Danny Zouber was 5 when his father, Jack, started taking him to Gophers football and basketball games. "My Dad went to the university," Danny said. "He remembered the good days."

When he reached college age, Zouber headed for Wisconsin and wound up with a degree from the business school.

"I graduated in '97, so I was there when Barry Alvarez was riding high," said Zouber, 35. "I went to some of the games, but it was awkward. Growing up, that's your biggest rival. I couldn't get into it."

He was graduating at the same time Glen Mason was starting his tenure at Minnesota. Mason was the sixth football coach since Danny's father took him to a first Gophers' game.

"I grew up as a diehard sports fan -- with the Gophers always the No. 1 thing," Zouber said. "That didn't change, until Mason. I didn't care how they were performing, I found him to be arrogant and smug.

"He really turned me off. It was a lapsed period of time for me as a Gophers fan."

Zouber was in full approval when Mason was fired on Jan. 1, 2007, one day after the Gophers blew a 31-point lead and lost to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl. And he had no problem when the replacement, Tim Brewster, arrived on campus spewing over-the-top optimism.

"When the last game was over, it seemed like Mason disappeared from town," Zouber said. "You knew immediately that Brewster was different. No matter how things are going, this guy is out there selling the program every day. I appreciate that."

Zouber had occasional conversations with players and their families during the Mason era and formed this consensus: "Not many of them seemed to like him."

Danny took his family to Murfreesboro, Tenn., this month for the opener against Middle Tennessee State. "There was a genuine feeling of the players and families liking and believing in the coach and his staff," Zouber said.

The Gophers came back from that opening road victory and then suffered the loss -- 41-38 to South Dakota -- that made Brewster's future the main issue with this football program.

Zouber was in Section 211 at TCF Bank Stadium, with his son, Nate, 7, and also his parents for that gruesome loss.

"We were walking back to the parking lot and there were some university students that just might have been inebriated," Zouber said. "They saw Nate and started shouting, 'It's not too late. You can change your allegiance. You don't have to be a Gophers' fan. You can become an Alabama fan, an Ohio State fan. You can save yourself, son.' "

Nate was not in the Zouber delegation on Saturday night, although it was due more to the late kickoff than the advice given a couple of weeks ago by disillusioned U of M students.

Danny, Jack and their wives were occupying the seats on this night. Once again, Brewster and his Gophers found themselves exchanging punches with an opponent -- Northern Illinois -- that Minnesotans expect a Big Ten team to handle.

There was a "Fire Brewster" chant from a corner of the stadium, after the Huskies blocked a punt late in the first half and turned it into a touchdown and a 20-13 lead.

The protest in the fourth quarter was more subtle. The Huskies scored a pair of touchdowns to burst to a 34-16 lead, and the stadium basically emptied. The Gophers succeeded in putting up a consolation touchdown for the second week in a row and lost 34-23.

To add to their suffering, tradition dictated that Brewster and his players head to the east end zone for "Hail Minnesota." They were accompanied by the band and several dozen remaining fans at that end of the stadium.

Zouber has remained steadfast in his support for the fourth-year coach. It wasn't easy after South Dakota, and it has to be tougher after a NIU defeat that sends the Gophers into the Big Ten season at 1-3.

"I'm not ready to give up on Brewster," Zouber said before the game. "My sense is that, without head coaching experience, there's a learning curve just as in any other job ...

"God bless the guy. No matter the setbacks, he still goes after the job every day, nonstop, certain of making it work."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com