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Continued: U football a work of art? Not yet, anyway

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

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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Miami
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Oakland
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Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Atlanta 127 FINAL
Cleveland 98
Phoenix 111 FINAL
Charlotte 106
Dallas 117 FINAL
Detroit 106
Utah 105 FINAL
Miami 87
Orlando 92 FINAL
Boston 109
Brooklyn 89 FINAL
Toronto 105
Memphis 117 FINAL
San Antonio 116
Milwaukee 97 FINAL
Portland 104
Houston 111 1st OT 0:17
Denver 108
Indiana 100 FINAL
LA Clippers 102
Ottawa 2 FINAL
New Jersey 0
Boston 3 FINAL(OT)
Minnesota 2
Dallas 2 FINAL
Vancouver 0
Langston 65 FINAL
North Texas 78
Delaware State 72 FINAL
St Francis-NY 64
James Madison 72 FINAL
Ball State 52
SIU Edwardsville 65 FINAL
Campbell 70
St Francis-PA 67 FINAL
Duquesne 52
North Florida 77 FINAL
Florida State 93
Catawba 69 FINAL
George Mason 99
Ferrum 48 FINAL
High Point 106
Hampton 55 FINAL
Illinois 73
Gardner-Webb 65 FINAL
Jacksonville 68
Longwood 60 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 71
Arkansas State 69 FINAL
Miss State 55
Tennessee 72 FINAL
NC State 83
NC A&T 55 FINAL
Ohio State 97
Manhattan 56 FINAL
Pittsburgh 65
Robert Morris 57 FINAL
Toledo 83
Char Southern 58 FINAL
Wofford 64
Kennesaw St 90 FINAL
Youngstown St 84
Barber-Scotia 52 FINAL
NC Central 108
Detroit 70 FINAL
UCF 75
Liberty 70 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 73
TX A&M-CC 73 FINAL
Denver 83
Ark-Pine Bluff 61 FINAL
Houston 56
UT Martin 54 FINAL
Illinois State 64
Milligan 76 FINAL
Louisiana 115
Abilene Christian 44 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 83
USC Upstate 73 FINAL
Memphis 83
Alcorn State 56 FINAL
Murray State 94
Central Mich 80 FINAL
Northwestern 67
Georgia State 54 FINAL
Old Dominion 58
TX-Pan American 69 FINAL
Saint Louis 75
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SMU 67
Texas State 60 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 66
SC State 39 FINAL
Texas Tech 101
Missouri State 70 FINAL
Tulsa 74
Chicago State 60 FINAL
Western Ky 75
Morehead State 50 FINAL
Green Bay 66
Northern Colorado 82 FINAL
Nebraska Omaha 92
Winthrop 62 FINAL
Auburn 80
New Mexico St 55 FINAL
Baylor 66
San Diego St 62 FINAL
Cincinnati 71
Eastern Mich 46 FINAL
Michigan State 66
Loyola Marymount 58 FINAL
Stanford 67
Incarnate Word 82 FINAL
Grand Canyon 80
Northeastern 58 FINAL
Cal Poly 60
Central Arkansas 55 FINAL
New Mexico 76
Howard 45 FINAL
Pepperdine 53
Portland 73 FINAL
UNLV 75
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Oregon 79
Grambling St 38 FINAL
Washington 86
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Colorado State
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Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Western Carolina 79 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 66
(21) Miss State 66 FINAL
Louisiana 51
(25) DePaul 109 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 84
Liberty 64 FINAL
NC State 67
Elon 77 FINAL
Campbell 51
Akron 73 FINAL
UCF 64
Richmond 77 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 67
Montana 70 FINAL
Seattle 64
(7) Stanford 46 FINAL
Chattanooga 54
Florida A&M 69 FINAL
Southern U 80
Oklahoma 72 FINAL
(13) Duke 92
Savannah State 56 FINAL
Auburn 62
Northern Colorado 43 FINAL
South Florida 84
Youngstown St 73 FINAL
Robert Morris 65
Siena 75 FINAL
Sacred Heart 65
Vermont 63 FINAL
St Francis-NY 61
(1) South Carolina 69 FINAL
Hampton 49
Fla Gulf Coast 91 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 46
Texas Southern 92 FINAL
Houston Baptist 80
Northwestern 88 FINAL
UNLV 84
NC A&T 70 FINAL
Appalachian St 72
NC Central 52 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 67
Drexel 50 FINAL
Quinnipiac 74
Cincinnati 52 FINAL
Northern Ky 66
Alabama State 53 FINAL
Georgia Tech 77
Morehead St 69 FINAL
USC Upstate 75
Arkansas State 59 FINAL
Kent State 44
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Manhattan 52
UNC Greensboro 60 FINAL
St Bonaventure 78
Arkansas-Monticello 56 FINAL
Northwestern St 61
Prairie View 70 FINAL
Sam Houston St 51
McNeese State 59 FINAL
(3) Texas 76
Yale 90 FINAL
Wagner 65
Oakland 61 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 54
Eastern Kentucky 62 FINAL
Alabama A&M 56
SIU-Edwardsville 47 FINAL
Northern Ill 69
McMurry 25 FINAL
TX-Arlington 82
Portland 65 FINAL
Eastern Washington 72
North Texas 42 FINAL
San Francisco 60
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<
Gophers Football Time W L Score
2014 season     
Aug 28 - vs. E. Illinois 6 pmX42-20
Sep 6 - vs. M. Tennessee St. 2:30 pmX35-24
Sep 13 - at TCU 3 pmX30-7
Sep 20 - vs. San Jose St. 3 p.m.X24-7
Sep 27 - at Michigan 2:30 pmX30-14
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern 11 amX24-17
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 amX39-38
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 amX28-24
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa 11 amX51-14
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State 11 amX31-24
Nov 22 - at Nebraska 11 amX28-24
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin 2:30 pmX34-24
Jan 1 - vs. Missouri noon

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