U football a work of art? Not yet, anyway

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2012 - 7:08 AM

Has Gophers football turned the corner, or does it remain miles behind the competition? The answer is open to interpretation.

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Progress has arrived for the Gophers in the form of an invitation to a bowl, but that invitation came after a 6-6 season that included a 2-6 Big Ten campaign.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Editor's note: Phil Miller has covered Gophers football for three seasons. His final game on the beat, before he begins covering the Twins, will be Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl. He was asked to share his thoughts and observations on the Gophers program.

This might be the first and last time anyone compares Gophers football to a work of art. But hear me out.

I don't "get" modern art, not in the way artists do, not in the way art lovers do. I've been to several museums, absorbed my share of avant-garde work, but long ago came to the realization that I understand art like a sportswriter. I see an orange circle and a blue triangle and yellow paint splattered over them; I missed the metaphorical commentary on the cynicism of post-humanism, but if you see that, terrific. It's possible I was just too hungry to notice.

After spending three seasons covering the University of Minnesota, I've concluded that Gophers football has the same inscrutability as anything hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. It's performance art, perhaps, or a sports Picasso: You can see anything you want in it.

Think the 2012 Gophers are a sleeping giant, a rapidly improving squad that's better than the five that came before it? Well of course they are. They doubled their win total this year, got invited to a bowl game, and a victory on Friday means you would have to go back to 2005 to find a Minnesota team with a better record.

Believe that the so-called success is a fraud, that these are the same old underachievers cleverly disguised by a feather-pillow-soft schedule? That works, too. Their six victories came against teams that went a combined 17-40 against FBS competition. They haven't beaten a Big Ten team that posted a winning conference record since 2009, and their coach is actively working to declaw their future nonconference schedules.

For any optimism, there's a cold reality. For any attack, there's a defense. Jerry Kill's defense was noticeably better this year -- but mostly used Tim Brewster's players. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson could barely complete a pass in November -- but his best receiver stalked off, and four of his 10 teammates on offense against Nebraska were freshmen. And he's only 19!

The cynics -- and they are shockingly legion around this program, taking odd delight in rubbing the team's noses in its failures -- have an endless supply of ammunition, because more than half a century has gone by since the Gophers played in a Rose Bowl. The optimists, a smaller and quieter bunch, are hardened by the history but resolute in their reverie. A booster told me with a straight face that he was encouraged by the Gophers' never-competitive 24-point loss to Nebraska last month; the margin had been 27 a year ago. Progress.

Maybe so. The Gophers really did keep opponents from connecting on long passes with any regularity this year, as happened so frequently a year ago. But they were victimized by running backs and huge gains almost weekly. Minnesota managed to survive its three-quarterback circus, though its passing game has gradually disappeared, making points scarce, too. Are the Gophers slowly evolving into an established winner before our eyes, one that just needs maturity and experience? Or are they bottom feeders that merely momentarily broke their habit of playing down to the competition? Go ahead: See what you want to see.

Just one step in a process?

Covering sports always requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but the Gophers take it to the extreme. You can't blame players for stubbornly believing months of work are about to pay off, that surely practice will someday make perfect, but I was struck by the team-wide insistence this year that a breakthrough was due at any moment, that victory was a simple matter of playing as they practiced. If anyone expected to be routed by Michigan, it didn't show.

For many, this year's results seem unsatisfying, often even dismal. Yet they are exactly what Kill predicted, precisely the incremental progress he planned, and he doesn't appear disappointed in the least. His background (and his own tubthumping) insist that he has done this before, and this is precisely what it looked like: slow, messy, halting. But Gophers fans have seen this before, too; to them, it looks like another coach with big plans and good intentions suffocated by a program that hasn't had enough oxygen in decades. So has he succeeded in changing the culture and setting the stage for a turnaround -- or in merely lowering expectations?

Kill's equity with Gophers fans was certainly lowered this year, partly by two new seizure episodes that became public (much to his annoyance), partly because of a public condemnation by former wide receiver A.J. Barker, but mostly because of his own misstep. The coach underestimated how the public would react to the news that not only had he requested that two future games with North Carolina be canceled, but that he had the university write an $800,000 check to do so. When Kill explained that lowering the level of competition was necessary to build his players' confidence, several fans simply heard "afraid."

There's something else to be afraid of, too. Looming over the entire program is this ominous, but frequently heard, theory: Kill has arrested the freefall, restored order to the Brewster chaos, and inched his way up the first foothill toward relevance. But all his minor gains will forever remain just that, minor; that while he climbs hills, the elite of this conference, Wisconsin and Nebraska and especially Ohio State and Michigan, prepare an assault on Mount Everest every season.

The game, you see, is rigged. This is not news, but it is the preeminent, unavoidable reality that permeates every part of the football program. You can feel it on campus. It's in the air they breathe. College football is ruled by one universal sports truth, so profound it's a wonder Nike doesn't put it on T-shirts: The best players want to play on the best teams. That's it. A simple fact, and a decisive one.

In professional sports, rules are in place to spread talent around, more or less, among many teams. But in college football, those decisions are in the hands of highly skilled, constantly celebrated 17-year-olds who make the same choices most of us would when framed by elite recruiters: Rose Bowl? Or no bowl?

Digging out of the Brewster hole

Kill and his staff do what they can to compensate for the self-perpetuating, lopsided talent acquisition system that works against them. They find the best "fits," they drive their players to improve, they trust (like the players) that hard work will overcome what recruiting can't.

It has happened before. For a decade, Glen Mason kept the Gophers in a state of aggressive averageness, of middling respectability, where attention-grabbing upsets of the league's elite happened almost annually. (And when was the last time you had an inkling that the Gophers were about to shock a national powerhouse?) The Gophers never climbed out of the middle class under Mason, but those 6-5 and 7-4 regular seasons look like a dynasty compared with the destructive Brewster era that followed.

Even Kill says it will be another three to five years before his rebuilding project can evolve into a sustained success, which is where the lesson of Mason's tenure becomes critical. Watching Brewster's 2010 firing evolve from speculative to possible to inevitable was instructive in the turmoil that ensued. It was a further setback for the program, one that Kill had to overcome.

Which is why the first priority for a rebuilding program like this has to be: Find a leader and stick with him. Understand that there will be ups and downs, even in the best of circumstances, and that giving in to short-term frustration over the rough territory only makes things worse. Every new coach brings a natural dose of optimism with him, but Gophers fans should understand by now that turning a loser into a winner can't be done with one hire.

The Gophers seem to understand that. It's too early to know if Kill will replicate the success he had at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, where he turned those underachieving programs into postseason regulars. But by giving him a seven-year contract, the university signaled that it understands the challenge he faces, and the patience that's required.

Lacking on many fronts

Besides, the program's challenge isn't just on the football field. The Gophers simply lack what others have, and changing that might be almost as hard as improving the record.

For one thing, mediocrity has bred neglect when it comes to football facilities -- TCF Bank Stadium is a jewel, but the rest of their football infrastructure -- locker rooms, practice fields, indoor facility, weight rooms, training table, study halls -- ranks, as Big Ten Network analyst and former Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo said, "12th out of 12."

Facilities are more than luxuries; they are baubles that help attract better recruits. New athletic director Norwood Teague has made upgrades a priority, and potential donors will be buttonholed for contributions soon.

The other missing element can't be built by spending money. The Gophers lack the gameday traditions and accommodations of their Big Ten brethren, an absence that goes beyond simple ticket-buying and stadium-building. Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City is swarmed by fans hours before kickoff. The hike to Camp Randall Stadium takes you through dozens of Madison tailgate parties and pregame barbecues. Memorial Stadium would be Nebraska's third-largest city, and certainly its most fun, if it was incorporated.

College football means something in those cities, and that college-sports climate just doesn't exist in Minneapolis. Football games aren't circled on the calendar here the way they are at most Big Ten schools. The Twin Cities have other priorities, especially with four major pro franchises in town, and the gameday atmosphere -- the feeling that something's going on that shouldn't be missed -- doesn't exist to entice casual fans.

Which is a shame. Gophers games can feel dreary and bleak, especially when the student section remains empty, and that doesn't have to be the case. The sport is entertaining, the talent level amazing, and it's an opportunity missed.

The same can be said about the entire program, actually, for a half-century. Whether that can be substantially changed, who knows? The closer you look at Gophers football, the more you can see what you want to see.

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