An up-close look at Minnesota's prolonged stretch of mediocrity in football

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Iowa defensive lineman Cedrick Lattimore makes a tackle against Minnesota last season. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Minnesota football program has at times been called a sleeping giant dating back nearly a half century, but with exception to a few brief periods of moderate success, the giant still is sleeping in the Twin Cities.

Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967, and only once since 1906 have the Gophers won at least 10 games in a season, finishing 10-3 in 2003 under former head coach Glen Mason.

Iowa, on the other hand, has won five Big Ten titles since 1981 and at least 10 games in eight seasons dating back to 1985.

Iowa also has won 13 of the last 17 games against Minnesota and will try for a fourth consecutive victory over the Gophers on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“Obviously, it's a rivalry game, and I think we probably play for the best trophy there is in college football,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in reference to Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze statue of a pig that goes to winner of this game. “Floyd is certainly a great, great trophy. Floyd of Rosedale is one of the great traditions in college football, and our players get to experience that.

“So it's really kind of a neat thing, and I'm sure they feel the same way.”

Ferentz is right about Floyd of Rosedale being probably the best trophy game in college football due to its history. But the series itself is now pretty ordinary, mostly due to Minnesota’s inability to stay relevant over the past half century.

Minnesota won five Big Ten titles in the 1930s, two in the 1940s and two in the 1960s, but none since then.

Minnesota still holds a 62-47-2 advantage in the series with Iowa, including winning the first 12 games by a combined score of 551-30.

The Gophers also had a 32-10-2 record against Iowa from 1931 to 1981.

But that stretch of success was a long time ago and no longer has any influence or significance.

Minnesota has won seven national titles in football, but the most recent came in 1960 and the other six happened from 1904 to 1941, proving that dominance and the benefits that come with it fade over time.

It seems strange that Minnesota has failed to accomplish anything significant in football since the Johnson Administration because the state traditionally produces a decent amount of Division I prospects, and certainly more than Iowa does.

Minnesota also has nearly twice the population of Iowa with 5.577 million residents in 2017 compared to 3.146 million in Iowa.

The Twin Cities are loaded with Division I recruits, but the Gophers have struggled to keep rival Big Ten teams, including Iowa and Wisconsin, from getting their share.

Notre Dame also has a recruiting pipeline to the Twin Cities that has flowed for decades.

Recruiting is an inexact science and questioning something with hindsight is easy. But the fact that Minnesota passed on current Iowa defensive back Amani Hooker and on former Iowa defensive lineman Karl Klug even though they both grew up in Minnesota doesn’t look good under any circumstance.

Hooker starts at strong safety for Iowa and is an emerging star as a third-year junior, while Klug made second-team All-Big Ten as a senior in 2010 and played in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans from 2011 to 2017.

Hooker and Klug were mostly ignored by power five schools during the recruiting process, so from a perception standpoint, it didn’t look suspicious or odd when the Gophers passed on them.

“And the common denominator usually is they're under-recruited,” Ferentz said of Iowa’s recruits from Minnesota. “We're not fighting the instate school at all times. We usually have to scope out a little bit more and see something in a guy.”

Ferentz and his staff deserve credit for seeing qualities and potential in Hooker and Klug that two different Minnesota coaching staffs failed to see.

Hooker was asked on Tuesday if he was surprised that Minnesota didn’t offer him a scholarship.

“I was a little surprised,” said the Minneapolis native. “I had been to like four of their camps throughout my high school career. But I guess I wasn’t the right fit they were looking for.”

Hooker didn’t hesitate in telling the media that he will have a chip on his shoulder on Saturday mostly because his home-state school didn’t believe in him.

“Playing with a chip on your shoulder is right,’ Hooker said.

The goal of any high-major college football program is to dominate your own state in recruiting, but the Gophers have failed to do that despite being the only Division I football program in the state.

The first thing Barry Alvarez did when he started rebuilding the Wisconsin program in the early 1990s was stop the flow of talent that was leaving the state for schools like Iowa and Michigan.

Alvarez built a recruiting wall around the state of Wisconsin, and while some recruits such as Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, still have slipped through the cracks, a vast majority of the players from Wisconsin pick the Badgers if they have a scholarship offer.

Alvarez also established an identity and a culture at Wisconsin that still exists today with him serving as the Wisconsin athletic director, and the circumstances are similar at Iowa dating back to when Hayden Fry took over as head coach in 1979.

Iowa has only had two head coaches since 1979, while Minnesota has had nine during that time.

Minnesota hired Lou Holtz in 1984 despite knowing that Holtz wanted the Notre Dame job badly enough to insist that an escape clause be added to his Minnesota contract should the Irish come calling, which happened just two years later in 1986 after Gerry Faust resigned under pressure.

The Gophers finished 10-12 under Holtz and were clearly showing progress before he bolted.

Minnesota took a chance on Holtz, but it backfired.

John Gutekunst replaced Holtz and lasted six seasons before his 29-36-2 record finally caught up with him.

Gutekunst was replaced by Jim Wacker, who was replaced by Glen Mason followed by Tim Brewster, Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys and current head coach P.J. Fleck.

Mason’s decade-long run from 1997 to 2006 was arguably Minnesota's high point over the past 40 years. He finished 64-57 overall and won at least seven games in five of his 10 seasons as head coach, highlighted by the 10-3 mark in 2003.

Hindsight says that Minnesota probably should’ve stuck with Mason because none of the head coaches after him have come close to achieving his level of sustained success.

The program was making strides under Jerry Kill, including winning eight games in back-to-back seasons in 2013 and 2014, but he had to resign due to health issues.

Tracy Claeys was promoted from within Kill’s staff to head coach and led the Gophers to a 9-4 record in 2016.

But Claeys still was fired after the 2016 season in the wake of a player boycott that he had supported. The boycott was in protest of 10 Minnesota players having been suspended following a sexual assault investigation by the school.

P.J. Fleck is in his second season as the Minnesota head coach, but his current squad is dominated by youth with 57 players who are either redshirt freshmen or true freshmen on the roster.

The Gophers also have been hurt by injuries to key players, so their 3-1 record could be deceiving, especially considering the loss was a 42-13 drubbing at Maryland on Oct. 22.

Fleck is trying to build what Iowa and Wisconsin have sustained for decades, but it still remains to be seen if his high energy, catchy promotional phrases and optimism will be enough to get the job done at a school that has mostly been irrelevant for decades.

“If you take Hayden Fry plus Kirk Ferentz it’s probably the same type of culture,” Fleck said at his weekly press conference. “Hayden Fry had some of the greatest staffs ever in the history of college football.

“And then seeing what Kirk Ferentz has done, that’s two coaches in almost a half a century. But you look at how many coaches we’ve had in just 12 years.”

The only way to really explain the difference between Iowa and Minnesota is that Iowa was fortunate, but also deserves credit, for hiring two head coaches in Fry and Ferentz who proved to be perfect fits for the job, whereas Minnesota still is searching for the right fit and has been for nearly a half century.

Fleck could prove to be the right fit, but only time and his team’s performance will determine that.

Iowa had missed on several head coaches and struggled for two decades before hiring Fry shortly after the 1978 season.

Iowa’s struggles before Fry arrived seemed like an eternity, but imagine how Gopher fans must feel.

The Beatles still were a band the last time Minnesota won a Big Ten title in football.