University of Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi is a triple-A battery of a man. Walk into his office at the Bierman Athletic Building on the East Bank and he leaps out of his chair and shakes your hand as if you’re about to parachute out of an airplane together. Trim and fit at 62, Maturi is glib and empathetic. He’ll spread his hands in a “that’s all there is,” or “what are ya gonna do” fashion, but he searches for eye contact and listens carefully. Even under the best of circumstances, he’s not the kind of guy who relaxes easily.
Personality aside, Maturi has had plenty of other reasons to be moving through life on the balls of his feet lately. The ramifications from the most turbulent thirty-five-day period in Gopher sports history are still in flux. Over the next three or four years, however, the fallout from the chain of events Maturi helped set in motion last winter will not only define his legacy as the University’s athletic director, but will have a huge bearing on the health and vitality of U of M sports for decades to come.
Of the twenty-five varsity sports programs at the U, only three–football, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey–operate at a profit. Consequently, these programs are enormously influential, helping absorb the red ink created by other sports. On the last day of November last year, Maturi pushed his men’s basketball coach to resign just seven games into the coach’s eighth season. On the final day of December, Maturi fired a football coach who had compiled the best career winning percentage at the U since 1950 and taken the team to five straight bowl games. “I am probably the only AD in the history of NCAA sports who has dismissed the men’s basketball coach and men’s football coach within thirty days,” Maturi says. “I am not proud of that.”
Three days after the football coach was canned, a special meeting of the University’s Board of Regents was convened to deal with the rising cost of a new on-campus football stadium scheduled to open in September 2009. In May 2006, the state Legislature had approved a funding package that had taxpayers forking over nearly fifty-five percent of the tab on a $248.7 million stadium. Since then, for a variety of reasons, the price tag had risen to $288.5 million. The revised budget approved by the regents precludes the U from going back to the Legislature or increasing the $25 annual fee levied on University students. Instead, the additional $40 million will have to come from an existing stadium fundraising campaign that was initially charged with soliciting $86.5 million from private donors. If local corporations and well-heeled alumni can’t hit this much more ambitious target, profits generated by the stadium will have to make up the difference. Either way, to sufficiently excite would-be donors or fill the stadium beyond the two- or three-year novelty period, the Gophers must field a quality football team.
The faith healer
Maturi is standing at the back of a small room in the bowels of the Metrodome. The Gopher football team has just been pasted, 30-7, by Ohio State, Minnesota’s fourth loss in five games thus far this season. Reporters and University personnel are filing into the room for new coach Tim Brewster’s postgame press conference, and Maturi offers them a curt nod or a tight grin. He is trying to strike an impossible pose, combining the ire a competitor is supposed to feel after his squad gets whupped by more than three touchdowns, and the brazen nonchalance required to quell panic or derision over what has become a spectacularly dreadful football season.
About the only saving grace for Brewster and Maturi was that nobody seemed to be pining for the return of Glen Mason, an uncharismatic man who had come from the University of Kansas. Mason wielded his comparatively successful Minnesota won-loss record (64-57) like a cudgel, implying at every turn that without his extraordinary skills and savvy the football program would return to its previously dire straits.
Mason’s critics—including many members of the media and influential alumni—contended that his “success” was merely the result of a devious formula for mediocrity. They noted that Mason padded his record by front-loading the schedule with a succession of nonconference patsies. Those easy victories, combined with an undistinguished record in the rugged Big 10—where Mason’s career record was 32-48 and his teams never finished higher than a tie for fourth—would be enough to secure an invitation to one of the minor, inconsequential bowl games that glut the calendar in December. This pattern played itself out in Mason’s last five seasons, ossifying the positions of both sides. After the Gophers pulled off the largest collapse in the history of NCAA Division I-A bowl games, blowing a 31-point lead in the 2006 Insight Bowl, Maturi saw his chance to pull the plug.
Less than three weeks later, on January 17, Maturi made the stunning announcement that he was replacing Mason with Brewster, a 46-year old with no head coaching experience above the high school level. But Brewster was a successful recruiter for coach Mack Brown at both North Carolina and Texas, and rose to the rank of assistant head coach with the San Diego Chargers in the NFL. “When I started the search process, I had never heard of Tim Brewster,” Maturi admits, launching into a twenty-minute recitation of all the steps he took before settling on Brewster. What follows is the severely abridged version.