Despite compiling a 14-24 record in his first three seasons with the Gophers, Tim Brewster signed a two-year extension last week to remain Minnesota’s head football coach until 2013.
Though some questioned the decision to re-sign Brewster, there is evidence that keeping the first-time head coach on board was the right move.
Former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez and current Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz both took over struggling programs. Like Brewster, both coaches won just one game in their first season.
But in Alvarez’s fourth season at the helm, the Badgers went 10-1-1 and won the Rose Bowl. Ferentz also broke out in his fourth season in Iowa City, winning 11 games before losing the Orange Bowl.
But Ferentz and Alvarez showed improvement each of their first three years in conference or total wins. Brewster, on the other hand, has regressed from year two to three, decreasing his overall win total by one while Big Ten victories remained static.
Meanwhile, his recruiting classes have slipped each year, and he’s failed to maintain a consistent core of coaches. Last season his players were involved in a variety of off-field legal troubles.
Still, Athletics Director Joel Maturi and past, current and future players believe Brewster’s goals of a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl appearance are within reach.
“It takes a breakout year to make that difference, and it takes an identity to make that difference,” Maturi said. “It’s kind of like the Chicago Cubs; next year is the year. One of these days it’ll happen. One of these days.”
Recruiting and its cost
A major factor in Brewster becoming Minnesota’s 26th head football coach was his proven ability to recruit top talent. Brewster is credited with helping Texas land quarterback Vince Young, who led the Longhorns to the 2005 National Championship.
However, in each of Brewster’s first three seasons, he has spent more money than the previous year to recruit decreasingly talented classes, according to Rivals.com rankings.
In the 2009 fiscal year, Brewster spent more than $560,000 on recruiting, nearly 50 percent more than Glen Mason spent in his final year as the Gophers’ coach, according to numbers from the athletics department.
For Maturi, the increase in spending is something he sees as a necessity not only to improve the football program but all of the University’s athletics.
“We have 25 sports; three of them make money,” Maturi said. “I want to take care of 25 sports, but I also need to take care of the engines.”
Football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey are the only athletics programs currently generating a profit. Maturi said those programs need to be afforded more funds to attract talent that keeps the entire Gophers athletics program fiscally responsible.
“We all know that recruiting is the lifeline of any athletics program of any sport,” Maturi said. “I am not going to minimize what we necessarily have to do to recruit the people that are qualified academically and athletically to compete for the Gophers.”
While spending has increased each year under Brewster, the fruits of his labors haven’t necessarily followed the same trajectory. After the 2007 season, Brewster turned in his first full recruiting class. The 2008 group ranked 17th in the nation, 40 spots higher than the 2007 class consisting mostly of Mason’s recruits.
However, Brewster’s classes have continued to fall since then. His most recent class ranked 50th in the nation and sixth in the Big Ten.
When Brewster received the position in 2007, he landed atop a group of lesser-known coaches.
“There were no BCS head coaches that wanted this job,” Maturi said. “I believe Tim Brewster was the best coach available.”
After interviewing 14 candidates, Maturi said he consulted with Texas head coach Mack Brown and NFL head coaches Mike Shanahan and Brad Childress, all of whom had worked with Brewster. Maturi chose the Denver Broncos’ tight ends coach to lead the Gophers shortly thereafter.
“I hired Tim Brewster because I loved his vision. I loved his emotion,” Maturi said.
At his introductory press conference, Brewster famously declared his intentions of winning a Big Ten championship and playing in a Rose Bowl.
Brewster’s enthusiasm played a large role in earning the position, but Maturi said that same gusto has been the target of the coach’s critics.
“I think that energy, that enthusiasm, that optimism has been received negatively by some because we haven’t competed for a championship,” Maturi said. “Minnesota has not had a breakout season in decades, and we’re still looking for it and we’re trying to find a way to get it done.
In 2008, Brewster signed two highly regarded recruits from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Tramaine Brock and Cedric McKinley. MGCCC head football coach Steve Campbell knew nothing about Brewster before he visited on a recruiting trip, but Campbell said Brewster was successful in making the Big Ten look attractive to kids who grew up in the heart of the SEC.
“The allure of playing in the Big House at Michigan and at Ohio State and playing against those caliber of teams, he did a good job of selling that,” Campbell said.
While Brewster can sell the possible opponents and the program’s tradition, Campbell explained that the recent run of mediocrity causes his players to look at Minnesota as a backup option.
“[My players] know who’s going to compete for a national championship and they know who’s not,” Campbell said. “If you’re not being recruited by a national championship-contending football team, they want to play somewhere where at least they know they’re going to get to a bowl game, and Minnesota’s going to bowl games.”
The Gophers have made it to a bowl game nine out of the past 11 seasons, but big-time wins that gain national respect have eluded them. Under Brewster, the Gophers are 0-2 in the postseason, with Insight Bowl losses to Kansas and Iowa State. The Cyclones had not claimed a winning season since 2005.
Brewster has also struggled against Minnesota’s rivals. He has never beaten Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan or Penn State. The Gophers play all teams for different symbolic trophies, but he has yet to win a trophy game in his three seasons.
Marquise Hill, a member of the 2010 recruiting class, said he chose Minnesota over the likes of Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas (where his cousin Ronnie Wingo plays) because of what a big win could mean for the Gophers.
“All these schools got these big traditions, always win, always win; it’s nothing new to them. So I feel like at Minnesota when we do win, it’ll be something new,” Hill said. “It’ll give everybody something to talk about. We’ll make history for real.”
When Brewster said he would take Minnesota to a Rose Bowl and a Big Ten crown, his confidence was embraced by the team, former running back Amir Pinnix said.
Pinnix, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards as a junior in 2006, said he knew nothing about Brewster when he was named as Mason’s replacement. Despite having to adjust to a new coach and offensive system after having a breakout year, Pinnix said Brewster convinced him that the team could achieve its goals of winning a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl.
“If he says you know what, Big Ten champions and Rose Bowl, and if he believes it, then the rest of the team believes it,” Pinnix said.
Pinnix spent much of his senior season plagued by injuries. He was forced to watch most of Minnesota’s 2007 campaign, in which the team went 1-11 under Brewster, from the sidelines.
The team failed to make the jump to “the next level,” which Mason could never reach. But a 1-11 start?
“I was shocked. I was surprised,” Maturi said. “I knew there would be some growing pains, but it was more traumatic than I think any of us expected it to be.”
Pinnix said he was more frustrated with the lack of reward for the effort everyone put forth than with the one-win result.
The breakout season under Brewster — or any other coach since the 1967 season (the Gophers’ last Big Ten title) — hasn’t come. The results haven’t met Brewster’s or Maturi’s lofty goals, but that hasn’t tempered expectations for the program to succeed.
“I think [expectations have] increased, and I think Tim Brewster takes the credit and the blame, and that’s been kind of his Achilles’ heel a little bit,” Maturi said. “He believes we’re going to get there [the Rose Bowl], and quite frankly, I want whoever coaches this football team to believe we’re going to get there.”
Maturi attends an annual December luncheon at which, he said, business people across the state are interested in two things: the stock market and the Gophers football record for the upcoming season. Each year, Maturi honestly predicts how the season will end for the team.
Maturi initially wrote down a prediction of 6-6 for the 2009 regular season. He then changed it to 7-5 because he said he felt he “had to be optimistic.”
Optimism and patience go hand in hand, but the instant success demanded in the world of college coaching often pushes patience to the wayside.
“I think it takes at least five years for a coach to be able to build a program,” Little said. “Unfortunately, not enough people give coaches that much time. Too many times they want instant success.”
Last week, Brewster announced a coaching staff shakeup. The Gophers will promote running backs coach Thomas Hammock to co-offensive coordinator while also bidding adieu to wide receivers coach Richard Hightower.
With the promotion, Hammock becomes the fourth person with offensive coordinator duties as Brewster enters his fourth season. The Gophers have also had four different defensive coordinators in that time.
Although Maturi said only one coach did not leave on his own accord, the instability wreaks havoc for players who repeatedly have to adjust to new systems.
“There is a disappointment there because I think it negatively affects the kids,” Maturi said. “I think it negatively affects the continuity of who we are and what we’re trying to be, but it’s also a reality.”
Coaches have left for a variety of reasons, including taking different jobs closer to their hometowns or promotions at other programs. The exception Maturi mentions is Mike Dunbar, offensive coordinator for the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
Dunbar and Brewster had a falling out because Brewster felt the offense couldn’t thrive when only employing the spread system, Maturi said, which Dunbar had used successfully at California and Northwestern.
Months ago, rumors began spreading regarding Brewster’s return even before the 2009 Insight Bowl. Brewster said the idea of playing must-win games at the end of the season did not faze him.
“We were just trying to win football games and prepare the best we could as a football team to go win games,” Brewster said last week after a press conference. “That was something that was the furthest from my mind.”
Brewster was not available for further comment for this story.
Maturi announced he would offer Brewster an extension before the bowl game to help the recruiting process. Hill said knowing that Brewster would still be with Minnesota in 2010 helped cement his decision to play for the Gophers. Other players, who have experienced the backlash from turnover, felt more secure with the announcement.
“It’s good to know that we have a steady head coach instead of having coaches in and out like we did this season,” freshman quarterback MarQueis Gray said.
Although Maturi announced he would extend Brewster’s contract in late December, the final agreement wasn’t signed until Feb. 3.
With the extension, Minnesota signed Brewster until 2013, but many amendments were added to the employment agreement.
The new contract includes a new buyout clause. If Minnesota relieves Brewster of his head coaching duties, the University will only have to pay half his base salary of $400,000 for each remaining year on the contract.
Additionally, if Brewster wins seven games, he will earn an extra $100,000. For each additional win, Brewster stands to make $50,000.
The Gophers had the 19th most difficult schedule in 2009. Next season will only be tougher when Minnesota welcomes Southern California for a September matchup. Despite the extension, there’s only one thing Brewster can do to secure his position:
“In the end, he’s got to win football games,” Maturi said.