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Gene's Blog: High hoops I.Q, even higher SAT-ire score

Gene's Blog: High hoops I.Q, even higher SAT-ire score

PHOTO: Matt McDonagh, front in No. 20, and over his left shoulder, No. 34 Johnny Tauer, 26 seasons ago with St. Thomas


Thirty years ago this school year, The Onion publication debuted in Madison, Wis.

Created by two Badger students, the humor/satire newspaper built a reputation for Fake News that made you laugh (and often made you think). Now an all-digital outlet, The Onion continues to roast anything and everything in American pop culture and media.

Among its memorable parody stories:

  • Drugs win Drug War
  • Study: Dolphins not so intelligent on land
  • World scientists admit they just don't like mice
  • Supreme Court rules Supreme Court rules
  • Report: Unemployment high because people keep blowing their job interviews

Just this week, The Onion found time to salute my alma mater for its contribution to higher education: Thousands of students forced to attend Iowa State after university sets acceptance rate to 140 percent.

The Onion often does too good of a job with its stories, as unwitting individuals and media outlets have reposted the fictional stories as fact.

There are two St. Thomas connections to The Onion: former part-owner and longtime national sales manager, Matt McDonagh, was part of a strong era of basketball here in the 1990s; and the current President and CEO, Mark McAvoy, is a 2002 Tommie grad. McAvoy gave a lively presentation in February 2018 as part of the university's First Friday series.

McDonagh and current St. Thomas coach John Tauer go way back to their elementary-school days at Highland Catholic in St. Paul. Their team later won the CAA city championship, a big feat in the pre-travel sports days. As juniors at Cretin-Derham Hall in 1989-90, they were part of the school's first trip to the boys' state tournament as a combined school, and teammates included future Tommies Shawn Devine and Jim Sticha.

As CDH seniors, the Johnny-Matt tandem shared the captain role and led the 27-1 Raiders to an overtime victory over Minneapolis Roosevelt in the 1991 large-class state championship game. The pair combined for 43 points against Roosevelt, including 13 of the team's 15 in overtime, and McDonagh was named state championship game MVP. The Raiders were also able to avenge their lone loss of the season to No. 1-ranked Anoka.

McDonagh and Tauer continued their basketball bond here as Tommies. Tauer was one of the school's first dangerous 3-point shooters and went on to surpass 1,200 career points. He also made Academic All-America and All-West Region.

Now as head coach, Tauer loves to discover unselfish, all-around hoopers like McDonagh. Matt injured his ankle as a freshman and was limited to a few games on the junior varsity. He worked his way into Coach Steve Fritz' varsity as a sophomore, and was a key contributor to the program's first final Four team as a junior in 1993-94. McDonagh had eight assists and six rebounds in an NCAA playoff defeat of Hampden-Sydney that aided the Final Four run.

As a senior, McDonagh led the conference in assists, made the MIAC All-Defensive Team, and helped St. Thomas finish 27-1. That was the first MIAC men's squad to go 20-0 in the conference. His 138 assists broke a 17-year-old school record, and stood for 10 seasons until another Cretin-Derham Hall grad, Sean Sweeney, put his name in the Tommie record book with 141.

"We played basketball together from second grade through our senior years in college," Tauer said. "I consistently took more shots than Matt -- and he consistently had more assists, steals, and defended better than I did. Matt was as unselfish a teammate as I ever played with, always looking to pass first, play tough defense, and make smart decisions – three hallmarks key to our success at St. Thomas.

"He's likely the only shooting guard to ever lead the MIAC in assists. Mike Bergan, our senior point guard, claims this is where the term 'hockey assist' originated, with Mike setting Matt up for countless baskets but Matt choosing to make an extra pass and get the assist rather than score himself."


Bright Lights, Big City

McDonagh had interned during college at Smith Barney and United Health Care, and was an English and Marketing major here. Matt and teammate Mike Bergan decided to move to Chicago after graduation in 1995. "Like a lot of Midwest kids who move there, I knew there was a chance that after a couple of years I would move back to St. Paul and Minneapolis," he said.

"I had a friend from St. Paul who had been involved in The Onion. They were starting a new print edition in Chicago, and he hired me to help him. I loved the creativity, and I was really passionate about the concept. I think I drove the CEO at the time crazy, as I was willing to do anything. Since I wasn't as gifted of a comedy writer as the staff they had, I got involved in distribution and sales.

"Eventually the focus became, 'How do we build this into a real business.' The internet was starting up, and a seminal moment occurred when we posted a story headlined 'Clinton deploys vowels to Bosnia; cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to be first recipients.' 'That story was one of the first you could say that went viral, with one million hits. We started getting calls from major international companies like Target and Absolut Vodka. They were asking, 'What is this Onion thing?' We were off to the races."

McDonagh said The Onion has a core philosophy to "speak truth to power," and follows a rule to "punch up, but never punch down."

McDonagh moved to New York City in 2001 when The Onion expanded and looked to gain a national presence with TV projects and book publishing. After an 18-year run with the company, he sold his interest. He now works for a NYC media company with a YouTube-affiliated concept caled Watch MoJo. Matt met his wife in New York, and they live in Brooklyn, where their children attend public schools.

McDonagh said basketball helped prepare him well for his business career. "I enjoy working with a small team of people who join together to produce a great product, just like in basketball," he said.

Tauer is not surprised at McDonagh's accomplishments. "Matt was the consummate teammate, well-liked by everyone, and always poised on the court," the coach said. "When we were in Brooklyn earlier this season, Matt spoke to the team, sharing great messages about chasing dreams, finding a career they are passionate about, and being great team players in all that they do. This is what Matt has done his entire life, and a big part of the incredible run he had as an executive and part owner of The Onion. Matt was at the forefront of the onset of internet advertising at a time when companies were unsure how to capitalize on this revenue stream.

"Matt epitomizes the values of Tommie basketball, and his drive during college and success after college is no surprise to anybody who played with him."



Real headline... or Onion story?

In honor of the Onion -- and an underrated Tommie guard from 25 seasons ago in McDonagh -- today's Gene's Blog tests your knowledge of current local news and sports. Can you spot the real from the fake in news headlines below?

1. Almost Paradise: Minnesota Gopher hoops fans psyched for trip of a lifetime... to Des Moines! (Not Onion: At least the snow down there is all gone)

2. Sid Hartman stuck in elevator for an hour, but doing well; had flashback to time he was stuck on an escalator (Not Onion: Face it, the 99-year-old newspaper legend will outlast us all...)

3. 2019 Tommie-Johnnie men's soccer game set to be played in a pro football stadium; sellout expected, but no alcohol or scarves allowed (Onion worthy: It's Tommie Johnnie American football at Allianz Field, now only seven months away; remember on that day, 'pitch' is a noun, not a verb)

4. World's top-ranked bridge player receives one-year ban for doping (Not Onion: Wow... just, wow!)

5. Freddie Gillespie, St. John's and St. Mary's represent the MIAC in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament... oops, wrong SJU and SMU (Not Onion: Freddie left Carleton to walk on at Baylor, and is blowing up as a D-I big man; in February 2017 here for the Knights, Freddie went for 19 points and 11 boards as Carleton won by 16; that's the Toms' worst home loss in the last 15 seasons)

6. Fulfilling its claim as the "Worldwide Leader in Sports," ESPN scoops itself and releases Division I Women's Hoops bracket... three hours before scheduled telecast (Not Onion: As Chris Carter might say, 'C'mon, man!')

7. A 5-foot-11 kid from Edina couldn't make his high school's boys' hockey or girls varsity tennis teams... yet led Tommie Men's Hoops in rebounds 10 times (Not Onion: Watch out for Anders Nelson, who made National Freshman of the Year for the Tommies this winter)

8. Pick Minnesota's best college/university on WCCO Radio's online 64-school bracket of in-state institutions of higher ed (Not Onion: Gophers, St. Thomas, St. Cloud State and Carleton are No. 1 seeds... but don't sleep on the No. 15-seeded Big Stone County CC)

9. Laurie Trow's Tommie Women's Hoops school records going fast (sarcasm): In 26 years, one record broken, 15 to go (Not Onion: Sorry to break the news to NFL alum Lawrence Taylor, but the 1993 St. Thomas grad was the original L.T.)

10. With more basketball wins in Lincoln, Neb., this winter (two) than the combined totals of Michigan State, the Gophers, Iowa, Penn State and Illinois, Tommie men turn down invitation to Big Ten Conference (Onion worthy: Johnny Tauer used his own "Big Ten" -- Hannon, Bair, Johnson, Nelson, Lindberg, Hedstrom, Hannah, Anderson, Miller and Madison -- to top UW-La Crosse and No. 1-ranked Nebraska Wesleyan in their NCAA playoff trip to Lincoln)

11. Nike shoe explodes on court in Cameron Arena (lack of tar in heel suspected); Nike's spin: "No big deal, it was worn by some freshman." (Not Onion: Get ready for the Zion Williamson/Duke hype train in the Twin Cities in two weeks.

12. Celebrity basketball game at Schoenecker Arena during Final Four weekend to feature Charles Barkley as a coach... (Onion worthy: I can picture Charles bringing Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson to do the heavy lifting on the bench. Charles rocks as an analyst, but let's face it, he'll be "TURRIBLE," as a celebrity coach.

13. Spalding sporting goods creates new ball for college women's hoops, The Hannah: Ball has 69.6% chance to go through the net, even with pressure from two defenders (Not Onion: Hannah Spaulding was part of 114 wins here in four seasons, with 1,394 points, 711 rebounds and 189 blocks: Well done, No. 42!)
14. Vegas lays 100-1 odds that any 2019 Final Four player in Minneapolis will break Connor Bair's U.S. Bank Stadium record of 10 blocked shots (Not Onion: Our Connor had 10 of his 35 career blocks in the win over UW-River Falls in the debut hoops game at the Bank. Well done, No. 42!)


Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 25th season at St. Thomas and 31st overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at