U fires Mason, seeks new football 'vision'

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2006 - 11:29 PM

Athletic director Joel Maturi acknowledged the Gophers' historic collapse in the Insight Bowl was a factor.

Exactly one year to the day after he received a new five-year contract, Glen Mason was fired Sunday as the University of Minnesota's football coach.

Mason's ouster came at the end of his 10th season and two days following his team's historic collapse in a 44-41 loss to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl.

The timing caught many by surprise because Mason had just completed the first year of his new long-term deal and national signing day for high school recruits is Feb. 7. But athletic director Joel Maturi said he and university President Robert Bruininks concluded that the program needed "a new vision, a new voice."There are no guarantees," Maturi said at a news conference. "I do believe sometimes a change in voice, in vision and leadership brings you some hope and some energy. I believe that was needed for this football program at this time."

The decision also had financial implications. Mason will receive a $2.2 million buyout plus an additional $1.4 million in deferred compensation from his previous contract. However, Mason's contract stated that on Jan. 1, 2007, the university would guarantee him an additional $1 million in deferred compensation. The school saved that money by firing him Sunday.

"That was not the principal factor, but it was a consideration," university general counsel Mark Rotenberg said.

Mason's firing means the athletic department will pay roughly $4 million in buyouts to Mason and men's basketball coach Dan Monson, who accepted his buyout on Nov. 30. Maturi said his department will have to borrow money from the university's central administration to help cover those costs.

Maturi said a search for Mason's replacement will begin immediately. The school might be forced to act quickly because national signing day is 38 days away and recruits need to know who will be their coach.

Maturi is expected to meet this week with Mason's nine assistant coaches, whose contracts were not renewed, to determine whether any will remain to help bridge the gap until a coach is hired.

"[Signing day] will certainly make us hurry the search, but I don't want to do it so quickly that we don't hire the best long-term fit for the University of Minnesota," Maturi said.

The new coach will inherit a program in better shape than the one Mason found. The Gophers had six consecutive losing seasons before Mason's arrival in 1997.

Mason compiled a 123-121 record, made seven bowl game appearances and built one of the most prolific rushing offenses in NCAA history. However, he had a 32-48 Big Ten record and never finished higher than fourth place in the conference. His teams also never earned a spot in a top-tier bowl game.

Mason did not respond to an interview request from the Star Tribune but released a statement through the school that said "no specific explanation was provided" for his firing. "Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed," Mason said.

The announcement stood in stark contrast to a year ago when Mason and Maturi agreed to a new contract on New Year's Eve and talked glowingly about the future.

"I'm ecstatic and Glen's ecstatic," Maturi said that night.

The Gophers, however, endured a tumultuous 2006 season that culminated with an embarrassing loss Friday in the Insight Bowl. The Gophers led 38-7 in the third quarter but squandered the 31-point lead to lose in overtime. It was the largest collapse in Division I-A bowl game history and it gave the Gophers a 6-7 record -- their first losing season since 2001.

Maturi said he doesn't make "knee-jerk" decisions, but he admitted Friday's game had a major impact. "I think if we had not lost the way that we lost, we probably wouldn't be here today," he said.

Asked if he was inundated with e-mails from angry fans, Maturi said simply: "Yes."

Maturi acknowledged many factors led him to his decision. The Gophers started 3-6, including 0-5 in the Big Ten, causing members of the student section to chant "Fire Mason" at several home games. Mason created a firestorm by blasting the students, his critics and underage drinking at the Metrodome.

Criticism of Mason quieted some as the Gophers won their final three games to earn another trip to a bowl game. But the bowl loss proved to be the final straw in a complex marriage.

News of Mason's firing stunned his players.

"Guys feel bad because if we had won the game this might not have happened," senior quarterback Bryan Cupito said.

Mason's legacy is a complicated one. He brought respectability to a downtrodden program, did not tolerate troublemakers and produced a handful of All-America players.

However, his record and string of bowl-game appearances were aided greatly by easy nonconference schedules. Several spectacular late-game collapses infuriated fans. He also made several blunders that included his infamous "if the phone rings, I will listen" quote when asked about other job openings.

Mason was admired by a loyal group of influential boosters and fans. But he was seen as aloof and distant by many casual fans, and also had a testy relationship with the media.

Maturi said Mason's polarizing personality did not affect fundraising efforts for the new on-campus stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2009. However, he admitted that Mason's sagging popularity played a role to some degree.

"I try not to let any outside influence like that make a significant difference," he said. "At the same time, I'm sure those kind of things are involved in answering the questions: What is the long-term future of Gophers football and how positive can it be? Are our students and fans going to be behind us? Are we going to have the energy that is necessary to move forward? All of those kinds of things add to the decision that was made."

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