Monday, November 08, 2004

Time For Change

When the University of Kansas decided to usher football coach Glen Mason out the door several years ago, the Lawrence newspapers welcomed the change. When news broke that the University of Minnesota had hired Glen Mason to resurrect a dying program, those same reporters offered Gophers' fans two bits of wisdom: (1) Glen Mason will make your program respectable in a short period of time and (2) Glen Mason will wear out his welcome in slightly less time.


No truer words of prophecy ever were spoken. Glen Mason took over a Gopher football team that successive Gopher coaches had run into the ground. And, after several years, Mason produced a respectable team, a team that could produce an occasional upset against a highly ranked team and a team that could win games that they were favored to win.

Then came 2003. After early season victories over also-rans and never-rans/never-will-runs, the Gophers hit the heart of the schedule and collapsed. Mason excused the collapse as the result of inexperience (on the part of the players) and unreasonable expectations. Many agreed with Mason and gave the coach a pass.

At the outset of the 2004 season, Mason proclaimed that this was the year. This was the year that the Gophers would challenge for the Big Ten title. This was the year that the Gophers would challenge for a BCS bid. And, shudder, this was the year that the Gophers might even contend for a national championship. These were high expectations, but Mason did not waiver.

The media applauded. Fans warmed to the idea. Mason and his suddenly media-accessible players continued to tout the improvements of the team. And Mason continued to speak in high terms of his "seasoned team."

Then came Michigan. After a narrow loss in a game that was the Gophers' for the taking, Mason spoke of the difference between this years' team and last years' team. This year, the Gophers had the benefit of perspective, experience, maturity, and improved leadership, Mason said. "Last year," he commented, "we were lacking in those areas." Mason assured the Gopher faithful that last year was last year (as it almost always is) and that the Gophers would finish the season in winning fashion, despite an eerily similar, disheartening loss to Michigan.

Gophers' AD Joel Maturi offered his support for Mason stating that season was not a loss merely because the Gophers failed to defeat Michigan. Maturi even stated that he would be satisfied with a three loss Big Ten season. At the time, the Gophers had one Big Ten loss with games remaining against Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and the Gophers were expected to be favorites in all their remaining games except for the game at Wisconsin--a game that most expected would nevertheless be a close game.

To whom did Maturi expect the Gophers to lose? Maybe Wisconsin on the road, but at lowly Michigan State or Indiana? At home against Illinois or Iowa? Unthinkable at the time. Did Maturi know something we did not? If so, he still knew less than we now know, but he still clearly anticipated a top three or four Big Ten finish.

But few focused on the odd implications of Maturi's vote of confidence, preferring to ride Mason's promise of improved play.

The Gophers responded to Mason's rhetoric with a forgettable bludgeoning at the hands of the Spartans. Mason was dismayed. At first, he suggested that coaching played a role in the defeat. "Maybe we just weren't as prepared as we thought we were," he opined.

But the coach's tone quickly changed to one of greater introspection betraying the side of Mason that makes first among buck passers. Rather than accept responsibility for the debacle in East Lansing, Mason quickly reverted to form, suggesting that the coaches "put the players in the right spots" and "had them ready to play." The problem, the coach now understood "after looking at game film," was that the Gophers simply did not make the plays. That's Mason speak for "our players let us down." Mason did allow that some of the coaches needed to make some adjustments, but the buck certainly did not stop with the head coach.

The following week, the Gophers shut out a wretched Illinois team in a manner that most Gophers' fans expected of the Gophers at the beginning of the season. Mason was once again beaming, even suggesting that there was still room on the bandwagon for all those who had jumped ship after consecutive losses to teams the Gophers also were favored to beat. Some jumped aboard the Mason float ready for a certain victory over the equally wretched Indiana Hoosiers.

But Mason's self-congratulatory parade was soon cancelled, perhaps for good, when the Gophers laid an egg in Bloomington. As bad as the loss was at Michigan State, the loss at Indiana was worse as Indiana had only one prior Big Ten victory over the past two seasons and had a much longer pedigree of ineptitude (dating to their last bowl appearance in 1993) than the short run of ineptitude shown by the Spartans.

This time, Mason accepted some blame, but he again noted the shortcomings of the players and other coaches. "We have to coach better and play better, period," the coach commented. There was a sense that the coach was accepting some responsibility for the loss. But even then, it was clear that Mason was deflecting criticism from himself onto others, as opposed to how most upstanding coaches approach the media by deflecting criticism of players onto themselves.

Mason suggested that, despite the problems, the Gophers would rebound with a good showing against the Wisconsin Badgers. They did not, as they were blown out after trailing 31-7 at halftime.

A dismal performance in a dismal season led by an increasingly dismal coaching staff. A staff operating on the public dime to the tune of a few million dollars a year.

And when we thought that the abysmal product on the field would dwarf any other concerns with this team, Mason again showed the trait that made his dismissal from Kansas welcome. When asked about the season, Mason said, "if we win at Iowa, we finish 7-4. That might not be great, but by Minnesota standards, that's pretty darn good."

No, coach, by Minnesota standards, that's pretty darn bad. You began the season with victories over Toledo, Illinois State, and Colorado State. Toledo, the crown jewel of your pre-Big Ten schedule, is 5-1 in the Western Division of the MAC, modest considering the MAC's ineptidue this year. Colorado State is 2-3 (3-6) in the Mountain West Conference and Illinois State is 3-4 in the I-AA Gateway Conference. Of 117 Division I-A teams, Toledo is currently ranked 64th. Colorado State is ranked 77th. Illinois State is not ranked in the top 20 in Division I-AA. Not exactly murderer's row.

The Gophers followed their 3-0 start with victories over Northwestern and Penn State. Despite a winning Big Ten record, Northwestern is currently ranked 35th. Penn State is ranked 85th. Again, not murderer's row.

In their next four games, the Gophers lost to Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin, and defeated Illinois. Michigan State is ranked 53rd. Illinois is ranked 83rd. Indiana is ranked 84th! The best that can be said is that the Gophers had their junk handed to them by two top 10 teams. That's not good by anybody's standards and certainly falls below the standards of a Big Ten school that prides itself on quality athletic programs and has significant enough athletic aspirations that it bids with the big schools for the services of a coach.

But if Mason's myopic self-assurances after deflating defeats are not enough to make the University reassess its commitment to the coach, maybe the fact that this is prime recruiting season ought to. While it is difficult to convince good athletes to play for a losing program, it is even more difficult to compel such athletes to play for a coach that is unwilling to accept blame, offers the same tired responses in assessing the same old failures, and now appears to be taking the program in reverse.

If this is not time for change, we are all in the wrong profession. For, if the standard for earning over $1 million per year is to fail miserably at one's profession, there is no better job than to be head coach of the Minnesota Gopher's football team.

Up Next: More Gopher talk and post game.

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