 2015-16 season. He was hired as Timberwolves head coach in 1996 and led the team to eight straight playoff appearances. He also coached successfully with the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.

“It is with tremendous difficulty and deep sadness that the Timberwolves acknowledge the passing of our President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Flip Saunders. Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion and dignity for our organization,” said Glen Taylor.

“The NBA family is mourning today over the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Flip Saunders,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “Flip’s untimely passing has left a gaping hole in the fabric of our league. Flip was a beloved figure around the NBA, nowhere more so than in Minnesota, demonstrating a genuine and consistent passion for his players, his team and the game.”

Saunders was named head coach on June 6, 2014 after he returned to the organization on May 3, 2013 as the team’s president of basketball operations. Saunders has laid the foundation for a culture change with the Timberwolves. When this organization won before, it was because he led the way.

In 2003-2004, Saunders led the Timberwolves to a Western Conference-best and franchise-best 58-24 record; the team reached the Western Conference Finals. His career NBA record of 654-592 is the best in franchise history.

Saunders ranks 20th on the NBA all-time coaching wins chart, and his .525 winning percentage is 16th among all NBA coaches who have coached more than 1,110 games. Saunders had seven 50-win seasons and led his teams to four Conference Finals in 11 post-season appearances. He is one of 10 coaches to have coached in both the Western and Eastern Conference Finals.

Saunders was one of the most consistent coaches I have ever been around. His teams played smart and hard for him. Saunders was also a Gopher and played on one of the Gophers’ all-time best teams.

His teammates included Michael Thompson, Ray Williams and Kevin McHale. Twice he coached in the NBA All-Star game, and the NBA coaches will honor him this season by wearing lapel pins honoring his memory.

I had a great relationship with Flip. He was not only a great coach but a great person. I remember the 35W bridge collapse years ago when he shared with me how he just missed getting caught in the disaster.

He will always receive credit for the job he did in developing Kevin Garnett from high school kid to Big Ticket to NBA Superstar and MVP. The work that Saunders has put in place for the future of this franchise will pay dividends for years to come. The team is being coached by two of his ex-players, Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe.

Our prayers are for Saunders’ wife Debbie, their four children, and the Timberwolves organization.


Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.