Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Should Be Expected at Minnesota

Not sure if you've heard, but Notre Dame fired their head football coach yesterday. Yes Charlie Weis, the man who when he came to South Bend loved to talk about how great he was as much as he loved a buffet table, was axed after a 6-6 season, his third straight without a winning record. The guy who couldn't talk enough when he got there about how things were going to change, wouldn't talk at all after the season ending loss- and fourth straight in 2009- to Stanford, as he escaped out the back door. Poor Charlie will now have to cry himself to sleep every night with his $30 million severance (or thereabouts), the result of which can be blamed on the Notre Dame Board of Directors, who saw fit to give Weis a 10 year extension eight games into his first season.

This job opening, as well as those at Louisville, Virginia, and an expected vacancy at Kansas, provide an interesting discussion at expectations versus reality. What is expected for a football program by the school and its supporters, and what is actually possible?

At Notre Dame, their alums and boosters would side with Pat Forde of ESPN.com, who believes all it will take is the right coach to return the program to its past glories and competing for a National Title every year. Many outside the program would agree with SI.com's Stewart Mandel, who calls the Fighting Irish job a death trap and believe the Irish need to face facts and accept their past glories are gone forever.

Which side is right? Which is wrong? As much as I love kicking Notre Dame while they're down, I think Forde is right- all it takes is the right coach. In this day and age pretty much anybody can be turned into a national power if they have the right coach and catch the right breaks. Little Boise State and their blue turf have been on the national radar for more than a decade thanks to coaches Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins and now Chris Petersen. TCU has risen to prominence thanks to Gary Patterson. Louisville, who never had much of a football tradition, kicked Steve Kragthorpe to the curb because former coach Bobby Patrino proved it could be done. Brian Kelly is the alleged front runner for the Notre Dame job because he's turned Cincinnati, who play in a dumpy 35,000 seat stadium and don't even have their own practice facility, into an almost overnight success story.

The fact it CAN be done almost anywhere is a blessing and a curse- just because it can be done obviously doesn't mean it WILL be done, as has been proven at so many other places. Like Notre Dame, Nebraska is still waiting for their return to glory, as are Miami, Florida State, Washington, and Texas A&M, to name a few. Closer to home in Big Ten country, we've seen and heard plenty about Michigan's struggles to get back to their place atop the conference standings. The folks in Ann Arbor make it seem like they've been in peril and termoil and their own version of college football purgatory for decades, when in fact it's been, what, two whole years?

Once you've had, as Nacho Libre would say, "a little taste of the glory", your expectations go through the roof, whether that's fair or not. Here at Minnesota, you'd have to REALLY broaden the definition of glory to say we've had even the smallest taste of it since the 1960's. Our Halycon Days are so far gone, there's few who still attend games who were actually alive to remember them. But does that stop us, as Gopher fans, from wanting more? Of course not. We ran Glen Mason out on a rail after he achieved, and sustained, the most success we had enjoyed in decades because we believed we deserved better than an all-offense, no-defense team team of six or seven wins and a trip to the Music City Bowl every year. Well, three years into the Tim Brewster Era and the results have been no-offense, some defense...with six or seven wins and a trip to the Insight Bowl every year. I, for one, don't seem to like this arrangement any better.

Is this fair? As a Gopher fan, am I insane to expect more? Mandel has laughed at Gopher fans a few times, saying essentially that we're the high school band geek who not only wants to be the star quarterback who dates the prom queen, but BELIEVES we're the star quarterback- and we're upset and frustrated because we can't figure out why it's not working out for us.

While I see his point, and I think EVERYBODY in college football could use a refresher in reality (good gracious Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel just won his fifth straight conference title, and yet after they lost to Purdue midway through the season, there were fans who honest to goodness believed it was time for a change. Les Miles down at LSU is 51-14 in five seasons, including a national title and conference title in 2006, and has won all four bowl games he's played in. But because the Bayou Bengals lost five games last year, and three this season- with two coming to the top two teams in the country- Tiger fans are also grumbling about their head coach), I do not think myself, or any Gopher fan, are crazy for not just wanting more, but for believing we can do better than this.

The question then is how much better? How much should be expected from the head coach of the Gophers? Where should we expect this program to be compared to where, in reality, it can be? I am of the belief that eight of the 11 teams in the Big Ten have a glass ceiling- no matter how well the eight of us recruit and play, we can never achieve and sustain the success that is possible at Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. Those are traditionally three of the top 14 programs in the entire country- wait, you want the others? Fine. The top five in some order are Florida, Texas, USC, Ohio State and Meechigan. The next nine in some order are Oklahoma, LSU, Tennessee, Alabama, Penn State, Florida State, Notre Dame, Georgia and Nebraska. Virginia Tech would probably be 15, but a distant 15th, as whenever Frank Beamer finally decides to leave or retire, the Hokies could fade back to obscurity faster than Beamer brought them to prominence.

ANYWAY, this is an argument I'll be happy to have in the off-season when there's nothing to talk about, but for now the point is that when they have the right coach those 14 programs can achieve greater success and sustained success than anybody else because of some combination of money, facilties, fan following, tradition and recruiting base. As much as I love the Gophers, our days of being perennial national title contenders died back in the 50's and 60's. We just don't have, and never will have, the resources and the recruiting base to compete with the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Nittany Lions when they've got everything going.

And you know what? I'm ok with that. What I want, and what I believe, is that we can duplicate the success of our two most hated rivals- Iowa and Wisconsin. I'll wait for our friends in those two fine states to stop laughing before I continue...done yet?...no?...a little longer?...I'm going to grab some more coffee...ok we could be days before they're done mocking us, and that's fine- they've earned it. But it doesn't change my belief that their success is achievable for Minnesota.

Both of these programs look at success as at least eight wins and a New Years Day Bowl Game. That's the floor. They expect, and have achieved in some seasons, double digit win totals and a shot at going to the Rose Bowl or a BCS Bowl. While they would love a national title and Big Ten title every year, they're not calling for their coach to be fired when it doesn't happen, and instead seem to expect and accept that a season between 8-10 wins, and anything better is truly a special year.

Iowa has been successful for just about ever, and like Nebraska, I'm not sure how it started, but it happened and they kept it. Rural state, few good recruits, and no good recruiting states close to them, yet they started a tradition way back when and through good coaching, good facilties, and an incredibly loyal fanbase, have sustained a place where kids want to play college football.

The parallels at Wisconsin, however, are much closer to ours. Like us, Sconnie had big-time success in the first half of the 20th Century, only to see their program descend to the bottom of the Big Ten. Wisconsin's dark times began after their Big Ten title in 1962, as they would struggle for almost 20 years before they found mediocrity with three straight seven win seasons from 1981-84. But it wasn't until some guy named Barry Alvarez was hired as head coach in 1990 that things really turned around- well actually, it wasn't until four years into Alvarez's tenure that they turned around. As we as Gopher fans know all too well, after three losing seasons, in 1994 Alvarez led the Badgers to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl win over UCLA. In his next 12 seasons, Alvarez guided Sconnie to two more Big Ten titles and eleven bowls, including two more Rose Bowl victories. By the time he retired in 2005 to become athletic director, Alvarez had gotten a much needed stadium renovation and expansion done to Camp Randall, and the good people of Wisconsin were bleeding red and white almost as much as green and gold. Assuming the Badgers blow out Hawaii this weekend, it'll be yet another nine win regular season, and with so much talent returning in 2010, coach Bret Bielma could have them back in Pasadena as soon as next season.

It has worked and continues to work in those two rural states with poor recruiting areas, and it could just as easily work here too. We finally have a good stadium, the U is a great place to go to school, and the Twin Cities are one of the most underrated metropolitan areas in the country to live in. Sure it snows and the winters are long and cold, but it's no different than Iowa, Wisconsin, or Nebraska. All we need now is to win. Maybe I'm as crazy as fans at Notre Dame, Louisville, or anywhere (and maybe everywhere) else where expectations seem to exceed reality, but I believe we can be a perennial nine game winner and chase conference titles and Rose Bowl berths just like at Iowa and Wisconsin.

I have my doubts whether Brewster is that guy, but I believe, and will continue to believe until it happens (or the day I die, whichever comes first), that it can happen at Minnesota. All we need is the right coach.

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