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Minnesota Football: Feeling thankful for the Empire Class

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Taking stock of what the Empire Class has meant to this program

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Carter Coughlin was the first to refer the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ 2016 recruiting class as the “Empire Class.” It all started with a Tweet from March 2015:

(I think we can forgive the typo.)

It became the official class designation in July 2015, after Coughlin invited seven other players verbally committed to Minnesota to spend a weekend at his family’s cabin in Pequot Lakes. The high school senior from Eden Prairie barely knew any of the people he was inviting, but saw it as an opportunity for the players to bond and get to know each other.

“Honestly, I think that’s what a championship team looks like,” Coughlin told The Star Tribune’s Chip Scoggins. “It’s a team that has each other’s backs. We’ve got a pretty sweet bond going.”

As fun as that weekend may have been, it may have represented the calm before the storm, as the Empire Class has been through a lot at Minnesota.

Coughlin and co. originally committed to play for then head coach Jerry Kill. But four months prior to National Signing Day, Kill retired due to health reasons. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was promoted to interim head coach and then eventually had the interim tag removed. The Empire Class stuck to their commitments and won nine games in their first and only season under Claeys, who was fired in the aftermath of a sexual misconduct scandal that led to the expulsion of four players and resulted in a brief player boycott ahead of their bowl game.

The Empire Class was faced with the prospect of their third head coach in less than two years. But when P.J. Fleck was hired amid the turmoil surrounding Claeys’ firing, not a single member of that recruiting class still on the roster defected. Fleck came in and the first thing he told the team was, “You guys didn’t pick me. You had no choice. But I picked you.” And he finished with a famous quote from Bo Schembechler: “Those who stay will be champions.”

Well, the Empire Class stayed, and on Saturday they’ll have the opportunity to be champions.

When the Gophers take the field against Wisconsin, eight members of the Empire Class will be among the starters, and at least five of them will be honored as part of Senior Day in their last game at TCF Bank Stadium. But if you look back on the last four years, it is impossible not to see their footprints in the foundation that Fleck has been building.

Here is how it breaks down:

Multi-Year Starters (12): Carter Coughlin, Tyler Johnson, Sam Schlueter, Kamal Martin, Garrison Wright, Kiondre Thomas, Conner Olson, Thomas Barber, Coney Durr, Antoine Winfield Jr., Vincent Calhoun, and Donnell Greene

Key Contributors and Reserves (6): Seth Green, Phillip Howard, Merrick Jackson, Kobe McCrary, Tai’yon Devers, and Ko Kieft

Left the Program (3): Drew Hmielewski, TaMarion Johnson, and Mark Williams

To have only three members of a recruiting class not see meaningful snaps is remarkable, and I think it is a credit to how much these players have meant to the program. They came in, experienced success in their first season, and were then asked to start all over again. That’s not an easy ask. But we’re now seeing the fruits of their commitment to Minnesota.

What has made their contributions to the football program even more special is the fact that some of the most impactful players from the Empire Class were homegrown. Coughlin, Johnson, Schlueter, Martin, Olson, and Barber all hail from the state of Minnesota. Coughlin and Barber, specifically, even have deep family ties to the University of Minnesota.

Coughlin is the son of Robert and Jennie Coughlin. The former played football for the Gophers from 1986-90, and the latter played tennis for Minnesota from 1989-92. Carter’s uncle, Mike Moe, was also a football letterwinner in the 1980s and his grandfather, Tom Moe, lettered for the Gophers from 1957-59 and later served as interim athletic director from 1999-2002.

Barber is a second-generation Gopher. His father, Marion Barber, played running back at Minnesota from 1977-80, and his brothers, Marion Barber III and Dominique Barber, each played for the Gophers from 2001-04 and 2004-07, respectively. Both Marion Barber and Marion Barber III rank in the Top 10 all-time for career rushing yards at Minnesota.

With Thanksgiving and Senior Day taking place in the same week, as the Gophers prepare for one of the biggest games in program history, I can’t help but feel enormous gratitude for these players, without whom this historic season would not have been possible.

In that same spirit, what are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?