Glen Mason had been on the job as Gophers football coach for only a short time in 1997 when Dick Ames stopped by his office and invited him to take a ride.
Ames drove Mason to a piece of property on top of a hill, offering a beautiful view. Ames said he owned the land but would give it to Mason under one condition.
“He said, ‘All I want to do is get to the Rose Bowl,’ ” Mason said. “He said, ‘If you get me to the Rose Bowl, I’m going to give you this piece of land on top of this hill.’ ”
Mason told Ames that he didn’t need the land. He just wanted Ames to be his friend.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well, hell, I’m already your friend,’ ” Mason recalled with a laugh.
Friends say that was Dick Ames at his essence: loyal, generous and passionate about Gophers athletics. The longtime booster died Wednesday in Arizona after a short illness at age 89.
Ames was a fixture at Gophers events for decades, especially football and basketball. The founder of Ames Construction donated millions to the university and athletic department. He hosted fundraisers at his home and lent his private plane for school use. He even offered to provide free labor in construction of the new baseball stadium.
If someone needed something, they usually called Ames. And he would come through for them.
“All too often, when people give you a lot of money, they want to tell you how to run your business,” Mason said. “That was not Dick at all. He just wanted to be supportive.”
Ames did plead to see the Gophers play in the Rose Bowl. Usually that plea happened in the first conversation whenever he met a new coach or athletic director.
“The first time I met him, he told me that,” former AD Joel Maturi said. “He said, ‘I want to go to the Rose Bowl.’ ”
He added a twist when he met current football coach P.J. Fleck.
Said Fleck: “He said, ‘I’m getting older now. We need to beat Wisconsin and go to the Rose Bowl. Listen, I’m not telling you what order I want them in, but I’d like them both at some point.’ ”
Ames served on the search committee that recommended Mason, and the two remained close friends over the years. Mason flew to Arizona on Tuesday night to be with him. Ames continued to send Christmas presents to Maturi and his wife after Maturi was no longer running the department. And Ames spent a lot of time with Fleck’s entire family.
“My children love him,” Fleck said.
Former football coach Jerry Kill has his own special connection.
Epileptic seizures caused Kill to miss the Michigan game in 2013. He was in rough shape and needed to see a specialist in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Ames let Kill use his private jet to get there.
“Maybe saved my life,” Kill said. “A lot of people don’t know that. He did things for people that nobody knew about.”
Boosters remain the lifeblood of college sports, even with the influx of television revenue. Ames was part of the old guard of Gophers boosters who kept the department afloat before conference networks and cable giants started pumping millions into athletic departments. Ames was on the short list of “go-to” boosters, the ones who got the first call when the department needed money.
“Some guys talk a good game, and other guys do a good game,” Mason said. “All he wanted to do was help, and he really didn’t want anything in return.”
Ames didn’t hesitate to criticize the athletic department when scandals arose or if he didn’t agree with a decision made by administrators. Ames had seats right behind Maturi at Williams Arena, and they often discussed the state of the department. Maturi said he never took his criticism personally because “you knew where his heart was.”
“It wasn’t about his money; it was about his passion,” Maturi said. “He also wanted you to do it right.”
Ames opened his heart and his wallet to Gophers athletics. In good times and, more often, in tough times. He was always there.
“I can say unequivocally that the University of Minnesota and the athletic department never had a better supporter than Dick Ames,” Mason said. “And I spent 35 years in major college coaching, and no coach has ever had a better friend than I did in Dick Ames.”