Mike McFeely column: Football the key to money problem

Glen Mason, the University of Minnesota football coach, arrived in Fargo late Wednesday night with a group of Gophers' coaches who will conduct a feel-good rally over breakfast at the Holiday Inn this morning.

Glen Mason, the University of Minnesota football coach, arrived in Fargo late Wednesday night with a group of Gophers' coaches who will conduct a feel-good rally over breakfast at the Holiday Inn this morning.

Needing to drive from downtown to southwest Fargo to meet briefly with Mason, your favorite sports columnist hopped in his vehicle for the orange-pylon filled trek to the Holiday Inn. No sooner was the seat belt latched and the ignition cranked than a caller to the local sports talk radio show was ripping Mason.

The charges were the usual stuff. That it takes an act of Congress to get the coach to visit outstate areas. That the coach is overpaid. That the coach is not the most popular man among his brethren in the high-school ranks. That the coach has won less than 50 percent of his games over his career.

All of which may or may not be true, depending on your view of Mason and the job he's done with the Gophers. Doesn't matter. The point is, Mason is far from being the most universally popular man in Gophers Country.

Which leads to the following conundrum for those who root for the maroon and gold: You may not like the man, but you need him.


You need him to be successful. Wildly successful, if possible.

If you haven't noticed, the 'U' is experiencing some rather severe budgetary problems in its athletic department.

You may have heard the school decided to drop men's and women's golf and men's gymnastics before offering a one-year reprieve. You may have heard the men's and women's athletic departments will merge. You may have heard about stepped-up fundraising efforts.

Those steps were taken to help offset an anticipated $21 million debt in five years.

But you know what would be the most beneficial happenstance of all if the Gopher athletic program truly wants to make headway into solving its financial woes?

Try this on for size: A powerhouse Gopher football program that draws 63,000 for every game at the Metrodome.

"The thing that has to happen is improved revenue from our football program," said Minnesota athletic director Tom Moe, also in Fargo today. "That is far and away the biggest opportunity to solve our problem. The other things have to happen, too, but football is by far the biggest opportunity."

As it stands now, the Gophers usually play in front of 20,000 empty seats for home games. Forty-plus years of mediocrity or worse will bring about that kind of apathy.


If Mason wins and the dome is filled, you're talking about several million dollars in additional revenue that would be generated. That would be enough to buoy whatever minor sports are on the chopping block.

"It's all my fault, right?" Mason asked facetiously when asked about the Gophers' budget problems.

Well, no. That's not fair. Hockey and men's basketball are also revenue-producing sports at the 'U.' But those sources are about maxed out, meaning it's up to football to increase its load.

"The thing that enables Big Ten-type schools to have comprehensive athletic programs is football programs that seat 70,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 week in and week out," Mason said. "That's the challenge that's there. I know that. I'm asked often by people if that is added pressure. My answer is 'no.' It's pressure, of course, but I knew that coming in."

Football's burden is why talk of paring its budget has never made sense in the debate on how to save money. Football is the engine that drives the athletic program. Always has been, always will be.

The Gophers have a football program that ranks ninth in Big Ten budgets. Cutting it further would be athletic suicide.

Moe, in fact, likes to take the debate a step further. He is a strong proponent of an on-campus stadium that would increase the Gopher football program's revenue and budget by huge amounts. A new stadium would mean revenue from suites, parking, concessions and naming rights. Those are areas where the 'U' gets little or nothing at the Metrodome.

"There are a number of things that other schools are doing that we can't do in our current situation," Moe said.


That, sir, is a topic for another day.

The first step in solving Minnesota's money problems lies with the football program, no matter how big of a disadvantage it faces.

The Gophers need to win to put fannies in the seats at the Metrodome. It's not the final answer, but it's a step in the right direction.

That's why you have to root for Mason. No matter what your opinion of him.

Readers can reach Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5580 or

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