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Minnesota Football: Revisiting the Tim Brewster era

Get your chili hot

Northwestern Wildcats v Minnesota Golden Gophers Photo by Harry How/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.

Tim Brewster

Tenure: 2007-2010
Overall Record: 15-30
Conference Record: 6-21
Seasons Above .500: 1 of 4
Seasons With B1G Record Above .500: 0
Record vs Top 25: 0-8
Bowl Game Record: 0-2

The bluster of Brewster

How did a tight ends coach with no head coaching or coordinator experience get handed the keys to a Big Ten football program? You’d have to pose that question to former athletic director Joel Maturi, but after having endured four traumatic years of Tim Brewster as a Gopher football fan, I can offer you my educated guess: He talked his way into it.

And boy could Brewster talk the talk. Who could forget his introductory press conference? The talk of winning a Big Ten championship and leading “Gopher Nation” to the Rose Bowl. His repeated use of the word “tremendous.” I have to admit I bought it hook, line, and sinker at the time. I’m sure part of it was that I wanted to believe that he could accomplish those things, but he also possessed an undeniable swagger and confidence I had not seen from Glen Mason.

It’s interesting to look back now and see his gimmicks for what they were. The square of Rose Bowl turf he brought in as a motivator. The fake 1960 national championship trophy he had commissioned for the locker room. The now defunct Play4Brew website — which was plastered with his own mugshot — he had developed as a tool for communicating with recruits.

And there was of course his assortment of signature nonsensical phrases — “Get that dagum chili hot!” will always be my personal favorite — which were profiled in this video that now belongs in the Hall of Fame of unintentional comedy:

You could generously describe Brewster as an idea man who was out of his depth when it came to executing those ideas, and that was no more apparent than on the field.

The never-ending coordinator carousel, part 1

When you lack head coaching and coordinator experience, your coaching staff hires are critical. And while Brewster hired a lot of coordinators at Minnesota, the constant turnover was part of the problem, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Somehow, Brewster spent four years with the same starting quarterback (Adam Weber) but four different offensive coordinators.

One of his first decisions after being hired — which he would later cite as one of his biggest regrets — was to bring the spread offense to Minnesota, pivoting from the ground-and-pound offense that had been the Gophers’ bread and butter under Glen Mason. He hired veteran offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar to shepherd the change, but the results for the first two seasons were decidedly mixed, even as Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker emerged as one of the most prolific passing game tandems in program history.

In that first season, the offense wasn’t bad, averaging 161.8 rushing yards per game (ranking 48th nationally) and 245.8 passing yards per game (43rd). But while the win total increased the following year, the offense took a step back, ranking 104th nationally in rushing offense and 55th in passing offense in 2008. The coaching staff shake-ups started after the regular season, when offensive line coach Phil Meyer resigned and Brewster hired Tim Davis to serve as his replacement and running game coordinator. Upon announcing the hiring, Brewster said he would begin installing more pro-style offensive packages during bowl practices.

Not long after the Insight Bowl loss to Kansas, Dunbar resigned as offensive coordinator, and thus began the inexplicable ascent of Jedd Fisch. Hired to succeed Dunbar despite having no coordinator experience, Fisch came to the Gophers after being dismissed as the Denver Broncos’ wide receivers coach following the firing of then head coach Mike Shanahan. Brewster brought in Fisch to run a more diversified offense, who offered this cringeworthy quip to describe his approach: “We’re going to be the Gophers’ offense. We’re going to ‘Go-fer’ touchdowns.”

But Fisch and his 600-page playbook failed to spark the Gopher offense, averaging 99.5 rushing yards per game (111th), 207 passing yards per game (75th), and 20.9 points per game (100th) in 2009. He bailed after one season to coach quarterbacks with the Seattle Seahawks, beginning a meteoric career path has truly defied rational explanation, with stops at Miami (Fl.), Jacksonville, Michigan, UCLA, Los Angeles, and most recently New England.

Desperate for some semblance of continuity in Year 4, Brewster hired Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton — a former head coach with no coordinator experience, mind you — and promoted running backs coach Thomas Hammock — also no coordinator experience — to serve as co-coordinators. But it didn’t make much of a difference.

What is perhaps most bizarre is how Weber and Decker rewrote the record books at Minnesota even amidst all this behind-the-scenes upheaval. Weber graduated as the all-time program leader in career passing yards and touchdown passes. Decker is the program leader in career receptions and held the school record for career receiving yards up until Tyler Johnson passed him last year.

The never-ending coordinator carousel, part 2

And seven paragraphs later, we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball, which somehow managed to be as much of a disaster as the offense.

Everett Withers was Brewster’s first defensive coordinator and the architect of one of the worst defensive units in program history. In one season under Withers, the Gopher defense ranked 114th in rushing defense (229.3 passing yards allowed per game), 115th in passing defense (289.3 passing yards allowed per game), and 109th in scoring defense (36.7 points per game). As you can imagine, Withers only lasted one season at Minnesota, but not because he was fired. He was hired for the same position at North Carolina, where he oversaw a Tar Heel defense that ranked 10th in rushing defense, 14th in passing defense, and 13th in scoring defense in his second season in Chapel Hill. Go figure.

And in another surprising twist, Brewster made a good hire to replace Withers, tapping former Duke head coach Ted Roof as his new defensive coordinator. Roof orchestrated a remarkable turnaround on defense, leading a solid unit that keyed the Gophers’ impressive 7-1 start to the 2008 season. But as with all good things under Brewster, eventually the wheels came off the wagon as the team struggled down the stretch. After the bowl game, Roof took the first ticket out of Minneapolis, accepting the same position at Auburn.

To replace Roof, Brewster hired Kevin Cosgrove and promoted defensive backs coach Ronnie Lee to serve as co-coordinators for the final two seasons of his tenure. The Gopher defense was unexceptional but not quite dreadful during their first season calling plays together, ranking 69th in rushing defense, 55th in passing defense, and 51st in scoring defense. But the rush defense and scoring defense both tanked in 2010, ranking 98th nationally in both categories. But they did rank 33rd in pass defense. So that counts for something, I suppose.

But what about the recruiting?

If we’re being honest, Tim Brewster was not hired for his coaching acumen. He was hired for his reputation as an elite recruiter, having been credited with helping Mack Brown land Vince Young at Texas. His recruiting persona stood in stark contrast to the more laid back recruiting efforts of his predecessor, and I have no doubt athletic director Joel Maturi saw him as a much-needed shot of energy for the program on the recruiting trail.

Brewster did acquit himself well with his first full recruiting class, which ranked 26th nationally and 5th in the Big Ten according to 247 Sports. But the production from that first class was equal parts hits — MarQueis Gray, Keanon Cooper, Troy Stoudermire, and Traye Simmons, for example — and misses — David Pittman, Vincent Hill, Rex Sharpe, and Kevin Whaley.

The next class took a step back in the rankings, ranking 35th nationally and 8th in the Big Ten, but in hindsight his success rate diminished. I can count the multi-year starters from that class — Michael Carter, Ra’shede Hageman, and Ed Olson — on one hand, and I’d be hard pressed to describe many of the others as key contributors in their careers.

And his final recruiting class was more of the same, ranking 52nd nationally and 9th in the Big Ten, as the appeal of his recruiting pitch seemed to wane with each passing season. The class featured the likes of Brock Vereen, Donnell Kirkwood, and Zac Epping, but that was about it in terms of significant on-field impact.

To be honest, it is difficult for me to evaluate his effectiveness as a recruiter, even in hindsight. It’s no surprise that his classes dropped in the rankings as his coaching shortcomings became apparent from the on-field results, but did most of his recruits flame out because of poor talent evaluation, poor coaching, or a combination of both?

The defining wins of the Brewster era

‘08 Illinois. The not-much-anticipated return of Brewster to his alma mater lived up to the nonexistent hype, as the Gophers were 5-1 and looking to beat a Fighting Illini squad one year removed from a trip to the Rose Bowl. The 27-20 victory, fueled by DeLeon Eskridge’s breakout performance with 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns, was seen as something of a signature win for Brewster at the time. It clinched a bowl game for Minnesota following their 1-11 season in 2007 and launched them into the AP Poll at No. 25.

‘09 Air Force. The opening of the on-campus TCF Bank Stadium was christened with an inaugural game that did not disappoint the sold-out crowd thanks in large part to the heroics of linebacker Nate Triplett, who recorded a career-high 17 tackles in the game and scooped up a fumble in the fourth quarter that he returned 52 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

‘09 Michigan State. It does not get much more fun than this. Halloween night against Michigan State with a raucous crowd at TCF Bank Stadium? The Gopher offense made it a party by supplying their own fireworks, even with Decker sidelined due to surgery to fix torn ligaments in his foot. Weber went wild, throwing for 416 passing yards and five touchdowns, punctuated by a 59-yard touchdown pass split between tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and running back Duane Bennett. Tow-Arnett caught a 3rd and 17 pass from Weber near the Michigan State 35 but landed hard on the turf on his back, causing the ball to pop up into the hands of Bennett, who took it the rest of the way for the score. The matchup had no shortage of explosive plays, from Bennett’s 62-yard touchdown reception on the first play of the game to Michigan State’s Keshawn Martin returning a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to open the second half.

The defining losses of the Brewster era

‘07 Bowling Green. I was in the stands at the Metrodome for this game, so I can vividly remember how dejected I felt at halftime when the Gophers trailed 21-0. After all of the offseason bluster from Brewster, the air was out of the balloon after two quarters of play. The Gophers staged a valiant rally in the second half, scoring 24 unanswered points to take a 24-21 lead with 2:12 remaining. Unfortunately, Bowling Green was able to tie the game on a field goal with three seconds left in regulation. The teams traded touchdowns in overtime, with Minnesota striking first, but the Falcons opted against a shootout and converted a game-winning two-point attempt.

It was an inauspicious start to the Brewster era at Minnesota and a warning sign of things to come, as the Gophers lost 10 of their next 11 games.

‘08 Northwestern. What a game though, right? Minnesota was 7-1 and ranked as high as No. 17 in the BCS rankings heading into a matchup with the Wildcats. The Gophers trailed 10-0 after the first quarter before storming back in the second quarter to take a 14-10 lead thanks to a Traye Simmons pick six. Mike Kafka was starting at quarterback for Northwestern in place of the injured C.J. Bacher, and lumbered for a single-game school record 217 rushing yards. By the fourth quarter, it was all tied up at 17-17. With 0:26 left in regulation and the ball at their own 29-yard line, Brewster opted to go for the win rather than play for overtime. Weber tried to thread a pass to Decker but it bounced off his hands and into the open arms of Northwestern safety Brendan Smith, who promptly returned it 48 yards for a game-winning touchdown.

It was a devastating loss in more ways than one for Minnesota. Decker was hurt on the final play and was hobbled for the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury, limited to three receptions for 30 yards in two games played. And the Gophers’ once promising season collapsed from there, losing their next four games, including a 29-6 drubbing at home to a 2-7 Michigan team and a 55-0 beatdown from Iowa to close down the Metrodome.

‘10 South Dakota. After kicking a field goal on their opening drive, the Gophers led for the first 7 minutes and 25 seconds of this game. They trailed the rest of the way en route to a humiliating 41-38 loss at home to FCS South Dakota, a team that would finish the season 4-7.

I don’t think much more needs to be said.

‘10 Wisconsin. Brewster would not be fired until a week later, following a 28-17 loss to Purdue that dropped their season record to 1-6, but the Axe game might as well have been the death knell. After three straight losses to the Badgers decided by seven points or less, Minnesota went into the locker room trailing 14-9 at halftime before falling apart in the second half as Wisconsin pulled away. In the fourth quarter, the Badgers scored to extend their lead to 41-16, at which point head coach Bret Bielema called for a two-point conversion attempt. Brewster was livid and had a heated exchange with Bielema during their postgame handshake. Bielema stuck by his decision in the postgame presser, making the dubious claim that “that is what the [play] card says” to do.

The legacy of Tim Brewster

What a disaster, right?

One season with a record above .500. Zero bowl wins. No wins over Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, or Penn State. Humiliating losses to Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, North Dakota State, South Dakota, and Northern Illinois. Diminishing returns on his recruiting classes.

There was the briefest moment in 2008 when Maturi’s gamble seemed to have paid off. The Gophers were 7-1, ranked No. 17 in the BCS, and rumors were already swirling that a program like Tennessee was interested in poaching Brewster. But we all know how that turned out.

One of the lessons to be learned here is that not every coach is cut out to be a head coach. It’s abundantly clear that Brewster was in over his head at Minnesota, but he landed on his feet once he returned to being a position coach and recruiting coordinator. It’s just a shame that we had to suffer through his learning experience, as well.