Glen Mason has been on the sidelines for six bowl games in the past seven years. Last season's 34-31 loss to Virginia in the Music City Bowl evened his bowl record at 3-3.
A conversation with the coach
Q&A with Gopher football head coach Glen Mason
By Rick Moore
Aug. 25, 2006
Glen Mason came to the University of Minnesota in January 1997 with a reputation for turning football programs around, a feat he accomplished first at Kent State and then at Kansas. Now beginning his 10th season at the U, Mason has quietly accrued more tenure than any Minnesota coach since Murray Warmath (1954-71). With 117 wins, Mason is second only to Penn State's Joe Paterno in total career victories among current Big Ten coaches; his record at Minnesota is 58-50.
And while he has turned the program around--guiding the Gophers in 1999 to their first bowl appearance in 13 years and to six bowls in the last seven years--Minnesota is still entrenched in a gridiron purgatory, seemingly unable to crack the top three in the Big Ten standings and still searching for its first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1962.
In between spring recruiting trips, Mason took some time to talk about his success in putting "a credible product" on the field each year, and the challenges he faces, especially in recruiting, to gain ground in a brutally competitive conference. The Gophers open their non-conference season on Aug. 31 at Kent State. Q: You've been at Minnesota now for going on 10 years, the longest tenure since Murray Warmath and your longest stint anywhere. With the new contract, does Minnesota feel like a long-term home to you?
A: It's felt like home for a long time. I think that we had to deal with the perception for quite a long time that we were here for the short term rather than the long term--my staff and I--and that was never our intention. When you look at modern-day athletics and someone's been there 10 years, that's considered a pretty long stint.
Q: Athletics Director Joel Maturi suggested to the Board of Regents recently that the football team is not far away from a Big Ten championship. Do you agree?
A: We've made a lot of progress. We've been a blink of an eye away from really being a serious contender on a number of occasions since we've been here. But until you do it, you haven't done it. And the Big Ten is a pretty competitive conference. All you have to do is look at the money that people are investing in their programs in the way of football-related facilities and it's almost mind-boggling. And that's all because there's an intense race to be in position to win Big Ten championships.
Q: When it comes to recruiting, do you feel like you're hampered by anything inherent to Minnesota or the University?
A: I think every place has its positives and every place has its negatives. What you have to do is do a good job of accentuating the positives and dealing with the negatives. I think that the biggest obstacle in recruiting is that we are forced to recruit a large number of players from a long distance away. We have some awful good programs and some awful good players in the state; however, we don't have an abundance of them. There are some states that will produce 6 to 15 times the number of Division I players than we do on a yearly basis, and when you're confronted with signing someplace between 20 and 25 players per year, that dictates that you're going to have to get on planes and recruit from a far distance away. I think the farther you go away from campus the more difficult it is to recruit.
Q: Just when you might have the powers figured out in a given year, along comes a Penn State last year. Is it frustrating playing in the Big 10 knowing that there really are few, if any, soft games on the schedule?
A: I don't think the success that Penn State had last year surprised anybody that really knows anything about college football internally. Even coach Paterno, when they were having those losing seasons, was saying that they're just a play here or there from contending for a national championship. But in saying that, there are no easy games in the Big Ten right now. When you look at maybe the change that you've seen in the Big Ten, the perennial powers are still the perennial powers but the perennial doormats aren't doormats anymore. On any given Saturday they can win.
Q: Your demeanor always seems amazingly positive even after a difficult loss. Is that your true self or are you better than others at covering disappointment?
A: Maybe you better ask my wife that.... It takes some work, but I've always thought that when you've played a game and things haven't worked out the way you wanted and you're down and your players are down and your fans are down, all of a sudden for the coach to say, 'That was worse than going to a dentist without novocaine,' does that help the situation? That even puts a more negative light onto it, and typically nothing's ever as good or as bad as it seems. So you try to look at the things that were positive and you can build on, but at the same time be pretty much forthright and tell it like it is.
Q: The team has been built around an explosive running game in recent years, which the talent has certainly dictated. Given your returning players, do you think the team will still primarily be built around the run or be more pass-oriented?
A: We've always played to our strength, and right now I wouldn't say the strength of our football team is our running game. We're not nearly as talented at running back as we've been. We've had some very good players on our offensive line depart through graduation. That doesn't mean that I don't believe that we'll have a good offensive line, But I believe our quarterback, Bryan Cupito, is throwing better than he's ever thrown, and our wide receivers are performing much better. So I think you'll see much more balance in our offense.
Q: Do you feel any tangible pressure to win more games or put more fans in the stands, or is most of the pressure you may feel self-imposed?
A: At this level, if you're a major college football coach, there's always pressure to win. Let's face it; major college football coaches are held accountable for a lot of stuff, especially out of season. Ultimately, unless you cheat, you're fired because you lose. One of my favorite sayings is, for a football coach the posse is always out there. Sometimes you see the dust, sometimes you don't, but they're always there. But, that type of pressure and/or criticism doesn't bother me. The only thing I worry about is putting a credible product out there on the field. We've not won a championship, but we've had a credible product; we've had the best offensive production that this school's ever seen and tops in the conference.
Q: I suppose you've gotten acclimated to the notion that you can lose players [like Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney] early to the draft?
A: Yeah, it's something you don't like, but it's a reality. You lose a guy that's a first-round pick in the National Football League... well, you can imagine what caliber of player he is and how could compete in the Big Ten conference. So you don't like that from the standpoint of what negative effect it has on the team. But at the same time, when you look at the positive financial effect it has on the guy in that situation, it's hard to begrudge him or his family. Is money the end-all of everything? No, but not many people can walk away from those types of opportunities.
Q: What will you be doing when you're Joe Paterno's age?
A: When I'm Joe Paterno's age I hope I'm still breathing. (laughter) He's going to be coaching 56 years! I've only been living 56 years. I would very much doubt that I'll be coaching football at age 79; however, I pray that I'm as healthy and as active and involved in something at age 79 as Coach Paterno.
Q: Away from the field, away from the office, what do you do for fun and for release?
A: I'm an avid jogger--that's because I love to eat... and it keeps me healthy. I love going on Lake Minnetonka with my family. I go out there as often as I possibly can--sometimes with my wife, sometimes with a kid; always with the dog. And then I enjoy playing golf. My favorite part of golf is playing with guys who are critical of my athletes and pro athletes and everybody's athletes, and on the 18th hole, when they have a three-foot putt, they can't even hit the hole. And I let 'em know about it, too.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in Minnesota, July-August 2006, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.