Former Gophers football coach Glen Mason has one distinction that no other Minnesota coach can boast about: Three of his former players were on one team, the Steelers, in the Super Bowl.

They are safety Tyrone Carter, running back Gary Russell and tight end Matt Spaeth.

And if you look back a few years, Mason might still be coaching the Gophers if Russell hadn't flunked out of school after the 2005 season and Spaeth hadn't missed the Insight Bowl following the 2006 season -- a 44-41 overtime loss to Texas Tech after leading 35-7 at halftime -- because of shoulder surgery.

Mason considers Spaeth the best tight end he has coached. And after Russell scored Super Bowl XLIII's first touchdown for the Steelers, helping Pittsburgh defeat Arizona 27-23, Mason said, "Russell would have been an All-American had he not been ruled academically ineligible."

In the Super Bowl, Russell carried twice for minus-3 yards and one touchdown. Spaeth caught one pass for 6 yards. Carter had two tackles.

Mason also said his staff tried hard to recruit Larry Fitzgerald Jr., the great Cardinals wide receiver from Minneapolis, but "he had to go to prep school."

"I just remember that he didn't have much interest in the University of Minnesota," Mason said. "I remember making the home visit, with his mom and his dad and Larry, and they were very nice to me, very cordial. I think Mom had some definite plans on what should take place, what course of action Larry should follow. And I don't know what all went into him ending up going to Valley Forge Military [Academy], but that was in the process."

As for Fitzgerald's ability, Mason said: "Oh, I loved him. It's always hard to speculate that a guy coming out of high school is going to be one of the elite receivers in the National Football League, but he was surely an outstanding prospect coming out of high school."

Mason said Fitzgerald was one of the top Gophers recruits and that rumors that the Gophers didn't want him didn't make any sense at all.

"That's the farthest thing from the truth," Mason said. "I still remember Joker Phillips, who's now the coach in waiting at Kentucky, we used to send him down to watch about every one of his games, but we couldn't [get Fitzgerald interested in the Gophers]. I don't know what the attraction was, but it seemed like he was destined to go to [the University of] Pittsburgh. He was committed to go to Pittsburgh before he went to the prep school.

"If you remember Cris Carter, who was in Minneapolis [playing for the Vikings] at that time, he was trying to get him to go to Ohio State."

Fitzgerald caught seven passes from 127 yards and two touchdowns in the Super Bowl, including a 64-yarder from Kurt Warner that briefly gave the Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2:37 to play.

Pendino not surprised

Mike Pendino, who was Fitzgerald's high school coach at Holy Angels, watched the Cardinals superstar perform all year on television and in the Super Bowl and recalled his appraisal of the great wide receiver as a high schooler.

"I've recruited Florida and Texas when I was at the U, and I said I've seen all the so-called great ones, and there was none of them that carried themselves the way Larry did," he said. "The first time I ever saw the kid, you just knew he was something different, something special."

Fitzgerald transferred to Holy Angels as a sophomore, after attending Minnehaha Academy as a freshman.

Pendino recalled the night that Larry Fitzgerald Sr. and his wife, Carol, came to Holy Angels to tell the football coaches they wanted Larry Jr. to enroll. Larry Jr. was catching some passes on the practice field with Holy Angels players as his parents and the coaches talked.

"When his parents left I said to [assistant] coach Ray Betton -- the God's honest truth, and you can ask any of the coaches that were there -- that they won't ever coach a better receiver.

"We played in a playoff game, and at halftime I think Larry had 10, 11 catches," Pendino said. "He could have broken state records for the number of catches in a game and everything and he said, 'You know what, Coach? We're running the ball, just keep running it. Don't worry about throwing to me and getting me records.'

"He was like that even way back then. It was always about just winning the football game. He could have set every high school record in the state of Minnesota [for] receiving but ... he didn't care, or it wasn't his personality to say, 'Come on, keep throwing to me, keep getting me the ball.' He was just happy running the ball and winning the football game."

Jottings

While there has been a lot of negativity about free-agent center Matt Birk returning to the Vikings next season, the word is the Pro Bowl center had a good year and, unless his financial demands are what the Vikings believe to be out of line, Birk will return. The rumors are that free-agent safety Darren Sharper could wind up with Miami or New Orleans and that the Vikings will try to keep tight end Jim Kleinsasser.

Gophers football coach Tim Brewster said quarterback Adam Weber, who recently had surgery on his left shoulder, will not take part in any contact work in spring practice. Brewster also said the U's spring football game will played in a high school football stadium yet to be chosen. ... All of the 17 players who have verbally commited to Minnesota are solid and they will all sign Wednesday unless there is a surprise. The Gophers still could land two or three players.

Bob Knight has said he is interested in coaching again at a place he has a chance to win, and Georgia might fit that bill. However, I know Knight wouldn't pursue the job. If they want him under the right circumstances, he could be available for the job.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson was asked to assess the ability of Wolves center/forward Al Jefferson: "I think Al's what you see in him as a player, and I think that's what you can expect him to be, a 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] guy."

Tim Kurtt of St. Paul served as a line judge for the Australian Open men's final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on Sunday. Kurtt, who also worked the women's doubles championship match, has worked at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Beijing Olympics.

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber, when he was asked about the potential of Gophers freshman Ralph Sampson III: "I think he's had a great freshman year, probably better than they expected. I watched him coming up. He's played better than I ever anticipated, and he's got a great future for them."

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast once a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com