Mason goes to work for U

Todd Zolecki

and Michael Rand

The past three weeks have been anything but quiet for new Gophers football coach Glen Mason. Since men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart announced Mason as Minnesota’s new coach Dec. 14, he has been meeting people, organizing a staff and recruiting the state’s top high school talent.
Most importantly he’s trying to rebuild a program that hasn’t played in a bowl game since 1986 and hasn’t had a winning season since 1990.
It’s nothing new for Mason, 46, who rebuilt losing programs at Kansas and Kent State. He brought Kansas to a 10-2 record and a No. 9 ranking in 1995.
“I don’t know if I’m a Mr. Fix-It, but we’ve had success at a couple of other schools where they didn’t have any success before,” Mason said. “There were times at Kansas where I said I’m never going to go into that sort of rebuilding situation again. It takes a lot of energy. But I’m excited about this challenge. I’m looking forward to it.”
The weeks following Mason’s hire were somewhat hectic for the new coach and the administrative staff in the men’s athletics department.
But as department head Mark Dienhart can attest, the weeks leading up to Mason’s hiring were even more unsettled.
As local journalists raced to uncover potential candidates for the coaching vacancy, the importance of the decision became even more apparent.
“This became a matter of great public interest,” Dienhart said. “It felt unusual having people peer through my office window and follow me in my car. There were people who refused to become involved because of the media crush.”
After names like Bob Stoops, Marc Trestman and Terry Allen were sent through the newspaper wringer, Dienhart made his second call to Mason.
Dienhart had called the former Kansas coach three weeks earlier to see if he was interested in the Minnesota job. Mason told Dienhart to call back when he was serious about making an offer.
After Dienhart’s second call, things progressed quickly. Within a matter of days, a man whose name was rarely mentioned publicly as a candidate became the new coach.
“We knew the pressure was on, and we had to hire a quality coach,” said Dr. McKinley Boston, vice president for Student Development and Athletics. “That was the nervous part all along. It got a little hairy.”
Although the burden of helping Mason and his new staff get acclimated caused some additional stress for Dienhart, he says in retrospect that finding a coach was the more difficult of the tasks.
“It’s a comforting sort of thing,” Dienhart said of the past few weeks. “It’s taken an unsettled situation and put experienced people in the spots we need them. (Mason’s) looked at the facilities, the Metrodome. He has strong ideas about how to move forward.”
Mason’s first priority is to bring the state’s top high school talent to campus annually, something former coach Jim Wacker couldn’t do. In the past few years, the Gophers lost out on in-state players like Colorado safety Steve Rosga, Nebraska linebacker Jay Foreman and Michigan quarterback Jason Kapsner.
Each year Minnesota produces about 15 Division I athletes. The Gophers hope Mason’s presence will help them sign at least nine or 10 each year.
“We need to convince recruits in Minnesota that it’s worth four or five years of their time to invest in Minnesota,” Dienhart said. “We have people believing that in all of our other sports. But given the state of our (football) program, that’s not there right now.”
Mason, who was recruiting in Cleveland this weekend, already has seven in-state oral commitments, the most notable being tight end Zach Vevea from Elk River, who was recruited by Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa.
“We have to appeal to all parts of their life,” Mason said. “It’s a comprehensive decision, what will put them in the best position to succeed in more than just football. And frankly, players are more interested in the opportunity to play, and they’re going to have a better chance at a place like Minnesota than a place like Ohio State.”
Boston said Mason’s commitment to in-state recruits has struck a chord with alumni and University supporters.
“What we’re hoping is that as he gets into these homes — especially those of Minnesota recruits — they will also recognize he’s a quality guy,” Boston said. “But we’ve also made a commitment to having a quality football program, and the only reason he came here is that he understands that level of commitment.”
Mason’s immediate focus on recruiting has left him a little unsettled in other areas. He’s living in a hotel, and he’s barely had a chance to speak with members of his new team because they’ve been on break and he’s been busy.
But Mason knows that spending his energy on recruiting now will pay off soon enough. He’s also well aware of the expectations placed upon him.
“I’ve been in college football for a long time and had the opportunity to view a lot of different programs. Minnesota offers a unique product — it’s a great school in a great area with a strong focus on education,” Mason said. “We have a tremendous amount to sell. There’s a lot of eagerness and hungriness by the players, fans and coaches to have a winner.”
The question, then, isn’t whether Mason has the will to succeed — it’s will he succeed? And if so, how long will it take?
“For 30 years people have been pretty patient, and I don’t think that will change,” Dienhart said. “But I do know (Mason) feels a sense of urgency. He’s a person with a plan, and he has tremendous energy and drive.”