P.J.R.: Close, but Kill's third season will not equal Mason's
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Jerry Kill is the ninth coach in the post-Murray Warmath era of Gophers football. Starting in 1972, those coaches have been:
Cal Stoll (39-39), Joe Salem (19-35-1), Lou Holtz (10-12), John Gutekunst (29-36-2), Jim Wacker (16-39), Glen Mason (64-57), Tim Brewster (15-30), interim Jeff Horton (2-3) and Kill (17-20).
A case could be made that 3-1 of Kill's record should go to Tracy Claeys, this season's interim, but the 8-4 regular season will stick with the head coach.
Stoll had a much-tougher non-conference schedule to deal with in the '70s, so it's debatable as to whether Stoll or Mason offered the most-competitive product in the 32 seasons since Warmath.
Kill does seem to be a combination of both:
Offering a countrified impersonation of Stoll as a salesman and schmoozer, and bringing the resume and professionalism to the task as did Mason. I went with the Mason comparison in early August in a Strib column, suggesting it was very unlikely that Kill would get on the Mason track in his third season.
As it turned out, the 2013 Gophers came much closer than anticipated in matching the 1999 Gophers. I will insist that Mason's third-season turnaround remains more impressive than Kill's, no matter the identity of the opponent and the outcome in the bowl game.
With the right draw, these Gophers will get to nine wins and much will be made that it's the second-most victories in a season in Minnesota's modern football history, trailing only the 10-3 season in 2003.
Much historical perspective would be required to such a statement, including:
Bernie Bierman had four unbeaten national championship teams (1934, 1935, 1940 and 1941) that played only eight games. The regular-season in modern times did not exceed nine games until 1965.
The regular-season schedule in 1999 still was 11 games, meaning Mason was short one non-conference patsy to add to that team's victory column.
Thus, if Minnesota was to beat its old bowl rival, Texas Tech, or maybe K-State, in a bowl game, it's not as simple as saying, "Kill's 9-4 puts him ahead of Mason's program, since his team was 8-4 in its third season.''
The 2013 Gophers had a "signature'' victory in beating Nebraska for the first time since 1960. The U of M athletic folks sensed such excitement over this that they put prints memorializing the event on sale on gophersports.com.
Actually, it was a signature win with an asterisk, since this was among the most low-level teams for Nebraska in the five decades since Bob Devaney turned that program into a powerhouse.
The main event for Mason's third team was a much more significant nationally. The 1999 Gophers went to Mount Nittany beat Penn State 24-23. Joe Paterno's Lions were 9-0 at the time and rated No. 2 in the country. That was bona fide as a signature win.
Those Gophers had walkovers vs. Ohio, Louisiana-Monroe and Division 1AA Illinois State as the three non-conference games. These Gophers had wins over UNLV, New Mexico State, Division 1AA Western Illinois and San Jose State.
The UNLV win looks better now than it did in August. And the San Jose State win looks better after the Spartans' shootout victory over Fresno State last weekend, than it had during a disappointing season for SJSU.
As for the Big Ten, these Gophers had four nice wins - Nebraska and Penn State at home, and roadies at Northwestern and Indiana. They opened with a couple of clunkers, Iowa and at Michigan, and closed with losses to superior teams, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
My suggestion in print after the Wisconsin loss at TCF Bank Stadium was that Kill's Gophers had the physical part of Big Ten football figured out, and now had to take care of the other half of the formula: acquiring playmakers.
That was more evident after a stout defensive effort only could keep things close in a14-3 loss in East Lansing. When Big Ten play was over, the Gophers were a middling 4-4 and didn't have a touchdown in the last 10 quarters.
Mason's Gophers of 1999 didn't encounter such an issue. They were 2-3 in conference play before going to Penn State. The wins were at Northwestern and Illinois. The losses were to Wisconsin (20-17) and Ron Dayne's Rose Bowl winners, to a mediocre Ohio State (20-17) team and to Purdue (33-28) and quarterback Drew Brees.
The upset at Penn State was followed by a 44-20 thumping of Indiana and a 25-21 win over a bad Iowa team.
At the end of the regular season, Mason's Gophers were 5-3 in the Big Ten, 8-3 overall and ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll. They tied for fourth in the Big Ten, but dropped to sixth in the pecking order for bowl games. That happened when Purdue and Brees leaped them and got the Outback Bowl.
The Gophers still wound up with a strong opponent, Oregon, in the Sun Bowl - a game with tradition, even if it was located in El Paso. The Gophers lost 24-20 to a Ducks' team that had Joey Harrington at quarterback and Rueben Droughns as the ace running back.
The 1999 Gophers finished rated No. 18 in the country. No matter where, when or what happens in this year's bowl game, the 2013 Gophers won't finish that high in Kill's third season.
--PATRICK JAMES REUSSE.