Football fairs well without ex-assistants

by Michael Dougherty

The week between Valentine’s Day and President’s Day is usually pretty uneventful for Gophers football coach Glen Mason.
But Mason spent the third week of last February accepting resignations from two of his assistant coaches, Reggie Mitchell and Steve Axman.
Mitchell was the running backs coach under Mason and spent 13 years with him, while Axman was only with Mason and the Gophers for one year.
Axman accepted new Washington coach Rick Neuheisel’s offer to be his quarterbacks coach. And Mitchell jumped ship to become the wide receivers coach at Michigan State.
Both coaches said the decision was difficult, but it’s clear Mitchell’s departure was the hardest for everyone involved. Mitchell said it was a good thing Michigan State was off Minnesota’s schedule this season, because he might have stayed otherwise.
“You know what, I’ll be honest. I probably wouldn’t have left, because I didn’t want to have to play against those guys,” he said of his former coaches and players. “I kind of feel like I’ve got something invested there. A lot of those kids I recruited to play there, so I keep one eye on the score of the Michigan State game and the other eye on the score of the Minnesota game.”
Mitchell grew up in Flint, Mich., so going home was the ultimate factor in his move. He said Spartans coach Nick Saban contacted him after Saban lost five assistants — two went to the NFL and the other three took promotions in the college ranks.
“Reggie and I worked a long time together, and besides Reggie being a good coach and a great recruiter, Reggie was a great friend,” Mason said. “Reggie put in a couple good, hard years here trying to build this thing up and get it going.”
While the news of Mitchell leaving was more painful for Mason personally than it was with Axman, both exits were equally surprising.
Axman had just built a house in Maple Grove and his wife had just been hired as a principal in the Woodbury school district.
Both the coaches were wooed by their eventual employers at the same time. Axman said he had just returned from a trip to Washington when he started to hear about Mitchell possibly leaving.
“That was very surprising,” Axman said of Mitchell’s exodus. “I had come back from Washington and had decided to take the position, then I found out that Reggie had been approached by Michigan State.”
While Axman’s departure came about abruptly, the reasoning is not hard to figure out.
Neuheisel had just left Colorado for Washington and a return to familiar faces was something Axman said he couldn’t pass up.
He said his connections with Neuheisel and the rest of the Huskies’ staff were the driving force behind his decision. Neuheisel was an assistant under Axman when the two were at UCLA in 1987. And the current offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell was an assistant under Axman when the latter was head coach at Northern Arizona.
“It was an opportunity to work with some of my closest friends and it’s an offense that I’m most familiar with, that goes along with my offensive beliefs,” Axman said.
Mason said finding replacements for the two was of immediate concern. He added, “one thing I really hate to do is hire new coaches.”
Mason corralled Tony Peterson from Marshall to replace Axman. Peterson was the quarterback coach for the Thundering Herd for eight years, and was instrumental in the development of current Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington. Pennington set an NCAA record for touchdown passes by a sophomore in 1997 with 39, 25 of which went to current Viking Randy Moss.
Gophers assistant Vic Adamle moved from receivers coach to running backs coach and Joker Phillips was brought in from Cincinnati to take over as receivers coach.
Gophers offensive coordinator Steve Loney said being an assistant coach is a vagabond existence, so he wasn’t very surprised when Mitchell and Axman left.
“You never like turnover, but it’s inevitable to happen within this profession. It’s kind of a fickle profession,” Loney said. “It’s nomadic, but the thing that is most important is that the system stays intact. And we’ve been most fortunate that the two guys we hired, Joker Phillips and Tony Peterson, hit the ground running and they’ve worked in well.”
The ironic thing is that the coaching changes have not affected the current success of tailback Thomas Hamner and quarterback Billy Cockerham, both of whom are spearheading the revival of the Minnesota football program.
Mitchell said he expected to see Hamner do well this season (Hamner has 963 total yards rushing and receiving, and nine touchdowns).
He said his new position with the Spartans leaves him with mixed emotions.
“You move for strange reasons, and that was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do in my life was leave Minnesota,” Mitchell said. “It was extremely hard because I worked with Coach Mason for so long. The relationship was not only professional, it was personal.”

Michael Dougherty covers football and can be reached at [email protected]