Gone country: Gophers heading to Music City Bowl

Brian Stensaas

Early Tuesday afternoon, mere hours before Minnesota’s football team worked out for the first time since a season ending loss at Wisconsin, the phone of Athletic Director Joel Maturi was ringing with good news.

On the other line was Music City Bowl Executive Director Scott Ramsey, offering Maturi and the Gophers what they had been waiting for: an invitation to the Dec. 30 game.

Maturi gladly accepted, officially marking a destination for a team surrounded by questions regarding its post-season fate.

“As an athletic director, I cannot say how pleased I am for the athletes, coaches and staff on this team,” Maturi said. “We’ve endured a lot, and this is sure a fitting reward.”

It will be the team’s third bowl in four years, the first time in school history a Minnesota team has accomplished that feat. The Gophers also played in the 1999 Sun Bowl and the 2000 Micronpc.com bowl.

The Gophers (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) will receive $750,000 for the bowl and play either Arkansas or Auburn. The Razorbacks play Georgia in the SEC championship game Saturday and will go to Nashville if defeated. Otherwise, the Tigers will be Music City bound.

“We’ve been on pins and needles since our season ended,” said coach Glen Mason via phone. “It’s nice to know we’ll be going to Nashville.”

Though Minnesota has lost its last four games, spirits were high Tuesday. Senior co-captain cornerback Michael Lehan admitted a New Year’s Day bowl would have been better, but the Music City Bowl is no slap in the face; it’s a sign of the future.

“It’s a real compliment,” Lehan said of the bowl bid. “Coming to Minnesota, it would have been good to go to one bowl and now we’ll have gone to three. We’re definitely on the way up.”

The announcement comes three months after teammate Brandon Hall was murdered in downtown Minneapolis following the team’s first win of the season. Though Minnesota went on to win six of its next seven games following the tragedy, the pain has always been present.

Hall’s death coupled with the lack of respect in the preseason – the Gophers were picked near the bottom of the Big Ten by many national outlets – makes the postseason nod that much more meaningful.

“It’s been a grueling year,” said Lehan, who missed three games with a leg injury. “A lot of people have been hurting in a lot of different ways. This isn’t the end of the 2002 season, it’s the beginning of 2003. It’s for the younger guys, something to build on.”

Gone bowlin’

Five other Big Ten teams accepted bowl bids Tuesday afternoon following the Bowl Championship Series’ announcement that Iowa will play in a BCS game.

The 11-1 Hawkeyes will likely end up either in the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl.

Meanwhile, Penn State will face an SEC opponent in the Capital One Bowl, Michigan will play Florida in the Outback Bowl, Wisconsin will meet a Big 12 foe in the Alamo Bowl and Purdue is headed to the Sun Bowl for the second year in a row to square off with a Pac-10 opponent.

With Ohio State set to play for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl, the Motor City Bowl, originally set to host the Big Ten’s seventh eligible team, will select an at-large representative.

Brian Stensaas covers football and

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