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Minnesota Football: Revisiting the Glen Mason era

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Looking back on the tenure of a “3-Time Bowl Winner”

Minnesota Golden Gophers v Purdue Boilermakers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I’m in a strange place in terms of Gopher Football. We’re coming off one of the program’s best seasons in a century, yet I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking about “next season” when there is so much uncertainty as to whether or not there will be a “next season” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So instead of looking forward, I’ve decided to look back.

I remember watching the BTN Tailgate on Big Ten Network one Saturday morning last fall ahead of the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ Homecoming game with Illinois, and I couldn’t help but laugh when Glen Mason approached the set. In the lower third, beneath his name was this simple bit of background information:

“3-Time Bowl Winner.”

Was that seriously his legacy at Minnesota?

Glen Mason

Tenure: 1997-2006
Overall Record: 64-57
Conference Record: 32-48
Seasons Above .500: 5 of 10
Seasons With B1G Record Above .500: 2
Record vs Top 25: 5-30
Bowl Game Record: 3-3

What came before Glen Mason

Mason was hired in December 1996 to replace Jim Wacker as head football coach at Minnesota. In five seasons under Wacker, the Gophers had never finished above .500. It represented the latter half of a decade of futility for the football program following the departure of Lou Holtz, who bailed after two seasons to take over at Notre Dame. And it should be noted that Holtz didn’t exactly light the world on fire at Minnesota, producing a respectable 6-5 record just two years removed from the 1-10 season that led to the firing of then head coach Joe Salem. John Gutekunst took over after Holtz left, but never figured out how to finish a season with anything better than a 6-5 record. He lasted six years before Wacker was hired.

So when Mason took over, he was tasked with resurrecting a program that had been to three bowl games in 25 years. The Gophers hadn’t had a winning record since 1990, and had only notched seven wins in a season twice during that same 25-year span.

Against the Big Ten

Mason had a winning record against four Big Ten teams: Illinois (5-1), Indiana (5-3), Michigan State (5-3), and Northwestern (4-2). He was at .500 or worse against every other conference opponent. His 1-7 record against Ohio State makes sense, but particularly bizarre is Mason’s 1-7 record against Purdue. He evidently had no answer for Joe Tiller’s Boilermakers.

Against the Gophers’ three rivals -- Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan -- Mason was a combined 7-21. He was fairly non-competitive against the Badgers (2-8) and the Wolverines (1-7), and had lost five straight to the Hawkeyes (4-6) before defeating them one last time in his final regular season game at Minnesota. Mason’s one win against the Wolverines is notable, though, because it snapped a streak of 16 consecutive losses to Michigan.

Only twice in 10 years did Mason finish a season with a conference record above .500. His best finishes in the Big Ten standings came in 1999 and 2003, when the Gophers tied for fourth place. They never once finished in the top three in the Big Ten under Mason.

The Gopher ground game under Glen Mason

There is one aspect of the Glen Mason era at Minnesota that is undisputed: He knew how to run the football. Five of the program’s top ten all-time leading rushers played for Mason: Thomas Hamner, Tellis Redmon, Marion Barber III, Laurence Maroney, and Amir Pinnix.

Maroney, in particular, was special. He spent three seasons at Minnesota, rushing for at least 1,100 yards in all three and averaging six yards per carry in his career. Maroney is second all-time in career rushing yards at Minnesota, which is remarkable considering he racked up those yards in just three years while splitting carries with Marion Barber III for two of them.

The Gophers had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of Mason’s last eight seasons at the helm. From 2003 to 2005, Mason had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers each season, with Barber III and Maroney in 2003 and 2004 and then Maroney and Gary Russell in 2005.

Mason and offensive line coach Gordy Shaw also saw five offensive linemen drafted to the NFL in their tenure: center Ben Hamilton (‘01), guard Adam Haayer (‘01), tackle Matt Anderle (‘02), center Greg Eslinger (‘06), and guard Mark Setterstrom (‘06).

No defending Glen Mason’s defenses

As much as Mason would like to be remembered for his prolific rushing attacks, most Gopher fans can’t help but think of the defensive collapses that also defined his tenure.

What may or may not surprise you is that the defensive issues were largely absent during the first half of Mason’s stint at Minnesota. The 1999 Gopher defense was outstanding, in fact, led by All-American safety Tyrone Carter and All-Big Ten performers in defensive end Karon Riley, defensive tackle John Schlecht, and cornerback Willie Middlebrooks. They finished the season ranked 22nd nationally in total defense and 8th in scoring defense.

What changed? The defensive coordinator. David Gibbs called the plays on defense for the first four seasons of the Mason era before accepting an offer to coach defensive backs in the NFL with the Denver Broncos. He was succeeded by Moe Ankney, who had served as defensive coordinator at Missouri for the previous seven years before being fired along with head coach Larry Smith after mustering two seasons above .500 during that span.

Without Gibbs, the Gophers’ defense immediately descended into mediocrity. Ankney oversaw a defense that ranked 90th in total defense and 73rd in scoring defense in his first season. He called plays for one more year and was then promoted to assistant head coach, delegating playcalling duties to Greg Hudson from 2003-04 and David Lockwood from 2005-06. Lockwood guided Minnesota to rock bottom, ranking 90th in total defense and 80th in scoring defense in 2005 before sinking to 113th and 86th, respectively, in 2006.

Ankney retired after the 2005 season. Hudson eventually returned to the Big Ten, serving as defensive coordinator for three seasons at Purdue under then head coach Darrell Hazell. His best defense with the Boilermakers ranked 83rd in total defense. And Lockwood has bounced around from place to place. but Minnesota remains his only stint as defensive coordinator.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Mason had a habit of switching some of his best athletes from defense to offense. Marion Barber III was originally recruited to play safety before the coaching staff made the decision to keep him at running back. Matt Anderle started out as a defensive tackle before finishing his career as NFL-caliber offensive tackle. Had J.J. Watt ended up with the Gophers — it was between Central Michigan, Colorado, and Minnesota before he signed with the Chippewas — and Mason not been fired, you can bet he’d have ended up at tight end.

The defining wins of the Mason era

‘99 Penn State. A case could be made that the 1999 team was the best of the Mason era. They finished the year 8-4, but three of those losses came against Top 25 teams and all four of them were decided by five points or less. After dropping three of their last four, with losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Purdue, the Gophers were 5-3 when they descended on Beaver Stadium for a matchup with No. 2-ranked Penn State, who were 9-0. Trailing 23-21 late, Minnesota drove to the Penn State 13-yard line thanks to a miraculous 27-yard reception off a tipped pass on 4th and 16, setting up a game-winning 32-yard field goal as time expired.

‘00 Ohio State. One year after upsetting No. 2-ranked Penn State on the road, the Gophers toppled another Top 10 team in No. 6-ranked Ohio State. It was the program’s first win in Columbus since 1949, and snapped a 16-game losing streak to the Buckeyes. Tellis Redmon rushed for 118 yards on 30 carries, and Minnesota never trailed in the game.

‘05 Michigan. The Gophers had not beaten Michigan since 1986. Another 16-game losing streak. The Wolverines would eventually stumble to a pedestrian 7-5 record, but they were ranked in the Top 25 when Minnesota rolled into Ann Arbor in 2005. Michigan led 13-3 in the second quarter and then 20-13 in the third quarter before the Gophers tied it up on a Laurence Maroney touchdown. Jason Giannini’s game-winning 30-yard field goal with one second left on the clock in regulation allowed them to reclaim the Little Brown Jug with a 23-20 victory.

The defining losses of the Mason era

‘03 Michigan. The Gophers were 6-0 and ranked No. 13 in the Coaches Poll and No. 17 in the AP Top 25 when they hosted the Wolverines at the Metrodome. Minnesota led 14-0 at halftime and extended their lead to 28-7 going into the fourth quarter. Then Michigan outscored them 31-7 in the final quarter of play to complete a stunning 38-35 comeback victory.

‘05 Wisconsin. The Gophers were set to punt from their own 5, holding a 34-31 lead over the Badgers with 38 seconds left in the game. Punter Justin Kucek dropped the snap and picked up the ball to try and kick it, but Wisconsin blocked the attempt, recovering it in the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. It was the second loss in what would eventually grow to become a 14-game losing streak for the Gophers in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

‘06 Insight Bowl. The defensive collapse to end all defensive collapses. In his final game as head coach at Minnesota, Mason saw his Gopher squad build a 38-7 lead over Texas Tech with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter. The Red Raiders proceeded to score 31 unanswered points, culminating in a game-tying field goal as the clock expired in regulation. Texas Tech prevailed in overtime, 44-41, in what was the biggest bowl collapse in Division 1-A history at the time.

The legacy of Glen Mason

Mason was a mediocre head coach, but the level of mediocrity he was able to achieve at Minnesota was leaps and bounds above the depths at which the program had toiled for decades. It’s the sad truth. There is no question that the program was in a better place when he was fired in 2006 than it was when he was hired in 1996.

But Gopher fans wanted more than six or seven wins and a bowl game. They wanted to be consistently competitive with their conference rivals. They wanted to at least challenge for a Big Ten championship. Glen Mason didn’t seem capable of accomplishing either of those things.

I think he certainly deserves credit for bringing Minnesota back to respectability. Mason was the program’s most successful head coach since Murray Warmath. But his ceiling was never very high, and I can’t blame Gopher fans for wanting to see if there was someone who could build on Mason’s foundation and take the program to the next level.

Unfortunately, the person responsible for identifying that someone was then athletic director Joel Maturi, and the failures of Mason’s successor only glorified his tenure in hindsight.