U of M Coach Mason Fit to be Tied

Golden Gopher mentor used a healthy respect for Penn State's Joe Paterno to learn how to beat him. Now Minnesota is riding a four-game winning streak over the Nittany Lions, a streak that began with an upset for the ages in 1999.

At approximately 3:45 p.m. Saturday, the following conversation will take place:

“Well Brad, take a look over at the Minnesota sideline,” ABC's Bob Griese will say to colleague Brad Nessler. “I bet you didn't notice that tie around Glen Mason's neck today.”

“Now that you mention it, he is wearing a tie,” Nessler will respond, trying to hide the fact that the two rehearsed this exact conversation 10 minutes before they went on the air. “What is the story with that?”

“You see, Brad, whenever Mason faces Joe Paterno, he always wears a tie to honor Joe and to show his respect for the old icon. He loves the fact that even to this day, Joe still wears a shirt and tie on the sideline. For any other game against any other opponent, Mason will dress more casually, the way most coaches do. But not against Paterno. I always get a kick out of that.”

Tired of that one yet? Same here.

The bad news is that if not for those little tidbits of information, color analysts such as Griese would be unemployed. The one that always causes nausea on this end relates to the fact that since Paterno became the head coach in 1966, there have been 765 coaching changes in Division I-A college football and eight different U.S. Presidents. If that graphic is displayed one more time…

Although Griese's commentary is usually unspectacular, when that aforementioned dialogue occurs, Penn State fans should think more closely about Mason's necktie and understand what it actually represents.

Mason's first trip to Beaver Stadium, which came in his inaugural season at Minnesota in 1997, is one that both Paterno and those that sat in the lower bowl of the north end zone would rather soon forget. Seven days after one of the most emotional victories in the program's history - when Aaron Harris' pinball act and LSU helped State reach the top of the polls - Mason nearly pulled off the upset that he eventually accomplished two years later.

Leading 15-10, Minnesota started a drive deep in its own territory and needed just two first downs to walk out with a win. But Thomas Hamner did his best Michael Robinson and put the ball on the ground before Chris Snyder recovered and Curtis Enis scored on the next play from scrimmage.

The truth is that Penn State was the better football team on that day. Maybe the Lions struggled due to the pressure of their new No. 1 ranking. Maybe it was the fact that nobody in the building actually believed that a then-doormat team with a new head coach could exit Beaver Stadium with a victory. Maybe State was looking ahead to its looming five consecutive November games.

Actually, it was Mason in the video room with the clicker.

So which is worse: the fact that Mason basically copied Paterno's model for success and used it against him or that Paterno was too stubborn to realize it?

Either way, the tie that Mason will wear on Saturday is more than just a symbol of respect for a living legend. It is an image of one less-accomplished coach's mental edge over a revered one.

That 1997 PSU team finished with a nice record of nine wins and a pair of losses to the state of Michigan. But the one-point “win” over Minnesota exposed the beginnings of the faulty foundation that not only led to a devastating defeat to the Golden Gophers in 1999, but also the collapse of the entire program over the first five years of the new millennium.

Throughout most of Paterno's reign, 15 teams basically controlled college football every season. However as assistant coaches from top programs began to take over at mid-level schools and the scholarship limitations came into play, Mason is a perfect example of what an exceptionally smart football mind can do to Goliath when he realizes that the giant has become a bit less attentive as an elder statesman.

The loss that is most commonly associated with State's downfall came, of course, on that fateful day of Nov. 6, 1999. Mason, two years removed from the Hamner fumble, was back in Centre County once again to take on a Paterno team that entered the game 9-0 and ranked second in the land.

Contrary to popular belief, the raison d'être leading to that defeat reached deeper than Paterno's decision to punt from the Minnesota 33-yard line with two minutes remaining instead of sending Travis Forney onto the field to attempt a long field goal.

Mason put up a perfect façade the entire game, lulling Penn State to sleep with a healthy dose of Hamner, whose exacted revenge on that day was forgotten beneath the rubble. He rushed an enormously clock-eating 38 times while the most effective of quarterback Billy Cockerham's 14 completions - until the final drive - was a 49-yard hookup with Alex Hass. However, that play was a short toss that Hass took most of the way after he made the catch.

The fact that Mason took the Penn State secondary completely out of the game and forced the foursome into confusion on both Ron Johnson's 46-yard reception and the 4th-and-16 play that set up the winning field goal was smart coaching. Now, make no mistake about it - a bit of luck was certainly on the Gophers' side. But the real genius was Mason's knowledge that at some point, Paterno would leave the door ajar due to his conservative nature and his conspicuous absence of attention to detail that revealed itself on Penn State's final offensive possession.

Quarterback Kevin Thompson took the field with a two-point lead and a fresh series at his own 40. After a 15-yard pass to Chafie Fields for a first down, Thompson handed off to Eric McCoo for two yards near midfield. At that point, there were less than four minutes remaining in regulation. Penn State then ran five more plays, but not once did Thompson wait until the play clock was down to one or two seconds before calling for the snap.

Any head coach with a team in legitimate contention to win a national title and a lead late in a game must remind his quarterback to drain the play clock dry on every down. That is a practice performed in Pop Warner football, let alone a game of that magnitude. It is unfathomable that Paterno, who fell right into Mason's trap, ignored such a rudimentary issue. The icing on the cake came on third down, when the Lions were so disorganized that they used a timeout, which gave the Gophers even more time to work with once they gained possession after Pat Pidgeon's punt.

The events that followed do not have to be relived, as any Nittany Lion fan has tried to purge those memories from the mind permanently. Mason gained not only a victory that day, but a measure of respect around college football that he used to springboard his program onto the national map. The founding principles Mason installed that have transformed his team into a unit that nobody wants to play are a strong running game, a stingy defense and smart decision-making. Funny … Paterno might somehow be related to those ideals.

Credit must be given where it is due. In one of his first major road games as a Big Ten head coach, the former Ohio State assistant came within a point of derailing the top-ranked team in the country then two years later knocked off an undefeated No. 2 outfit that produced the top two picks in the following April's NFL Draft.

So before ignoring comments about neckties from a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback, take a moment to ponder which of the two gentlemen wearing them should hold more admiration for the other. Mason has certainly not accomplished anything resembling an ink mark on Paterno's resume, but you'd never know it by watching the former maneuver against the latter.

Rumors out of the Twin Cities are that a certain local men's clothing store just sold its only rose-colored tie on Monday. The clerk mentioned something about the customer talking on his cell phone about attempting an onsides kick for a third straight year.

David Pressman is a graduate of Penn State and a writer and analyst for The Sports Network.


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