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Last two standing face off in Big Ten opener

When looking at the four coaches hired into the Big Ten in 1997, there’s a clear pecking order.

Cam Cameron’s five years at Indiana ended with an 18-37 career record and zero bowl games, despite four years with the freakishly athletic Antwaan Randle El at quarterback.

Ron Turner stuck around at Illinois for eight seasons and won a Big Ten title in 2001, but a career mark of 35-57 and just two bowl appearances got him booted from Champaign-Urbana after the 2004 season.

This weekend, when the only remaining members of the coaching class of 1997 meet, Minnesota coach Glen Mason gets another chance to creep closer to the accomplishments of the class’ runaway valedictorian, Purdue coach Joe Tiller.

While Tiller and Mason have each brought their programs back to respectability, Tiller is far ahead of Mason in the now two-horse race which started eight years ago.

Tiller’s Purdue résumé contains the following lines: a Big Ten championship in 2000; a bowl game in each of his eight seasons at Purdue (including three New Year’s Day bowls); four seasons of at least six Big Ten victories; five finishes in the final AP Top 25; seven wins over teams ranked in the top 15; and six wins in six tries against Minnesota.

In comparison, Mason’s list of Minnesota accomplishments is paltry.

In his Minnesota tenure, Mason has no Big Ten title (three tied for fourths represent Mason’s best conference finishes); five bowl appearances, but none on New Year’s day; five Big Ten wins twice, with those the only years Minnesota finished better than .500 in conference; two Top 25 rankings in the final poll; just two wins over teams in the top 15; and of course, an 0-for-6 against Tiller’s Purdue squad.

But most indicative of the gap between the coaches’ accomplishments is what happened following their big wins.

After Minnesota beat No. 2 Penn State in 1999, the Gophers had a chance to set the program a major step forward in a Sun Bowl showdown against Oregon.

With a 24-20 loss to the unranked Ducks, an opportunity was wasted.

Following a 2000 win over No. 6 Ohio State, Minnesota sputtered to the finish line, losing four of its last five games, again squandering a chance for a “statement year” in the Big Ten.

Contrast that with Tiller’s results after his big wins:

Two more wins over Top 25 teams after a 1997 win against No. 12 Notre Dame.

A win over No. 5 Michigan State following 1999’s win against No. 16 Notre Dame.

Successive wins versus No. 17 Northwestern, Wisconsin and No. 12 Ohio State came on the heels of a win over No. 6 Michigan in the Boilers’ 2000 Rose Bowl campaign.

And in 2003, an early win at No. 20 Wake Forest was followed by victories against No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 10 Iowa.

Tiller and Purdue have capitalized on program-building momentum; Mason has let possibly program-defining wins disintegrate into fluke successes.

But even with all that in consideration, a win Saturday could do wonders for Mason and Minnesota.

Not only would the Gophers start their conference season on the right foot, but Mason could also move one step closer to the stature which Tiller has taken his program – and do a lot in keeping himself from having one more thing in common with Cam Cameron and Ron Turner.

Matt Anderson welcomes comments at [email protected].

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