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Northern Exposure

A Minnesota trip leaves the U of M Tigers defeated and dejected.

by Dennis Freeland

inneapolis is a big, bold city brightened by an astounding array of architectural styles and populated mostly by people whose ancestors came from northern Europe. They are friendly and generous and talk like the characters in the movie Fargo.

Last weekend the weather there was warm and sunny and people were outdoors enjoying the last warm spell before the ravages of another Minnesota winter sends them indoors for the next six or seven months.

After punter Jim Cande (89) had his first punt blocked at Minnesota and then fumbled his second attempt, Scherer replaced him with Ben Graves. The special teams breakdowns led to 10 Minnesota points in a game the Gophers won 41-14.
We felt right at home as we arrived at the Northwest-dominated airport on the south side of town last Friday morning. Several other Memphians flew up on the 727 with us, mostly to watch the University of Memphis football team pursue its first win of the 1998 season. In the afternoon we met a larger contingent from Memphis – the players, coaches, and school officials who had just arrived on a chartered jet.

It is customary for Rip Scherer’s Tigers to visit a road arena on the day before the game. It is particularly important this time because Memphis plays Minnesota inside the Metrodome on artificial turf. Both of those factors – playing inside and on turf – present challenges for a team unaccustomed to such amenities.

As the players go though basic drills in shorts and T-shirts, the rest of us check out this domed wonder we have seen so many times on TV. It is the home of the baseball Twins, football Vikings, and the team Memphis has come to visit, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. But inside the arena, there are no signs of the other tenants. For this day and the next, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome belongs solely to the University of Minnesota. Around the arena, hanging below the skyboxes, are an array of Minnesota banners that tell a story unknown to many of the Memphis visitors. The first one I see simply reads: “Big Ten Champions – 1900.” There is another: “Bronko Nagurski.” The banners represent 18 Big Ten championships, six national championships, and a Heisman trophy winner. If the Memphis players aren’t impressed, I certainly am.

Dave Woloshin, the voice of the Tigers, shows me where home plate is when the building is set up for baseball. I step up to the spot and take a couple of imaginary swings at the left field bleachers, pretending I’m Kirby Puckett. Then Wolo takes me into the Twins dugout, hidden behind a black drape. I stand on the steps looking out at the playing field and try to remember the 1987 World Series.

As his players shower and prepare to reload the bus for the ride back to the suburban Marriott where the team and most of the visitors from Memphis are staying, Scherer comes over to shoot the breeze with a group of reporters. If the weight of an 0-2 start followed by a road trip to the Big Ten has him concerned, it doesn’t show. The conversation runs the board, but football is never discussed.

A couple of Highland Hundred members host a get-together later that night at a downtown night spot. The place is packed, mostly with young customers, many of them blonde women in black mini-dresses. It is an astonishing introduction to what a friend who lives in the city says is a fact of life: The most attractive women in the world live in Minneapolis.

The Memphis fans are confident their team can beat Minnesota. A friend of mine from the Highland Hundred bets me a lunch at India Palace that Memphis will win.

“I hope I lose,” I tell him as we shake hands. “Me too,” he says.

In the rental car on the way back to the hotel, five Memphians agree that they have never seen anything quite like the hordes of young women at the British-style pub we had just left. It is still the topic of conversation when we sit down for one last round at the hotel. At a corner table Scherer; one of his assistants, David Lockwood; his wife, Heidi; and a couple of others from the official U of M traveling party are winding down. Before Scherer leaves, he picks up the tab for the five media guys. He does it so quietly that several in our party never realize it.

The next day, outside the Metrodome, Gopher fans wait until the last minute before leaving the warm sunshine to enter the dome. Even though it sits in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, the atmosphere outside the arena is collegiate. A pedestrian mall with picnic tables and a live band adds to the environment. The smells of grilling bratwurst and draft beer contribute to the sensory experience.

Inside, the Metrodome is only half full. Gopher football has fallen on hard times. The competition with professional teams has hurt, but the biggest obstacle keeping Minnesota from regaining its position as a national football power is its inability to attract the speedy African-American players that dominate today’s game. Minneapolis is a very white, very cold city during most of football season. The Gophers are too slow to compete on a national level.

They are, it quickly turns out, fast enough to beat Memphis. Minnesota takes the opening kickoff and drives 76 yards for a touchdown in less than two minutes. After the Memphis offense does its typical three-and-out tango, a Minnesota player breaks through untouched and blocks Jim Cande’s punt. Another Gopher picks up the ball and runs it in for a second touchdown. Three minutes into the game it’s 14-0.

Minnesota has been playing college football for 114 years. They have traditions reaching back to the innocent days of college sports. After each Gopher score, the 12-person trombone section scurries down to the field and, while their bandmates count, spin around their instrument one time for each point on the scoreboard. After Minnesota kicks two field goals to make the score 20-0, the trombone players start to get dizzy. Several of them need help climbing the steps back to their bleacher seats. There would be more spinning – much more spinning – before this day is finished.

On the sideline, Scherer is spinning. He changes punters, he changes quarterbacks, but nothing works. Minnesota seems quicker, stronger, and much more focused. The Tigers appear every bit as outclassed as they did the last two times they visited Big Ten stadiums (a 51-21 loss to Michigan State last year and a 24-7 defeat at Michigan in 1995).

As a favor to Woloshin, I am working as a spotter for the radio broadcast. Standing between color commentator Bob Rush, the huge former Tiger and NFL center, and Woloshin, the diminutive play-by-play announcer, my job is to point to a chart indicating which player made the tackle. It is an easy job and it keeps me focused. As an added benefit, I get to hear Rush.

“I don’t know why Minnesota is still throwing the ball,” he says in the fourth quarter. “It must be the last game in the series.”

Later, after the Golden Gophers’ Byron Evans runs 93 yards for the final Minnesota touchdown, Rush makes another reference to the Minnesota coach: “Maybe Glenn Mason would like to extend this series.”

Early in the game, during a break, someone in the booth says, “We are really a pathetic football team.” No one disagrees.

After it is over, we climb down the stairs and wait outside the Memphis locker room. Inside, Scherer is talking to his team. Occasionally we hear him yelling. We don’t know if it is because he is upset with them or if he is trying to lift their spirits.

As we wait for him to come out, we are joined by three reporters from Minneapolis. Someone notices that, for no apparent reason, there is a boat paddle propped against the wall. It seems an appropriate icon for a coach who is definitely up the proverbial creek without one.

It was loss number 25 since Scherer arrived in Memphis. I have seen him angry, depressed, frustrated. I have seen him on the verge of tears. But I have never seen him quite like this. He is stunned, dazed, clueless.

“I have no idea what to say after something like that,” he says. “It was a total embarrassment. It’s embarrassing to me as a coach because I am responsible for that. Obviously we didn’t have the players ready to play. We haven’t coached the mistakes out of them. The responsibility starts with me.”

Down the hall, sounds of singing and chanting come from the Minnesota locker room. “I think every person in this program has to look at themselves and ask what they could have done differently in that game,” Scherer continues. “We have to reevaluate everything – what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, how we’re coaching it.”

Later, during his post-game radio show, Scherer says, “I’m as frustrated as I’ve ever been in this profession.”

During a commercial break as Scherer stands with Woloshin in the locker room doorway, third-string quarterback Neil Suber walks by carrying his duffle bag. A redshirt freshman, Suber had just played in his first college game. He looked good, completing five of eight passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. So when Scherer stops Suber, I guess it is to congratulate him.

“Tuck your shirt in, Neil,” is all he says.

Typical Scherer, steadfast even in the gloom of another loss. If you take care of the details, the small things, the rest will fall in place. He believes that with all his heart. But the coaching philosophy of William Bernard Scherer is under fire now. A week off might be just what this team needs. On the other hand, the wait for the next game at Houston on October 3rd could be poison.

Either way, this team and this program are at yet another crossroads, and like the fine folks in Minneapolis, these Tigers may be about to hibernate.

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