Gary Schraufnagel took a phone call a couple months ago informing him that Minnesota Duluth was bringing back its American Family Classic men’s basketball tournament and asking him if he would be able to attend.
Never mind that Schraufnagel lives in Arizona and only had about two months to make arrangements, the former UMD basketball player, assistant coach and American Family Insurance agent who started the tournament more than three decades ago didn’t take long to reply.
“I said, ‘I’ll be there,’ ” he said.
Schraufnagel, 62, who lives in Mesa, arrived in Duluth Thursday night with plans of attending the 21st American Family Classic this weekend with his 9-year-old grandson, Aidan. It will be the first American Family Classic since 2007.
“I’m really excited, no question about it, and Aidan is excited, too,” Schraufnagel said. “I’m happy for American Family’s involvement, and I’m happy we are supporting the UMD basketball program.”
While nobody around the UMD basketball program seems to know who spearheaded bringing the American Family Classic back, with praise sliding off like Teflon and redirected elsewhere, everyone knows whose idea it was for that first tournament in 1982.
“First of all, I love the basketball program, and I love UMD, and I was just trying to do something to get some people in the stands -- ‘Fill the Gym,’ as we called it,” Schraufnagel said. “Working for American Family, I approached them to see if it was something they’d be interested in sponsoring.”
Initially, individual agents ponied up the money for the sponsorship and helped promote the tournament by going to elementary and junior high schools and giving away tickets. Years later, corporate took over and pumped in advertising.
Some of the tournaments attracted crowds upwards of 2,000 to Romano Gym (currently listed as having a 2,759-seat capacity).
“We got some pretty good crowds,” Schraufnagel said. “I don’t know if we ever actually filled it up, but we got some good crowds, with lots of enthusiasm.”
Former UMD basketball coaches Dale Race and Gary Holquist will also be in attendance, as will former UMD basketball standout and longtime Duluth American Family Insurance agent Rockne Johnson, part of a strong tradition of former Bulldogs involved with the company.
Holquist said he used the tournament, which was generally held right before Thanksgiving, to “escalate” the Bulldogs’ schedule, bringing in the likes of Northwest Missouri State, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Metro State and Winona State during the Warriors’ NCAA Division II championship heyday in the mid-2000s.
“It used to be a vehicle for us to bring in good teams,” Holquist said. “We had some great teams in there.”
UMD has a 29-11 all-time tournament record, but over the years, with UMD going from the NSIC, to the North Central Conference, then back to the NSIC, the tournament went by the wayside as the Bulldogs’ nonconference schedule was often restricted.
“It disappeared for awhile, but this year an opportunity presented itself for American Family to get back into it,” Johnson said. “I was told about it from my district manager, and we just jumped on board with it.
“It’s nice to have it back, and it shows our involvement in the community. We’re able to support the university, and support the basketball program. It’s a win-win.”
Johnson, an avid fan, watches webcasts of the Bulldogs when he can’t see them in person.
“They have a heckuva good team,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize how good they’re going to be this year, so this will be a good way to get some people back in the stands to see what they’re style is like. If people get up there, they’re going to like it, they’re going to like what they see.”
Schraufnagel, who his UMD friends like Johnson call “Schrauf,” retired 18 months ago after being with American Family for 37 years, in varying positions. The native of Mason, Wis., near Ashland, has moved around his share but has lived in Arizona the past 10 years. He plans on getting back to the Northland more, especially if this tournament keeps going.
“No question about it,” Schraufnagel said.
“It’s his baby,” Johnson said.
“Yeah, it is,” Schraufnagel acknowledged. “I hope they can just build some momentum and keep it going, and make it even bigger.”
Long overdue, for sure, but there’s another adage that also applies: better late than never.
Johnson’s son, former Iowa State and Duluth East standout Cory Johnson, was expected to arrive in Duluth about midnight Thursday.
Cory Johnson, 31, had been playing professionally in Argentina before injuring his hip. He played in Japan last year in the same league that another former East standout, Rick Rickert, played in before he retired. Johnson, a 6-foot-7 forward, has also played in Luxembourg, Finland, Spain and Switzerland. He plans to get healthy and possibly return to playing in Europe.
“He’s really seen the world,” Rockne Johnson said.
- UMD announced the signing of five players to its 2020 recruiting class, including Northland products Peter Soumis of Hermantown and John Sutherland of Grand Rapids. Sutherland, a 6-5 forward, was a 2019 News Tribune All-Area first-team selection after leading the Thunderhawks in scoring (27.5 ppg) and rebounding (11.5 rpg) while shooting 66 percent from 2-point range, while Soumis, a guard, was a second-team selection after averaging 19.3 points and 7.5 assists per game.
They are joined by Austin Andrews (Eden Prairie, Minn.), Charlie Katona (Shakopee, Minn.) and Zach Lea (Chaska, Minn.) as part of coach Justin Wieck’s second recruiting class with the Bulldogs.
21ST AMERICAN FAMILY CLASSIC
What: Minnesota Duluth men’s basketball tournament
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: Romano Gym
Friday’s schedule: Southwest Minnesota State vs. Stonehill, 5 p.m.; Northern Michigan at UMD, 7 p.m.
Saturday’s schedule: Southwest Minnesota State vs. Northern Michigan, 3 p.m.; Stonehill at UMD, 5 p.m.