Can Jerry Kill Get Minnesota Past "Glen Mason Territory"?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Kill's already accomplished a lot in his three seasons at The U, but what does he have to accomplish- short of winning the B1G and going to the Rose Bowl- to be considered more successful at Minnesota than Mason?

I've been really enjoying Bill Connelly's 128-team CFB previews. His preview on Nebraska talks about the ridiculed but still amazing streak of four loss seasons head coach Bo PeLLLLini has strung together in his time in Lincoln. Husker fans are frustrated that Bo can't get them back to power and seem unaccepting of consistent nine and ten win seasons, making him wonder if he should rename "Glen Mason Territory" for Pelini:

If you've read my previews for long enough, you've come to know the term Glen Mason Territory. I use it to describe when a coach brings solid results to a school but never really breaks through to the top level (or if he does, he doesn't do so for very long). Its namesake took Minnesota to seven bowls in eight years and twice finished in the AP top 20 at a school that hadn't finished a season ranked in nearly 40 years, but he was let go after seasons of 7-5, 7-5, and 6-7. The Gophers have had a winning record just twice in the seven years since.

It's probably pretty obvious where I'm going with this. Bo Pelini has never won fewer than nine games in Lincoln at a school that had only managed that feat twice in the six years before Pelini arrived. He has established a level of play the Huskers hadn't seen since the turn of the century, and while there has been fluctuation (10th in 2009, 39th in 2013), the Huskers are still winning.

What Nebraska decides to do about Pelini's coaching fate and whether Husker fans are right or wrong for expecting more, well, let's leave that for Husker fans. But this provides a good opportunity to look at Mason's career in Minnesota, and what Kill has to achieve to, as Connelly says, break through to that next level. Connelly wrote a post about Glen Mason Territory when Kill was hired after the 2010 season:

Back in my blogger infancy, I coined a term called Glen Mason Territory to describe when a coach achieves at a higher-than-normal level at a given school (probably a second-tier BCS program that hadn't won in a while before he showed up) but cannot ever break through to the next level; he keeps making bowl games and winning, say, 6-8 games a year, but fans begin to get impatient.  The crazies begin to start yelling things like "settling for mediocrity!" on talk radio and message boards, season ticket sales begin to fade, and even the rational fans in the base (the SBN readers, naturally) begin to start wondering if a change is needed.

I will now prove my insanity by saying I am a rational Gopher fan who was doing some of the irrational or crazy things Connelly mentioned by the end of the Mason Era, but I don't care (see? I'm insane!): Whatever happens with the Gopher program I will go to my grave believing that firing Mason was the right decision. Thus far it only looks so poor in retrospect- the two winning seasons in seven seasons since canning Mase- because there could not have possibly been a more wrong decision than hiring Tim Brewster to replace him.

But the reason for writing this post isn't to have the argument of whether firing Mason was the right move (it was) or not (no really, it was). The point of this is to look at what Coach Kill needs to achieve to break through the glass ceiling of "Glen Mason Territory". Before we do that, a little context is needed to understand just what Glen Mason Territory really was.

THE GLEN MASON ERA AT MINNESOTA

Here's what Mason accomplished in his 10 seasons at Minnesota from 1997-2006. For a program that had done absolutely nothing since 1967, all of these were huge improvements:

  • 64-57 overall record
  • 32-48 in the B1G
  • After two losing seasons in 1997 and '98 led Minnesota to seven bowls in the next eight seasons, winning three of them.
  • Had a .500 record or better in the B1G four times: 5-3 (1999 and 2003) 4-4 (2000 and 2005)
  • Won 10 games in a single season in 2003
  • Highest finish in the B1G was tied for fourth (1999 and 2003)
  • Notched victories over Wisconsin (2001, '03), Iowa (1998, '99', 2000, '06), Ohio State (2000), Michigan ('05), and Penn State (when it mattered in 1999 and when it didn't in '03 and '04)

These are the results people outside the fanbase point to when they say we should have been happy with Glen Mason Territory (or as I'll refer to it going forward, GMT). There may still be fans inside the fan base who would agree with this too, though those folks generally either just haven't tasted the delciousness of Kill-Aid or are related to Glen Mason. Or are Glen Mason himself. For the rest of us, 10 years was enough, and while perhaps the timing of his firing wasn't the best (after the bowl game collapse instead of at the end of the regular season looks like a knee-jerk reaction, and waiting that long took away some potential candidates who were already off to other jobs. Well except Charlie Strong), it was still the right move.

Still, it wasn't that Mason was without success because clearly he had some, especially compared to recent decades for Minnesota football. But for me, that success came much more in the first half of his Gopher coaching career than the second, and his time in Minnesota can be separated into two distinct time periods: "BEFORE The Start of the Fourth Quarter vs Michigan in 2003" and "AFTER the Start of the Fourth Quarter vs Michigan in 2003." I'll give you a moment to curl up into the fetal position and/or grab your favorite bottle (or case) or whiskey, beer or whichever beverage you choose to drown your sorrows because, yes, we're going to talk about "The Michigan Collapse of 2003".

BEFORE THE START OF THE FOURTH QUARTER VS MICHIGAN: 1997- October 10, 2003

After two losing seasons in 1997 and '98, 1999 was a breakout campaign that saw the Gophs win five games in the B1G and eight overall earning Mase B1G Coach of the Year. After a dip in 2000 and '01, they got back to eight wins and 4-4 B1G in 2002, and were rolling again in 2003. On October 10, 2003 Mason's 17th ranked Gophers were 6-0 as they hosted #20 Michigan. Sure, Minnesota hadn't really played anybody to that point, rolling through the usual four non-conference cupcakes as well as knocking off Penn State (probably Paterno's worst team as they finished 3-9) and Northwestern (respectable as they finished 4-4 in the B1G and 6-7 overall), but confidence was high this would be the first time since 1986 The U would take the Little Brown Jug from the Wolverines.

Minnesota not only had the two-headed monster at RB of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III and a really good offense around them, but they actually kinda, sorta had a defense (the 2003 season was the last time before 2013 Minnesota would finish in the top 6 in the B1G in both total D and scoring D). Through the first three quarters Minnesota dominated Michigan and led 28-7 at the end of the third quarter. Had the Gophers hung on for the win, and everything else played out the same the rest of the season (losses to Michigan State and Iowa, wins over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) they would have finished 6-2 in a four-way tie for the B1G lead, the same conference record as Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue. The rules back then were in case of a tie, the team with the longest Rose Bowl drought goes to Pasadena, and of those four, nobody had a longer drought than Minnesota.

Seriously, hang onto a 21 point lead for one more quarter, and everything for the Gopher program changes. If Mason coaches Minnesota to the Rose Bowl he leaves whenever he wants, and considering he always seemed to have one foot out the door, he probably ends up leaving anyway, but with the program in much better shape. Or who knows, with his dream job at "Uhia" State just filled at that time by Jim Tressell, maybe Mase does stick around Dinkytown, and New Year's Day bowls and winning records in the B1G become commonplace. Gopher fans travel en masse to the Rose Bowl, proving to every bowl that Minnesota fans really WILL travel to a bowl worth travelling to, and never again is Minnesota passed over by a team with a worse record but a better traveling fan base.

Or maybe they go back to winning 6-8 games per year and being a fringe bowl team and Mason's one B1G title in 2003 becomes his own undoing because he showed us we don't have to settle for GMT. But hey, at least we'd have that one Rose Bowl in 2003 to remember him by.

AFTER THE START OF THE FOURTH QUARTER VS MICHIGAN: October 10, 2003- 2006

Instead, you know what happened- Michigan scores 31 fourth quarter points and win 38-35 on a Garrett Rivas 33 yard field goal in the final minute. For the Wolverines that was the first of six straight wins to close the regular season, including a 35-21 win over #6 Ohio State to claim sole possession of the B1G title. Minnesota loses to Michgan State the next week, then gets back on track with three straight victories before having their conference title AND New Year's Day bowl hopes dashed by losing at Iowa 40-22. That loss puts both Minnesota and Iowa at 5-3 in conference, allowing the Gator bowl to take the Hawks over the Gophers, which sent Minnesota to the Sun Bowl.

If one quarter would have gone differently, who knows where we'd be know with the Gopher football program? But they couldn't hold the 21 point lead and both Mason and Minnesota never recovered. Not to pour salt on the wound, but as crushing as the Michigan loss was, not enough is made of losing the season finale to the Hawkeyes- win that, and not only are the Gophs 6-2 in a three-way tie for 2nd, but Iowa falls to 4-4 and there's no way Minnesota gets passed over for the Gator bowl. Sure, going to the Rose Bowl is the biggest deal there is for a B1G school, but for a program who hadn' t even been to a New Year's Day bowl since their last Rose Bowl in 1960, the Gator would have not only been a nice consolation prize, but another step forward for a program that had stalled a bit at mid-tier bowls.

And that was the beginning of the end for Mason as the Gopher coach. He won seven games in 2004 with no signature wins (Mason would like to point out he did beat ALABAMA in their bowl game that year, and they sure did. Might also want to point out it was in the Glen Mason Invitational Music City Bowl, and Bama wasn't back to national dominance at that point with the not-so-immortal Mike Shula as head coach as the Tide finished 6-6 and just 3-5 in the SEC. But hey, for the record, Mason DID indeed beat Alabama) before starting 2005 strong with a 6-1 start including wins over 11th ranked Purdue and the program's first win against Michigan since 1986. Granted, Michigan finished just 7-5 but a win for the Gophers in Ann Arbor was huge nonetheless.

However, that would be the last real highlight of Mason's tenure in Dinkytown as the very next week they went blow-for-blow at the Metrodome with a Wisconsin team that finished 10-3, but again couldn't finish the job. Minnesota led 34-31 with 38 seconds left when this happened. They lost 38-34 and went on to finish the season 7-5, including a 52-28 loss to Iowa to end the regular season.

In what became his final year, Mase started 2006 at just 3-6, and had the Gophers not blocked a last second NDSU field goal to secure the program's most embarrassing win 10-9 win over the 1-AA Bison, Mason likely doesn't survive to coach the next week in a 44-0 blowout loss at The Shoe vs his beloved alma mater Ohio State. After that he at least rallied the troops for three straight wins to close the regular season, including a 34-24 win over Iowa that would be his last. Of course, it made little difference as the Hawkeyes jumped Minnesota yet again to a better bowl, setting Mason up for his grand finale, a blown 31 point third quarter lead vs Texas Tech as the Red Raiders came all the way back to win the Insight Bowl 44-41.

Mason was fired shortly after the game, which led to the Tim Brewster Era...which we're thankfully not going to get into. You're welcome.

GETTING THE GOPHERS OUT OF GLEN MASON TERRITORY

It was time for Mason to go, it's just unfortunate for Gopher fans we had to wait four more years to get the right coach to replace him in Jerry Kill. In just three seasons Kill has led a program that was in shambles when he took over to eight regular season wins, a 4-4 conference record and their second straight bowl game in 2013. There's definitely improvements to be made and growing still to do, but in just three seasons Kill has Gopher football in as good or better shape than where Mason left it in 2006.

So the question is, can Kill help the program break through the glass ceiling of GMT? Or put another way- what would Kill need to accomplish at Minnesota to be considered more successful than Glen Mason? Kill is still yet to hit some Mason benchmarks like winning five conference games or 10 games overall in a season, and still has some work to do vs our rivals (0-3 vs Wisconsin and 1-2 vs Iowa) and The Big Boys of the Big 10 (yet to beat Michigan or Michigan State, and will play Ohio State for the first time this season) . However, he's already beaten Nebraska and Penn State, and last season pulled off something no Gopher coach had done since 1970, which was win four consecutive Big Ten games.

Obviously, the ultimate break through would be winning Minnesota's first Big Ten title since 1967 and going to the school's first Rose Bowl since 1960, but I'm wondering if Gopher fans believe if anything short of that gets the program out of GMT? I certainly do:

WINNING SIX CONFERENCE GAMES IN A SEASON: This will become a little easier to do in 2016 when the B1G starts playing nine conference games per season like a man instead of the eight that some of those OTHER (more successful on the field) conferences play. Still whether Minnesota would go 6-2 or 6-3 would still have to be considered a major accomplishment and would likely lead into my next item...

A MEANINGFUL BOWL GAME: For JDMill and I, we used to dream of Minnesota in a "New Year's Day Bowl". And not the Rose, we're talking the Gator, Outback or the Cap One bowl. It's why we were so excited for the possibility of the Gator bowl last season, even if it had fallen lower in the pecking order than the non-NYD Buffalo Wild Wings bowl. With the Big Ten revamping their bowl structure, we then also must relabel a "New Year's Day bowl" game to a "Meaningful Bowl" game because with the Gator bowl being moved off NYD and down to fifth in the B1G pecking order, there are now just three B1G New Year's Day bowls: Rose, CapOne and Outback. Obviously if/when a B1G team makes the CFB playoff and the Rose is allowed to take the next best B1G school as a replacement, that's going to push everybody in the conference up in the pecking order, but for me a Meaningful Bowl now becomes one of the top four B1G bowls, which in the new structure along with the aforementioned three is the Holiday Bowl in San Diego (founded by the Germans in 1904...which is German for a whale's...), usually played on the 27th of December.

Playing in the CapOne, Outback or Holiday bowls would be also be a major accomplishment because it would mean Minnesota had a great season and was one of the top four or five schools in the entire conference that season. This would also mean they finally wouldn't get jumped by a school with a worse record but better travelling hoarde.

WIIN THE WEST DIVISION AND PLAY IN THE B1G TITLE GAME: With the divisions finally realigned (and named the way God intended them), Minnesota will be waging annual battles with fellow Quadrangle of Hate members Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska, along with Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue for the West Division Crown, with the winner playing in the B1G championship game. Win or lose the conference title game, just winning the West would be a significant milestone, and while the Gophs could possibly accomplish this without winning six conference games or end up going to a Meaningful Bowl game, I dare say this would be the most impressive thing Coach Kill could accomplish (short of winning the conference and/or going to the Rose Bowl) to move past Glen Mason Territory. Kill would raise the bar for program expectations, and prove that Gopher fans don't just have to settle for being .500 and a fringe bowl team.

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