Patrick Reusse: Maturi acts early in getting rid of smug Mason

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2006 - 8:49 PM

The Cobra. That's the new nickname for Joel Maturi, the University of Minnesota athletic director.

On the last day of November, Maturi lurched from the weeds and fired men's basketball coach Dan Monson.

On the last day of December, the Cobra struck again, firing football coach Glen Mason.

Last March, Maturi had the permission of his boss, university president Robert Bruininks, to fire Monson after the last game of the 2005-06 season.

Maturi hesitated that night in Cincinnati, and brought back Monson for another season. It took only seven games (and five losses) this fall for Maturi to regret his previous lack of action.

Monson was fired, but the life already had been sucked out of Williams Arena for another winter.

The athletic director went to Bruininks' Eastcliff residence for another meeting Saturday night. Maturi said he wanted to fire Mason. Again, Bruininks gave his blessing, as he had nine months earlier for Monson.

This time, Maturi didn't choke. He decided to fire Mason perhaps a year too early rather than waiting for another season to turn sour.

What we did learn with Maturi's latest action is that the university puts more of a premium on likability than competence.

Monson was incompetent as a Big Ten coach and will receive $1.32 million for his Nov. 30 departure. Mason was unlikable with the masses and will receive $2.21 million (plus $1.4 million in deferred compensation) for his Dec. 31 departure.

Maturi still was making excuses for Monson when he fired him -- still talking about the difficult situation that he inherited in following Clem Haskins and the academic fraud scandal in 1999.

The facts were that Monson was a poor strategist, a poor motivator and a poor recruiter.

The handicaps faced by Mason when he inherited the football program from Jim Wacker after the 1996 season were much more severe than anything Monson was up against.

Wacker was completely overmatched as a Big Ten football coach. Mason took over a program without talent, discipline or an identity.

He upgraded the talent. He was demanding of the athletes and his assistants. And, he would make the Gophers the owners of one of the nation's most fearsome rushing attacks.

This ground game produced unheard-of numbers: 424 yards against mighty Michigan, 411 yards against proud Wisconsin.

Hardcore Gophers fans had never seen anything like that, which is saying something, since the average age of this segment of the Minnesota population is 73.

And here's what really made those performances incomprehensible: Mason's Gophers lost both of those games, to Michigan in 2003, and to Wisconsin in 2005.

Eventually, the ability to avoid victory in astounding fashion became the Gophers' identity, rather than gifted backs running behind a mobile, cut-blocking line.

Mason's final game was one of those losses, of course -- a 38-7 lead over Texas Tech turned into a 44-41 overtime loss Friday night in something called the Insight Bowl.

Mason had this remarkable achievement in his decade on the job: He took a program mired in ineptitude and produced a modicum of success, and did so while gaining little equity with the public.

One word always was close at hand with Mason.

Smug.

"I think Glen in some ways was misunderstood by the general public," said Tom Moe, Maturi's predecessor as A.D. and a Mason golf partner. "He was a very warm and caring person. I think he was also very sensitive."

The public never saw it. The media never saw it. What we saw was this: a guy who came off as if he considered himself God's gift to football.

An 8-4 turnaround in his third season (1999). We could put up with that. A 10-3 season including a bowl victory in 2003. We could put up with that.

But we didn't really celebrate these things, because of Mason's low likability factor.

And when things went backward, we cheered Maturi's decision to pull the plug on a high-profile coach perhaps early rather than clearly late.

I will guarantee this, though: When Mason gets that $3.6 million going-away stipend, he will be leaving Minnesota with that dang smirk attached to his mug for life.

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