The Gophers football season was in free-fall, and anxiety and unrest blanketed TCF Bank Stadium like oxygen. Donors, boosters and former players increasingly demanded reassurance that Tim Brewster had a remedy for the losing, or better yet, a one-way ticket out of town.

Joel Maturi, though, remained upbeat and optimistic, passionate as ever about his athletic department. All is well, he told one worried observer. We're in good shape -- Minnesota is ranked third among Big Ten schools in the Director's Cup standings.

Typical Joel, grumbled one booster when told of Maturi's response. "We can't beat South Dakota," he said, "but he's happy for the cross-country team."

If that's an indictment, Maturi pleads guilty. "I'm the athletic director for 750 student-athletes," he said. "I have an obligation to do my best for the tennis player as I do for the football player."

That philosophy might sum up the nine-year tenure of the 65-year-old Maturi -- an egalitarian approach that suits his cordial and earnest nature, that makes him popular with his bosses and employees both.

"There's no one in his profession I've ever met who cares more about student-athletes," outgoing university President Robert Bruininks said. "I trust his judgment."

Plenty of parents, athletes and coaches support him, too. But it's a win-big-or-else business, and life in the middle or lower class, particularly in football, extracts a brutal price in public esteem.

Somehow this ultra-polite and unfailingly sanguine administrator recently seems to have inherited the mantle of least popular figure in Twin Cities sports. Call-in shows demand his resignation, and message-board posters accuse him of malfeasance and worse. To a lot of fans, he's Nick Punto after popping up a bunt, Brad Childress after losing to the Packers, Tim Brewster after promising roses and delivering thorns.

"It's unbelievable how personal it can get," said Dave Mona, Maturi's chief lieutenant during the search for a new football coach. "You should see how many e-mails he gets that start, 'You dumb s---.' "

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Far more striking than anonymous vitriol, however, is the level of unrest among people around the program, supporters of the university who worry that Maturi is more tactician than strategist, that he's suited to organization but not leadership, and that his penchant for "successes that are admirable but not meaningful," as former All-America linebacker Bob Stein puts it, sets the university's only profit-generating programs -- men's hockey, men's basketball and especially football, which dwarfs (and pays for) the other 24 sports combined -- largely adrift and mostly underachieving.

The basketball team hasn't won an NCAA tournament game in 14 years, the five-time national champion hockey team hasn't qualified for the tournament the past two seasons, and the football team hasn't been a Big Ten contender since the 1960s, nine coaches ago.

Maturi acknowledges the lack of new trophies in campus cases, but he has notable successes, too -- shepherding TCF Bank Stadium into existence, combining formerly separate men's and women's departments, hiring nationally renowned Tubby Smith to coach basketball.

"I'm proud of our program. In some ways, we don't generate the revenue to run a 25-sport department, but we make it work because we're efficient," Maturi said. "I don't know how people can say we underachieve. We're 18th nationally, among 337 schools, in the Director's Cup."

Trouble is, to the average fan, Director's Cup points -- which measure success over more than two dozen varsity sports -- are the sprig of parsley at the banquet of college athletics, while football is the turkey, the potatoes, the stuffing, the gravy, the apple pie and the oven it was all cooked in.

That reality is why Minnesota "has been a laughingstock for four years," Stein said. "We were a joke because of his biblically catastrophic hire [of Brewster]. I feel bad for those kids, because they were saddled with a lot of problems that weren't their fault."

At the moment, Maturi, too, faces a truckload of problems, and there is considerable debate over where fault lies.

"It's a disaster over there," said Phil Ebner, once a captain of Minnesota's golf team and a former board member of the "M" Club of former Gophers athletes. "The leadership just isn't there, and it boggles the mind that they allow this guy to make mistake after mistake. It costs a lot of money."

Specifically, Maturi's critics say he has looked the other way while the men's hockey and women's basketball programs wither into irrelevance. The Gophers don't sell out their new football stadium, costing the school critical revenue. Maturi hasn't raised the money for a basketball practice facility that Tubby Smith has impatiently sought for four seasons. The baseball team doesn't have a home on campus -- and until the Metrodome is repaired, it doesn't have a home anywhere else.

Minnesota's Legislature might consider reducing higher-education funding, which would force the 25-sport athletic department to sustain itself without the $2.3 million subsidy the university provides, a 3 percent contribution toward the $78 million athletic budget. Maturi insists he could manage, particularly if the department is allowed to keep revenues such as game-night parking, which currently go to the university. But a funding cut might mean cutting a few sports, too, a responsibility Maturi dreads.

Want more? A lawsuit brought by Jimmy Williams, a basketball assistant whom Smith tried to hire and Maturi rejected, cost the university a $1 million judgment last May. Katie Brenny, an associate golf coach, filed suit last week alleging she was marginalized because she is a lesbian, an allegation that risks another large payout. And speaking of payouts, firing basketball coach Dan Monson and two football coaches, Brewster and Glen Mason, meant paying buyouts totaling roughly $6 million.

Maturi calls the issues he is facing problematic but largely ordinary, a set of circumstances not unlike that faced by most large-school ADs on a regular basis.

"I deal with challenges more than I deal with good things. That's why you have administrators," Maturi said. "The headaches, the financial realities, that's what you're paid to deal with."

Paid well, too; Maturi earns $345,000 a year, plus an annual contribution to his retirement fund of nearly $100,000.

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Even Maturi admits that Brewster was a mistake, but he believes he has corrected it with his latest hire. Jerry Kill is not just a football coach with a track record of success, Maturi says, but an evangelist who in six weeks has already reinvigorated interest in the lowly Gophers.

"I can't tell you how pleased I am with Jerry Kill," Maturi said. "Most people seem to be pleased, and every day they seem more pleased."

Stein, no fan of Maturi's leadership, is among them. Stein asked friends with college coaching experience for their opinions, and the response was resoundingly positive; an hourlong session with the new coach convinced him even more.

"I'm very impressed. He's a solid, no-bull guy," Stein said. "I have to give Joel credit -- some way, somehow, we ended up with a coach who seems very impressive."

If that seems grudging, well, Maturi should get used to that. If Kill can't turn the program around, the AD will be blamed for another bad hire. And if Kill builds a perennial winner?

"My impression is that nobody thinks Joel made a smart choice -- they think he got lucky, the same way people dismiss his hiring of Tubby," Mona said. "He'll get no credit, even though he did exactly what he said he would. He made a smart, informed choice who everyone will love."

He hopes to be around to take a victory lap; Maturi's contract still has more than 17 months remaining, and he would like to stay on, absorbing abuse and facing new problems, beyond July 1, 2012. But that's not his call, and he knows it.

"Next fall, if the new president [Eric Kaler] is pleased with me and I'm pleased with him, maybe there will be an extension," Maturi said. "But if not, well, I like to say, 'Enjoy the journey.' I've enjoyed the journey."