Glen Mason took a bite of pot pie at lunch last week and smiled.
"I had a hell of a spring," he said.
The former Gophers football coach is on the mend and feeling better after a couple of medical scares in March. He slipped on an icy sidewalk retrieving the morning paper and landed on his back.
"I'm in my boxer shorts and a bathrobe with my dog and I can't get up," he said.
Unable to stand and walk, he crawled to the front door and into his house, where he called 911. The damage: seven broken ribs, a fractured vertebra and internal bleeding that required surgery.
Mason experienced symptoms of a heart attack in that same week that prompted a battery of tests. No blockage or heart disease was detected, but doctors inserted an implantable cardioverter defibrillator as a precaution. He has had no symptoms since.
Now 72 years old, Mason says he feels lucky his injuries weren't worse and that he didn't hit his head when he fell.
I invited Mason to lunch to catch up with this being the 25th anniversary of his first fall camp as Gophers coach in 1997. And because a realization hit me the other day as I watched the Gophers practice inside their beautiful new practice facility: Mason and P.J. Fleck coached the same college football program in name only.
The program Mason inherited bears little resemblance to Fleck's current program, other than Goldy the mascot and "The Rouser" fight song.
Mason provided good coaching and a necessary kick in the pants for the school to understand that college football is serious business that requires deep institutional commitment.
"You don't take quality out of a program overnight and you don't put it in overnight," Mason said. "But once you have it, you've got to constantly fight to keep it."
Mason took over a program coming off six consecutive losing seasons with three Big Ten wins combined in three seasons before his arrival from Kansas.
The Gophers didn't have their own stadium. The football facility was dilapidated, including an inadequate weight room, no meeting rooms and a locker room so small that freshmen had to dress in a different room. Coaches had to shovel snow that blew inside the entrance whenever the door opened.
Mason invited a group of top in-state recruits to the facility a few weeks after he was hired to hear their feedback about the program. He heard nothing but complaints about the Metrodome and the facilities.
"I got my eyes opened," Mason said. "I said we need to do something and do something now."
He challenged the status quo and didn't worry about winning a popularity contest. He demanded more commitment in all areas — facilities, salaries, staffing, budget, etc. — to make football a priority in line with Big Ten rivals. He didn't always get a yes answer, but he refused to settle. Sometimes that bothered university leaders.
Looking back now, Minnesota needed Mason's vision and persistence at that moment in the program's history because a losing culture was baked into the operation and change would not happen without someone demanding it.
"You have to keep pushing and fighting for things that you think are really important," Mason says now. "I wasn't being unreasonable. I wasn't asking for the moon."
No, just a new on-campus stadium, for starters. He famously got blocked from showing a group of recruits the Metrodome one weekend because it was booked for a tractor pull.
Stadium conflicts with Twins postseason games accelerated Mason's urgency to get shovels in the dirt on what is now Huntington Bank Stadium.
"Are we a Big Ten school or not?" he told people. "Isn't it apparent that this doesn't work?"
Gophers football went from disrepair to successful, credible program under Mason despite lagging in important areas that left the U chasing rivals.
The advent of Big Ten Network and a gold rush in TV money fundamentally changed college sports after Mason left coaching. The Gophers have poured that revenue stream into football in ways that reflect a strong commitment. The before-and-after picture from Mason's tenure to present is almost unrecognizable.
"The big mistake, if you don't watch out, is to think they're done," Mason said.
He knows better than anyone that the bar continually rises in college football and to sit idle is a bad strategy.