Loss at Iowa likely means no New Year’s Day bowl

Brett Angel

As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi stood on the field shaking hands with Minnesota football players.

Many Gophers somberly offered their palms as they made their way toward the locker room after being dismantled by the Hawkeyes 40-22.

But there was a feeling that for Minnesota, this was supposed to be a day when handshakes offered congratulations rather than condolences.

With the opportunity to basically assure themselves an invitation to a New Year’s Day bowl and their best conference record in 30 years, the Gophers stumbled their way to another disappointing finish in a season that promised so much more.

“Let’s put it in perspective, we’ve had a good year,” Maturi said. “But we were close to making it a great year.”

Minnesota linebacker Ben West had an interesting perspective to his team’s up-and-down season.

“When we came in here (to Iowa City) my freshman year (in 1999) our team was about the same and they went to the Sun Bowl,” West said. “That was a good team, but I think we’re a lot better.”

Few would argue with West that Minnesota’s football team this year had more potential than the 1999 version that went 8-4 before losing to Oregon in the Sun Bowl. But despite higher expectations and team goals of playing on New Year’s Day, West and his teammates now find themselves in a strikingly similar situation to that 1999 team.

After its disheartening loss to Iowa, Minnesota finished its regular season with a 5-3 conference record and could potentially end up back in El Paso, Texas, this holiday season. Realistically, the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, might be a best-case scenario for the Gophers, while the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., remains a possibility.

The final Big Ten regular season games will be played Saturday while Minnesota sits idle. The games will further determine who is traveling where for the postseason. But regardless of where Minnesota ends up playing, there is a prevailing sense on the team that it could have accomplished more.

“I don’t think any bowl in itself is a bad one,” Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. “But our outcome of the season should be a lot better. I just wanted so much more for this team because I know we were capable of it.”

It’s not the kind of talk one might expect to hear from a team that recorded its first nine-win season since 1905, or one that is headed to its fourth bowl game in five seasons after a 13-year drought.

But the reality is Minnesota fans will now question just how far this program has really come in the last four years.

Any bowl the Gophers are likely to be invited to in the coming weeks will probably not be played in the 2004 calendar year. And that remains a step Minnesota’s football program as failed to take in Glen Mason’s seven years as coach.

“The prospect of playing on New Year’s Day has some magic to it,” said Dylan Thomas, a representative of the Capital One Bowl, who was scouting the Gophers on Saturday.

Postseason accomplishments – and venues – have become the standard by which aspiring collegiate football programs are measured. And without seeing Minnesota elevate itself to that next tier, it’s difficult for many fans to see the progress.

“I think it might be what is necessary to convince the people of Minnesota that the program is for real,” Maturi said. “You don’t have to convince me, but for some reason we haven’t been fully endorsed by the Minnesota faithful.”

Not that being invited to a New Year’s Day bowl ensures any kind of future success.

Illinois won the Big Ten title and played in the Sugar Bowl just two years ago and now finds itself struggling to stay out of the conference basement. But at least the Illini know the feeling.

“Obviously I’d rather be there and find out what it does for your program, but it doesn’t guarantee anything,” Maturi said.

As the head man in a revamped athletics department, Maturi always has the long-term goals of the program in mind.

But seniors on this year’s team have only one concern left. And that’s leaving a legacy behind they can point to after they have concluded their collegiate careers.

“That’s the job of kids coming in is to leave the program better than it was,” West said. “I think the only way we’re going to feel that we accomplished that is with a win in the bowl game.”

As for the playing on New Year’s Day, Maturi will most likely have to wait for another year to see if the football team can accomplish the feat.

“It has to happen and I think it will happen,” Maturi said. “I don’t care how critical anybody is, we were close.

“We didn’t get the job done – and coach (Mason) will be the first one to admit that – but there have been many years when we haven’t been close.”

Contract talks to begin

Despite a disappointing finish to the season, Maturi has asked Mason to meet with him to discuss a possible contract extension as coach.

Mason currently has three years remaining on a previous extension he signed in March 2000. But Maturi is looking to solidify Mason’s long-term future with Minnesota’s football program.

“He’s an outstanding teacher, he’s tremendously thorough in his preparation and, most importantly, he really cares for kids,” Maturi said.

“I like the way he coaches the game and I’m hopeful that (Mason) and I can come to an agreement that he’ll spend more years here.”

Maturi said it is important for Minnesota to offer potential recruits the solidarity of a single coach for an athlete’s entire collegiate career, if possible.

No official timetable has been set for negotiations, but Maturi is confident the two will sit down sometime soon.

“We’ll find a time in the very near future,” Maturi said.