Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Whither Minnesota?

One last comment about the trip the East Dakota, then I'm done. For awhile, anyway.

Talking to Toren after the game, and listening to WCCO on the drive home Sunday morning, two distinct schools of thought emerged from Gopher observers.

We'll never win.

We're close.

The first is Toren's view. Talking things over at Schwalbach's house after the game, Chris made the prediction that Minnesota will never -- ever! -- become a program that cracks the top third of the Big Ten on a regular basis. Those of us who did not graduate from the University of Minnesota disagreed with him. Maybe we were just trying to console him in a sportsmanlike manner after his sixth straight loss in this rivalry.

My counterpoint to him was that they just need to find their guy, their Barry Alvarez, who turns it all around and builds a modern tradition. After all, demographically Minnesota is very similar to Wisconsin and Iowa, and before Barry arrived, we had less overall football history than Minnesota does even after their recent decades of mediocrity. Do I think Tim Brewster is that guy? No, not for a minute, and I don't think many Gopher fans do either.

Chris's strongest point was this: University of Minnesota football will always take a back seat to pro sports in the Twin Cities. Case in point: until we let the Gophers back in the game late in the fourth quarter, the biggest cheer from the home fans in the second half came when Goldy Gopher stripped down to reveal he (she?) was wearing one of the new NFL Europe jerseys Brett Favre wears nowadays.

Last weekend was being billed as the biggest in Minnesota sports history, or at least recent history. And yet there was the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe, the most-played rivalry in college football history, ranking right around the Wild-Blue Jackets opener, just ahead of a marathon and Bucks-Timberwolves preseason hoops in Mankato.

Will Minneapolis ever rank with Madison for gameday atmosphere? No chance. But as the Badger program was rising in the 1990s, so were the Packers, and statewide media and fan attention drifted to the Northeast. Didn't stop UW from creating a football program that inspired deep loyalty and passion around the state, though. Theoretically, Minnesota can do the same thing.

On the other hand, despite what Brewster and Sid Hartman would tell you, they aren't close. If you listen to Sid, who is basically the voice of Minnesota sports, the Gophers got screwed by the refs, which is really the only reason they didn't beat the Badgers.

I'll paraphrase, but on the radio one of Sid's first questions to Brewster went like this: "That jerk official has been doing this for 100 years and he has no place being out there anymore! He can't even run with the players, he just drops flags! In the first half it was all penalties on the Gophers, none on Wisconsin! I've never seen a penalty called on the 1-yard-line! A chop block?!"

Pause. Crickets. Did the Voice of Minnesota Sports just call Dave Witvoet a jerk? Is everyone considering the irony of Sid accusing someone else being too old to do a good job? Sid's co-host says, "How do you expect coach Brewster to respond to that, Sid?"

That's right: Minnesota thinks Witvoet has it in for them, and is the one thing standing between them and Pasadena. Take it to The Bank.

As the conversation goes on, you get more along the same vein. "Tell you what, no one's really taking it to you," Sid says to Brewster. "There's a lot of parity in the Big Ten this year, you're still right in this thing."

Then they start talking recruiting, and how excited Brew is about the class they're putting together, it's going to be the one that puts them over the top. Thing is, if you look at Minnesota's depth chart, they start eight seniors, two juniors and a sophomore on defense, and four seniors and three juniors on offense.

This is a very experienced team that can't stop the run or block the run, that commits silly penalties and turnovers. They are not a very well-coached team.

So while Minnesota's class of 2010 might be a good one, it's also a good bet Brewster won't be around to coach them at the end of their college careers. When they pull the plug on him and send him back to coaching NFL tight ends, Joel Maturi will have a chance to find his Alvarez. It's possible he will and Minnesota will do what we did. I hope not.