Football class of ’98 could be the start of something big

by Michael Rand

A false appearance of happiness — along with a sweaty brow and gritted teeth — has accompanied many Gophers football coaches to numerous press conference podiums.
Three decades of, at best, mediocre recruiting classes and on-field results have made the look commonplace — so much so that a local reporter had to ask current coach Glen Mason on Wednesday if his face was genuine.
Indeed, it was.
For a change, a Gophers coach didn’t need a fake smile.
Although only time will tell whether the coach’s expression will be similarly sincere at a majority of post-game interviews down the road, the Wednesday announcement of the Gophers football team’s 25-member 1998 recruiting class is a step in the right direction, Mason said.
“This is a better class than we had last year because we’ve got better facilities to sell,” Mason said. “Taking everything into account, I’m pleased.”
Following through with what the men’s athletics department called its top priority, the Gophers successfully recruited in-state players for the first time in recent memory.
Seven of the top eight Minnesota high school prospects stayed at home, including Ryan Iversen, the AP Player of the Year.
“From the moment I got here, I said we wanted to recruit the state better than anyone else,” Mason said. “I had expected apathy would be the standard. But the only missing ingredient for in-state kids is winning.”
In all, the class includes 20 high school seniors, three junior college transfers (all from Hutchinson Community College) and two Division I transfers (both from Southern Methodist).
By position, the class breaks down like this: two quarterbacks, six running backs, three wide receivers, one tight end, three offensive linemen, four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two defensive backs and one kicker.
In addition to the 25 scholarship athletes, Mason said about 10 players Minnesota is interested in want to walk on next year.
Perhaps the most highly regarded out-of-state recruit is Asad Abdul-Khaliq, a quarterback from Elizabeth, N.J., who was a Prepstar All-America selection as a senior.
Commitments such as that one generated national publicity from recruiting analysts and lent credence to Gophers officials’ assertions that this is a quality class. Men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said that although he doesn’t place a lot of stock in magazine ratings, it is nice to have the Gophers mentioned in a positive light.
“I’m pleased to see the so-called experts saying there’s been an improvement here,” Dienhart said. “It seems as if a bunch of folks out there, who aren’t biased like me, have some good things to say.”
As Mason and Dienhart acknowledged, however, finding out the true impact of the class will have to wait until at least 1999.
With a difficult Big Ten schedule ahead — the same one as last year, with the home and away games reversed — Minnesota’s immediate prospects appear to be only a notch or two above last year’s 3-9 finish.
But in the long run, this year’s class could bring the program back to respectability. At the very least, it’s something to build on.
“Obviously, it still takes time,” Dienhart said. “But when you’re trying to resurrect a program, it’s good to see that there’s hope.”
That’s something that wasn’t as prevalent even last year, when Mason had barely more than two months to complete his first class after being hired in December 1996.
“You have to get to know your product,” he said. “I don’t have a mountain to show them. I don’t see any oceans. You have to sell the important things — the opportunity to play and the commitment within the program.”
Having sold 25 athletes on his program, Mason’s next task will be turning recruits into players.
“I think it’s a good class,” Mason said. “How good? Only time will tell.”