Lou Holtz left the Gophers hanging when he departed a few days after the conclusion of the 1985 regular season. You couldn’t blame the little fellow for this decision after coaching 22 games here, since the school making the call was Notre Dame.
There have been five head coaches at Minnesota in the 28 years since Holtz.
John Gutekunst (1986-91) hung in there for a while but wound up overmatched. Jim Wacker (1992-96) had disastrous results. Tim Brewster (2007-2010) was a full-blown disaster before being replaced by interim Jeff Horton with five games left in 2010.
Glen Mason was hired on Dec. 14, 1996, to rally the Gophers from disaster No. 1. Jerry Kill was hired on Dec. 6, 2010, to rally the Gophers from disaster No. 2.
Mason was 46 when hired. Kill was 49 when hired. Both had résumés that indicated they were prepared for the huge task of running a Big Ten football program.
The approach taken — to undersell expectations, rather than super-sell as did Wacker and (especially) Brewster — by Mason and Kill was similar. And after two seasons, the rebuilding path has been close to identical.
Mason’s Gophers were 1-7 in the Big Ten and 3-9 overall in 1997. The conference victory was at home vs. Indiana and there was a 22-21 loss to Wisconsin (the first of the heartbreakers that would mark Mason’s so-close decade).
Mason’s Gophers were 2-6 in the Big Ten and 5-6 overall in 1998. They were missing a fourth nonconference game to make them bowl eligible.
Kill’s Gophers were 2-6 in the Big Ten and 3-9 overall in 2011. They were 2-6 in the Big Ten, with four nonconference victories (including one over Syracuse) in 2012. That put them at 6-6 and in a bowl-game loss to Texas Tech.
Mason: first two seasons, 3-13 in Big Ten, 8-15 overall. Kill: first two seasons, 4-12 in Big Ten, 9-16 overall.
Year 3 is moving time for a major college football team, just as Round 3 is moving time in a major golf tournament.
The Gophers did that in 1999 for Mason. Minnesota went 5-3 in the Big Ten and 8-3 in the regular season. The Gophers closed with a three-game winning streak that included a road upset against No. 2-rated Penn State.
The Gophers lost 24-20 in the Sun Bowl to Oregon and Joey Harrington, the Ducks’ sophomore quarterback. They finished Mason’s third season rated No. 20 by the Associated Press.
How did Mason’s program manage such a significant turnaround in Year 3?
Gordy Shaw was among two assistants retained by Mason from Wacker’s staff. The other was Kevin Sumlin, who now has the privilege and anguish of being quarterback Johnny Manziel’s head coach at Texas A&M.
“My personal opinion is that Coach Mason, talent-wise, inherited a much-different situation than what Wacker inherited,’’ Shaw said. “I’ve believed that if Jim wasn’t forced to fire his defensive coaches, we would’ve squeezed into a bowl game in 1996. But he got orders from above to fire his defensive staff, and everything went to hell.’’
Shaw is now the offensive line coach at Texas State. He became very effective in that role for the Gophers, and in recruiting players from Minnesota and the Midwest.
But 1999, Year 3 for Mason … Shaw said one factor that must be mentioned was the play of senior quarterback Billy Cockerham, a Wacker holdover.
“A lot of people didn’t think Billy Cockerham was the guy, but he was,’’ Shaw said. “He was a true leader with a group of kids that got sick and tired of losing, who wanted to show they could compete in the Big Ten.’’
Entering his Year 3, Kill continues to play down expectations, suggesting it’s more like Year 2 because of a lost recruiting class in 2011. Interesting spin, since Mason started later than Kill and had the turnaround in Year 3.
Can we apply that standard for Kill in 2013?
“Coach Mason and Coach Kill are very similar … discipline, no B.S., trying to get back to recruiting Midwest kids,’’ Shaw said. “I will say this: I think what Jerry inherited at Minnesota might be more along the lines of what Jim Wacker had to work with at the start than what Coach Mason inherited.’’
Interpretation: The Gophers duplicating that final No. 20 rating might be a reach in expectations for Kill’s third season.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.