Week two in our look around the Big Ten, and for the next few days we will be taking a look at the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a team that surprised many last year by, well, um, not being the worst BCS conference team in history. Be sure to check out our SBN partner, The Daily Gopher, for news about Minnesota sports. On with the show.
Last week we focused on an Indiana team that has been pretty much irrelevant on a conference wide scale for basically its entire existence. The Hoosiers have been to one Rose Bowl -- a loss -- and have won two conference titles, neither of them (1945, 1967) were recent enough for anyone shy of 50 years old to remember. The rest of Indiana football history has landed on the spectrum somewhere between mediocre and downright awful.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers, however, spent stretches of the developmental stage of college football as a relative powerhouse. The program has six claimed national titles (the latest, 1967 came on the heels of a shared Big Ten title) and can not only lay claim to a pair of back-to-back titles (1940, 1941), but is the last school in college football history to win three in a row (1934-36). There were few teams that had accomplished more than Minnesota up until the late 60s.
From that point on things began to spiral out of control. Between the tenure of Murray Warmath -- the last national title winning coach who retired in 1971 -- and the hiring of Glen Mason in 1997 Minnesota didn't employ a coach that would post a winning percentage over .500, and Minnesota made just three bowl games. It was a painful departure from the early success that the program had built, and those 25 years -- encompassing most of the modern era of college football -- would redefine the Minnesota program as something much less imposing than what had come before.
Today the Gophers are the unquestioned bottom of the Legends division. Michigan has recovered from the Rodriguez years, Michigan State has built a solid foundation of success that should help perpetuate the winning of the past couple years, Nebraska -- one of the biggest brands in college football -- is rebounding from its own time spent lost in the woods, Iowa has proven itself capable of mounting a challenge for the conference title, and even Northwestern has built a reliable model for success with hyper-accurate spread quarterbacks surrounded by athletes in space. Meanwhile, Minnesota is fighting to rebuild a collapsed defense while recovering from the after-effects of Tim Brewster.
Minnesota, once desperate to regain its place among the college football elite, is just clawing to catch up to the rest of the pack.
I'm not sure exactly how Minnesota fans feel about Glen Mason (more on that later in the week) but if I had to take a guess I would imagine it is something like what Michigan basketball fans used to feel about Tommy Amaker. Both were good coaches with solid resumes and a tall task set before them when they took their respective jobs rebuilding Michigan basketball and Minnesota football. Amaker had to clean up what was perhaps the most dysfunctional Michigan sports program in the school's history, while dealing with the aftermath of major sanctions and an in-state rival that had pounced on the opportunity to turn the tide of support in the state of Michigan solid green. Mason walked into a football program that hadn't had any significant success since before Nixon was president, hadn't been to a bowl game in over a decade, and was a complete non-entity in the yearly race for conference champion. Tall tasks for both.
There were successes to be had for both. Amaker put together some solid recruiting classes, won the NIT, got Michigan to the NCAA tournament bubble, and always seemed to be a year or two away from getting Michigan to take the next step up. Mason's Minnesota team won ten games in 2003, went to seven bowl games in ten years (winning three), and always seemed to take a step back just as momentum got rolling. And therein lies the problem: both men took unenviable situations, provided some stability and a few brief tastes of success, but ultimately failed to break through from being mediocre-to-good to full-fledged conference title contender.
I sometimes feel compelled to defend Tommy Amaker when his failure at Michigan is brought up. Not that I wasn't frustrated with the sporadic nature of his teams, the hype that then bled into unmet expectations, and ultimately the empty feeling left when another season ended in an NIT appearance. I wasn't happy with any of it -- quite the contrary, I was at the majority of those games and wore my frustration on my sleeve -- but I appreciated that getting things from "the depths" up to mediocre was in itself a hard fought victory. That being said, I wasn't sad to see Amaker go.
Of course with the benefit of hindsight I would imagine a Michigan fan's view of Tommy Amaker and a Minnesota fan's view of Glen Mason are different inasmuch as what followed was different. Amaker was succeeded by John Beilein who after a few years has Michigan back near the top of the conference while recruiting at a high level. Mason's replacement, Tim Brewster, was a regretful decision almost immediately, and was run out of town halfway through his fourth season as coach. For this reason, at least, I would like to think that Minnesota fans are more forgiving with Glen Mason than Michigan fans are when it comes to Tommy Amaker. It's all about perspective, and after watching Glen Mason succeed slightly more than he failed it must be hard to swallow the utter incompetence of the Brewster era.
This doesn't change the fact that Minnesota ultimately fired Glen Mason, a solid but unspectacular coach and tried swinging for the fences with one of the most bizarre and irresponsible hires of the past decade, bringing in a coach that had no experience leading a team or coordinating an offense or defense. Regardless, Brewster was paid good money and his contract was loaded with incentives for lofty goals. He spoke of getting Minnesota back to the top of the Big Ten and into the Rose Bowl.
Almost immediately the floor fell out from under him. His first season started about as horribly as one could imagine with Minnesota going 1-11 overall and losing all eight Big Ten games. This followed a five year span in which Mason had averaged seven and a half wins and went to five straight bowl games. Brewster would turn this around the next two years going 7-6 and 6-7 and losing both years in the Insight Bowl. However, there was little goodwill to be found and a four game losing streak to begin 2010, coupled with a loss to an FCS team would ensure Brewster didn't make it to the end of the season.
So the question for Minnesota remains: where do you want to be?
This came up quite a bit last week with Indiana, because as Michigan fans that had suffered through three seasons that could be be described as Indiana-like, we all A) couldn't fathom a lifetime of supporting that and B) didn't understand what success is relative to a history of abject failure.
I don't have the same blind spot when it comes to Minnesota football, because if you turn the clock back Minnesota fans were as conditioned to success as Michigan fans. Sure, that was forty-some-odd years ago and to think that current undergrads hold dearly the titles of the thirties and forties is about as ridiculous as current Michigan undergrads cheering the victories of Yost, Kipke, and Crisler as ultimately meaningful victories when considering the successes of the program today (which is to say, very). Tradition is a marvelous thing, but it has very little bearing on the current reality. What have you done for me lately? That is he important question.
Minnesota, unhappy with the relative success of Glen Mason and hungry for the next step up, swung for the fences with a flashy hire, a big-time recruiter credited with helping to reel in Vince Young, and a coach that spent time at powerhouses like Texas as well as in the NFL. Good wasn't quite good enough.
At least that is the way things look to me as an outsider, someone who looks at Minnesota's football team with about 15 years of context and thinks, "yeah, they are totally crazy for giving up 7-5/8-4. That's success."
It isn't, or at least it shouldn't be, and for the same reason that my frustration with Tommy Amaker grew with each passing NIT invite. I wanted more.
I have a hard time believing that Minnesota will be able to make a move back to the top of the conference, but I would have been wrong had you asked me the same thing about Iowa over a decade ago and Michigan State five years ago. The things we see as tangible when it comes to college football success -- facilities, fan support, location, recruiting hotbeds (i.e. the reason why everyone always says that programs like Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, USC, etc. are "different") -- only go so far. Winning games and conference titles is ultimately about building something bigger out of a bunch of disparate parts. You take the players you have and you coach them up. You find the recruits you can get and you make sure they fit in your system. You build an offense with a strong identity and a defense that is fundamentally sound. Then you cash in your modest successes for a slightly rosier outlook and a couple breaks down the road.
That is where Jerry Kill comes in. He has a track record of improving his teams at each stop, and he has done it as a head coach at nearly every level of college football (difference number one between Kill and Brewster). He has a system that he has been running for years and a capable group of assistants that are comfortable coaching with him (difference number two). He hasn't coached in the NFL but has led a team and is experienced in everything it takes (number three).
Even the results of last year speak to what could be a promising long term future for this Minnesota team. The Gophers started the year as one of the worst BCS conference teams of all-time while watching their new head coach face a series of seizures that pulled him off of the sidelines and put his future in doubt. Everyone proceeded to write off Minnesota until Minnesota finally had enough. The Gophers owned the final quarter against Iowa for a shocking win, gave Michigan State all it could handle, and slammed the door on the Ron Zook era.
Maybe last season wasn't any good in the long run. Three wins certainly doesn't feel like anything more than thorough failure. But if those three wins, and more importantly the improvement that Jerry Kill and his staff were able to conjure as the season went on, lead to six in 2012 and seven or eight in 2013, and eventually to a Minnesota team that, like Iowa is disappointed with back to back 7-5 affairs, then that will be the kind of meaningful improvement that Minnesota hasn't seen since Glen Mason. If that improvement then stalls, the teams don't improve or the Gophers fail to keep building, then it will be time to decide once again if good is good enough.
On that day that Jerry Kill gets unceremoniously run out of town on the heels of another mid-level bowl loss and seven win season, I won't be so quick to judge Minnesota for a hasty decision, or for forsaking a quiet status quo of six, seven, or eight wins. After all, isn't it what we are supposed to do, strive to be better than before?
I just hope that if that day comes that whoever is in charge of hiring the next coach takes his time and avoids the second coming of Tim Brewster, or else we are going to be right back here in fifteen years wondering the same thing.
Is good good enough?