Maroon-and-gold teams collapse in one big black-and-blue heap

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2009 - 7:19 AM

From volleyball to wrestling to football, the Gophers have offered up a stunning, and bruising, year of repetitious athletic mediocrity.

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A big-city reporter was in the press box in mid-October to watch the homestanding Glencoe-Silver Lake Panthers and the Waconia Wildcats end the football regular season in the Wright County Conference.

Mark Slater, a former University of Minnesota and NFL lineman, saw the visitor and offered this emphatic observation: "The Gophers are going to the Rose Bowl."

The reporter responded by asking if Slater, 54, was predicting an event that would occur in what remained of his Gopher-loving lifetime.

"This season," Slater said. "The Gophers are going to the Rose Bowl this season. They are going to wind up in a three-way tie for first at 7-1 and will have the tiebreaker."

The Gophers were 2-1 in the Big Ten and 6-1 overall at the time. They further fueled Slater's optimism by winning 17-6 at Purdue, then closed with four consecutive Big Ten losses. The last of these was by 55-0 to Iowa, Minnesota's final game in the Metrodome and the worst conference loss suffered by the Gophers since the Western/Big Ten Conference was formed in 1896.

To validate the collapse as monumental, the Gophers were shredded 42-21 by Kansas in the Insight Bowl.

Coach Tim Brewster's second squad did more than shatter Mark Slater's rose-colored goggles. The footballers established a trend that turned the fall and winter of 2008-09 into the Year of the Collapse for the Gophers' highest-profile teams.

There are seven of these -- football, men's basketball and men's hockey, followed by women's basketball, women's hockey, wrestling and volleyball -- and not one was immune to a bitter ending.

To pay proper tribute to Joel Maturi's athletic department in the Year of the Collapse, we're offering at no extra charge a rating (bottom to top) of the Gophers' dramatic failures.

7. Volleyball: Mike Hebert's hitwomen finished the regular season with an eight-match winning streak. They were 26-6 overall and rated 10th nationally as they hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. But they went out with a whimper in the second round vs. Iowa State, getting smashed 25-16 in the decisive fourth game.

6. Women's hockey: The Gophers had three of the best players in the country in senior Gigi Marvin and first-year twins Monique and Jocelyn Lamoreaux. They were rated No. 1 and took a 12-game winning streak into the WCHA playoff final vs. archrival Wisconsin.

They lost to the Badgers 4-3, won an NCAA quarterfinal on home ice against Boston College and then lost 5-4 to Mercyhurst. To mark that loss as inexcusable, Mercyhurst was throttled 5-0 by Wisconsin in the national final.

5. Wrestling: J Robinson's mat monsters had finished first or second in the Big Ten for the previous decade. They had three national titles (and three seconds) in that time.

Expectations were lower, but there's lower and there's this: a seventh-place finish in the Big Ten tournament and one individual top five (Jayson Ness' third) in the national meet.

4. Men's basketball: The Gophers were 18-3 overall, 6-3 in the Big Ten and ranked 19th at the end of January. They finished 9-9 and tied for seventh with a team (Michigan) that beat them twice.

More players went backward (Damian Johnson, Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber to name three) than showed improvement during Big Ten play. They required sizable generosity from the selection committee to gain the NCAA and bowed out meekly against Texas.

Bottom line: Tubby Smith's second season was mediocre, at best.

3. Women's basketball: They were 9-3 with a first-ever victory at Ohio State. Then, Pam Borton's bricklayers finished 2-4 and went one-and-done in the Big Ten tournament.

And the only March highlight -- an NCAA upset at Notre Dame -- became a setup for a 73-42 loss to Texas A&M that had you checking to see if Cheryl Littlejohn was on the Gophers sideline.

Emily Fox closed 0-for-11, shot 37.1 percent for the season and raised the question as to why several of Borton's best players have played their worst basketball (or not played at all) as seniors.

2. Football: See details above for the trend-setting collapse for the gridders of Brewster -- herewith known as Blackie, in honor of his new hair-dye job.

1. Men's hockey: They were 11-3-5 and No. 3 in the nation heading to North Dakota for a weekend series Jan. 9-10. They closed with a 6-10-2 rush and missed the NCAA tournament. That had not occurred previously in this new era of a 16-team field (started in 2003).

In the Year of the Collapse, no big team on campus can match Don Lucia again turning his Yankees of college hockey into the St. Paul Saints -- and joke of jokes, with this weekend's West Regional in his home arena.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com

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