Mason not discouraged by preseason rankings

David La

CHICAGO — Take a bow, Big Ten conference. To your credit in 1999 — seven teams played in a bowl game, including a Rose Bowl champion, a Heisman Trophy and the following national awards: Bednarik, Butkus, Camp, Maxwell, Thorpe and Walker.
Needless to say, you are one tough conference to survive in, let alone excel in.
Every year, scores of publications offer preseason polls in an attempt to predict where teams will finish in their respective conferences.
As far as the Big Ten, usually it’s Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State — the “Holy Trinity” — picked to end the season in first place.
But then, every so often, a program emerges, notches a few wins and succeeds in upsetting one or more members of the Trinity.
Last year, Minnesota put together a fine season, piling up eight wins, going to a bowl game and ruining Penn State’s hopes for a national title in the process.
Apparently, it wasn’t enough to sway the majority of publications from picking the Gophers to finish an average of eighth place for the 2000 season.
Coach Glen Mason, lauded for his ability to make winning programs out of losing programs, knows this is part of the process.
After all, one winning season does not make a decade-long string of success, especially in the Big Ten, a conference loaded with consistently talented teams.
“There’s nothing worse than when you get on the playground to play basketball, and you’re the last guy picked or not picked at all when they choose sides,” Mason said. “That’s humiliating. But if the guys getting picked ahead of you are Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, it’s a little easier to swallow.”
The synopsis of Minnesota reads of a talented defense, solid offensive line and good coaching. It also mentions the graduation of key players, leaving the positions of quarterback and running back as areas of concern.
Having earned the privilege of being a winner last season, the Gophers players are intent on staying at that level.
Led by players associated with the lean days of coach Jim Wacker, Minnesota’s senior class personifies the work and desire needed to be a winner. And now they have something to prove.
“A lot of people on this team have been part of those losing teams,” All-American center Ben Hamilton said. “I think it’s inspired people to work hard this offseason to maintain the level of play we achieved last year. We don’t want last year to be a fluke.
“I don’t want to tell my grandchildren 1999 was a fluke.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]