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AUSTIN EDITION Gophers' job is dream for Eckmann

Al Eckmann was getting ready to go fishing in June when he got a call. All of a sudden, he had a whopper of a story to tell.

Eckmann had been offered a job to be a volunteer assistant softball coach for the University of Minnesota. After weighing his options, Eckmann accepted the position.

"It really is (a thrill)," Eckmann said. "I was really kind of surprised."

Eckmann has accomplished a lot in the game. He coached Austin High to three state championships -- in 1980, '81 and '87 -- before retiring in the mid-1990s. He coached the Packers to more than 200 victories in his career and has been voted into a couple of hall of fames.

He had coached with the Gophers at summer camps in 2003 and '04. Gophers co-coaches Julie Standering and Lisa Bernstein then invited Eckmann to join the staff.

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"I think he's kind of excited," said Jan Eckmann, Al's wife, "but he's never been an assistant before."

Passes NCAA test

Before Eckmann could be hired for the position, he had to brush up on NCAA rules. He needed to pass a test that included, among other things, eligibility, transfer rules and financial aid.

"It took a while to put it together," Eckmann said. "I had to pass an NCAA examine.

"I hadn't taken a test in 30 years," he added.

He passed the test and officially started working with the Gophers in early September. The Gophers have 20 players but might add some walk-ons later.

Eckmann has been working mostly with infielders. They work on fielding, bunting, hitting and game situations.

The Gophers were 33-22 in the regular season a year ago. Eckmann said the team has about an even mix of players from Minnesota and from other states.

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The Gophers are allowed four fall games. They will play a pair of doubleheaders, one today and the other Friday.

"I'm not exactly sure what I'll be doing in games," Eckmann said. "I guess I'll find out (today)."

Plenty of travel

He won't be paid for his coaching, which he said is not a problem.

"It's not a drawback to me because I'm on retirement," he said.

He and Jan live in Austin, and he has to travel to Minneapolis several times a week. That schedule will intensify during the regular season. He has two sons living in the Twin Cities, however, and he can spend a night when the need arises.

Al and Jan also will move to Burnsville to house-sit for the winter, which will reduce his drive time.

The Gophers will soon be doing plenty of travel. The team will take a break from Dec. 10 to Jan. 10. The Gophers will begin the regular season on Feb. 10, when they host a tournament at the Metrodome. The team will then have two spring trips to California and one each to Texas and Las Vegas before beginning Big Ten Conference play.

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"It's going to be pretty exciting," Eckmann said. All the travel will cut down on his wintering out of state, but one reason he took the job is that Jan will be allowed to accompany him on spring road trips.

"I don't know if I would have done it if she couldn't come along," Eckmann said of the coaching job.

Jan isn't so sure.

"He really likes the girls," she said.

"It's kind of a dream come true," Eckmann admitted. "Anyone who's ever coached has dreamt about coaching at Division I."

Guy N. Limbeck is a Post-Bulletin sports writer. His column runs every Thursday. He can be reached at glimbeck@postbulletin.com.

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