Fitzgerald, Mason optimistic about future of programs

Northwestern and Minnesota have struggled mightily this season, but coaches Pat Fitzgerald and Glen Mason still have reasons to be optimistic, writes Bruce Hooley.

Updated: October 26, 2006, 10:21 AM ET
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

There are traces of defiance in both their voices, proving neither Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald nor Minnesota's Glen Mason has conceded what everyone outside their programs accepts as fact:

Pat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIREPat Fitzgerald took over a tough situation, but sees improvement from his squad regularly.
Defeat on Saturday is as certain as the sunrise.

The coaches of the two winless programs in Big Ten conference play, Fitzgerald and Mason must feel like they've stumbled into some sort of masochistic reality show for guys with million-dollar contracts.

At a time when both covet something positive on which to build, there is instead this bit of unrelenting reality from a coldhearted schedule maker:

Minnesota at No. 1 Ohio State.

Northwestern at No. 2 Michigan.

And so the two worst teams in the league prepare for respective good, old-fashioned butt-kickings, because there have been precious few advancements in butt-kickings lo these many years.

Wait … that previous sentence is being reviewed, and there is indisputable video evidence which shows a new wrinkle on butt-kickings developed just last week.

Coincidentally -- or, not -- at Northwestern and Minnesota.

The Wildcats had a 38-3 lead on stumblebum Michigan State midway through the third quarter, before allowing the biggest comeback in Division I-A history in an eventual 41-38 loss.

The Gophers, not to be outdone, offered the nifty trick of being embarrassed by a Division I-AA opponent in a game Minnesota actually won.

That's right, even though a blocked final-play field goal preserved a 10-9 victory over North Dakota State, the Gophers were left to do everything but issue a retraction afterward.

"I'm not so sure we should have won by the way we played," said quarterback Bryan Cupito, whose team was outgained North Dakota State (380-249), and had 11 fewer first downs, 22 fewer offensive plays and suffered a 10-minute deficit in time of possession.

Minnesota's student section contributed to the sideshow by serenading its head coach with chants of, "Fire Mason."

Never mind that he signed an five-year, $8.6-million extension after last season.

At 0-4 in the league and 3-5 overall, Mason is being forced to defend himself after guiding the Gophers to bowl games in each of the previous four years and six of the nine seasons he's been in Minneapolis.

"If you're worried about criticism, you probably shouldn't be a major college head football coach," Mason said. "If you don't think you're going to have to endure some tough times, don't take the Kent State job; don't take the Kansas job; don't take the Minnesota job."

Those are the three places Mason has been the head coach, so he's sort of the Ty Pennington of his trade.

Talk about your Extreme Makeovers: His six bowl trips double the number Minnesota made from 1975 (when the Big Ten began allowing more than one team to participate in the postseason) until his arrival in 1997.

Glen Mason
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIREGlen Mason led Minnesota to unprecedented success, but isn't feeling the love from fans.
"This is my 10th year," Mason said. "Some of those people who might have been in the stands [chanting] were eight or nine years old when I came here … and Minnesota wasn't very good against anybody."

While no one is yet screaming for Fitzgerald's firing, Northwestern has lost five straight games for the first time since 2002 and is staring at its first six-game skid since 2001.

At 31, Fitzgerald is the youngest head coach in Division I-A.

Is he getting a pass from Wildcats faithful because he's still learning on the job?

Because he took over in the toughest of circumstances, by his own admission some 10 years before he envisioned, after the tragic death of Randy Walker this summer?

Because Fitzgerald was a Northwestern legend, leading the Purple to Pasadena in 1995 and to another Big Ten title in 1996 as the nation's best linebacker both seasons?

Yes, yes and yes.

But Fitzgerald also deserves high marks for the consistency of his message in a season in which Northwestern was bound to struggle -- Walker or no Walker -- because of losing four-year starter Brett Basanez at quarterback.

The guy expected to replace him, C.J. Bacher, got his first start Saturday against Michigan State.

He wasn't cleared to practice until Sept. 25 because of a fractured fibula.

Bacher will start again Saturday at The Big House, where Fitzgerald sees roses in a task fraught with thorns.

"I think our guys have plenty of motivation to go into this game," he said. "It's a great opportunity for us to continue to build on what we did the first 2½ quarters last week. We have evidence that we can play our own style of football now in Big Ten play. We need to go out and finish a game and give ourselves a chance to win."

Mason doesn't even frame the trip to Ohio State in those terms. Once, the trip was a homecoming for him, a return to his alma mater where he played for Woody Hayes and coached with The Old Man and Earle Bruce, before embarking on a career path he hoped would someday return him to the Ohio Stadium sideline.

That seemed likely after his underdog Gophers upset No. 5 OSU in the Horseshoe in 2000, but the job ultimately went to Jim Tressel less than three months later.

Now Tressel has one national championship with the Buckeyes and perhaps another in the offing, plus a 33,000 square-foot indoor facility that's undergoing a 57,000 square-foot expansion at a cost of $20 million.

As for Mason?

He doesn't even have an on-campus stadium, just one on the drawing board for later this decade.

He does have those students, though. The ones chanting for his firing.

"Some of the things haven't changed at all [at Ohio State] since I was a student, like the tradition of dotting the 'i' [in Script Ohio]," Mason said. "But that stadium has changed, their [indoor] facility has changed, and everything about how they do business has changed. So you're in a very competitive business, and we've just got a long, long way to go … to being a consistent contender in this league when you're not one of those places that would be a 'Have.'

"Let's face it: I don't think anybody would argue that some schools have built-in advantages and some schools have built-in disadvantages."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.