The theory of the “isolation” run in football is that the up-front blockers will leave a linebacker in a position where he has to make the tackle, and then a fullback will lead the tailback into that area.
Glen Mason was the offensive coordinator and line coach at Ohio State for Earle Bruce in the 1980s. “We were an isolation team — I-formation, two backs in the backfield and we pounded ’em,” Mason said. “For the most part, the Buckeyes had the type of athletes to do that.”
Mason was in his 30s and preparing for a chance to be a head coach.
“I did some studying of teams nationally and saw that if you couldn’t run the ball and play good defense, you were losing,” he said. “Quite a few teams were throwing the ball all over and putting up some big numbers, but they weren’t winning.”
Mason went to Kent State in 1986, put in the wishbone and went 12-10 in two seasons with the previously downtrodden program. That landed him at Kansas, where Mason took the Jayhawks from 1-10 in 1988 to 8-4 with an Aloha Bowl victory in 1992, and then to 10-2 with another Aloha Bowl victory in 1995.
“We started with a run ‘n’ shoot with a running flavor at Kansas,” Mason said. “We evolved into a zone running team.”
Mason was hired by the Gophers on Dec. 14, 1996. And he was inheriting the exact scenario he identified a decade earlier: a Big Ten program that had thrown the ball all over and put up some big numbers with coach Jim Wacker, and could not win.
The Gophers were 8-15 overall in Mason’s first two seasons. It took some time to round up the mobile linemen who could make the zone-blocking scheme work — who could pull to the point of attack and create double teams.
Thomas Hamner led the Gophers with 663 and then 838 yards rushing in Mason’s first two seasons. In 1999, the Gophers jumped to 8-4, with Hamner rushing for 1,426 yards and quarterback Billy Cockerham for 831.
Over the last eight seasons of the Mason decade, the Gophers had 11 rushers go over 1,000 yards in a season — first Hamner in 1999, then Tellis Redmon twice (1,368 in 2000 and 1,091 in 2001), Terry Jackson II (1,317 in 2002), Marion Barber III twice (1,196 in 2003 and 1,269 in 2004), Laurence Maroney three times (1,121 in 2003, 1,348 in 2004 and 1,464 in 2005), Gary Russell (1,130 in 2005) and Amir Pinnix (1,272 in 2006).
“We were the first team in [Division I-A] history to have two rushers over 1,000 yards three years in a row, and it would’ve been four if the university had not made the ridiculous decision to toss out Gary Russell in ’06,” Mason said.
The devotion and creativity of Mason and his staff with the running game allowed the Gophers to be a worthy opponent in the Big Ten. What got away in the second half of his tenure was the defensive part of the winning formula.
Firing Mason was questionable; hiring Tim Brewster was folly.
Four years after that disaster, the Gophers went back to finding a coach, not a salesman — and one in Jerry Kill with basically the same idea as Mason about building an offense on the run.
“We ended up basically being able to run the ball against anybody,” Mason said. “When we blew that game against Michigan in ’03, after we had a 21-point lead, my secretary took a call on Monday and said, ‘[Former Michigan coach] Bo Schembechler’s on the phone.’
“I picked up and Bo said, ‘Mason, I never thought I’d see the day when Notre Dame or Ohio State rushed for 424 yards against Michigan, much less Minnesota,’ and then he hung up.”
Mason now works for the Big Ten Network. He has intently watched the Gophers’ progress under Kill.
“There are less moving parts with the read option — or the ‘decide play,’ as I call it — than we had,” Mason said. “The quarterback is in a shotgun, and he reads the backside end, and decides to keep or give the ball to the back or run.