GOLDEN GOPHER TURNAROUND- The University of Minnesota
Head Minnesota football coach Glen Mason, was hired to turn things around. He did just that.
By Dr. Greg Shepard
Published: Winter 2000
In just his third season, Coach Mason guided the Golden Gophers to an 8-4 1999 record and their first bowl appearance since the 1986 Liberty Bowl. Many coach-of-the-year awards were bestowed upon Coach Mason, including being the Big Ten Coach of the Year. Minnesota achieved the most wins since 1967. Last season the Golden Gophers rose as high as No. 12 in the national polls, their highest mark since 1962 and their first winning season since 1990. This turnaround caught my eye, but so did two athletes, Ben Hamilton and Karon Riley. Both of these players were named as First Team pre-season All-Americans. I called strength coach Chris Hartman to find out about this turnaround and to see if Ben and Karon were great role models for BFS to feature. It turned out to be an eleven-type experience.
“From day one,” said Coach Mason, “we made a commitment to become a more physical football team on both sides of the ball. I have always been impressed with the work ethic and the attitude of our players. They have really made a commitment to become better football players in our off-season strength and conditioning sessions. We made huge progress last year, but we still have a long way to go to get this program where we want it on a consistent basis. We must dedicate ourselves to getting bigger, faster and stronger.
“The day we won our sixth game, we went from a losing program to a winning program. The players, the coaches, the trainers, the doctors, the secretaries, the administration - they all have a different attitude because they are winners.”
Coach Hartman says, “I want our players trying hard all the time. If they do that, they will be successful. I have found that the kids who give the greatest effort in our strength and conditioning program are the most successful on the field.”
Ben and Karon both nodded in agreement about the new winning Golden Gopher football program, “We have a new attitude. We now expect to win. We used to hope to win. You could say that we were just sick of losing.”
One common catalyst in promoting turnarounds is the improvement of facilities. Coach Mason wanted a “wow” factor. They spent $5.5 million on their Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. The centerpiece of the complex is a 65,000 square-foot indoor practice area. A lot of remodeling was done on the interior facilities. An entry addition was added and a new weight room was completed. The weight room is a magnificent 12,000 square-foot facility. It is the largest in the Big Ten. Coach Hartman has 18 squat racks, 10 bench press stations, 10 platforms and 90 pairs of dumbbells. The most striking feature in my mind are the two gargantuan photo/murals. Each is about 250 square feet. One depicts offense while the other depicts defense. It lets you know right away that you are in this facility to work hard on dreams and goals; all centered on football. Coach Mason did indeed get his “wow” factor.
Coach Hartman has been the head strength and conditioning coach at Minnesota for five years. He loves to be a hands-on type of coach. Hartman is energetically assisted by Jeff Trochil who says, “Ben and Karon showed up every day. They made the most of every set and every rep. They will be successful.”
Ben was 6-4 and only 220 pounds at Wayzata High School in Minnesota. He had a 400 parallel squat and ran a 5.4 forty. He was a USA Today Honorable Mention All-America and an All-State selection. Ben also lettered in tennis and was an honor roll student. However, the University of Minnesota was his only big-time college offer. Says Ben, “I was optimistic, but I knew I had to work hard to become bigger, faster and stronger.”
By the 2000 season, Ben had achieved a 385 Bench, a 390 Hang Clean, a 330 Power Clean, a 525 Parallel Squat, a 5.0 forty and a 32.5 Vertical Jump. He can dunk a basketball now at 280 pounds. Coach Hartman says, “Ben numbers aren’t as great as some others but what sets him apart is his athleticism and flexibility. So he is a great athlete who has gotten continually stronger and better.”
Ben was a 1999 All-American and a pre-season 2000 All-American. He has also been selected as a 2000 Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award Candidate. Ben states, “While growing up in Wayzata, playing for the University of Minnesota was always a dream for me. After my freshman year, I wasn’t sure what to expect for the rest of my college career because of coaching changes. But, Coach Mason came in and changed the attitudes and expectations of Gopher football. I am very proud that I was part of transforming this program back into a winner.”
Ben believes that hard work has gotten him where he is. “I’ve used goal setting,” says Ben. “Goals help you to stay focused. On a big day in the weight room or on the football field, I visualize being successful. I visualize beating the weight. I do the same in football by visualizing great execution.”
The most inspirational person in Ben’s life has been his father. “He has always been there for me,” says Ben. “My father has been a good example.” Ben’s father was a former Minnesota Viking offensive lineman. He taught Ben well. Ben is the first offensive lineman to be named All-American since Outland Trophy winner Bobby Bell in 1962.
Ben red-shirted his first year and was a Scholar-Athlete winner. He started as a freshman in 1997 in all 12 games and was an All-Big Ten selection. The next year Ben was a pre-season honorable mention All-American. In addition to being a first team All-American last year, Ben was named the team’s Paul Giel award winner, which honors the player who exhibits total unselfishness and most concern about the University of Minnesota.
One of the pre-season teams that Ben made was the Playboy All-American team. He turned them down. “My relationship with God is the most important thing in my life,” explained Ben. “Turning down Playboy was hard because lineman don’t get many honors. But I didn’t want to give a mixed message. If you are a Christian, you should lead by example.”
Ben leads by example in other areas. He doesn’t smoke, chew or do drugs. “You can find that stuff,” Ben says. “I’ve just never wanted to try it.” Ben carries a 3.2 GPA. He is never late to class. In fact, one of his traits is that he is always early. Ben has missed zero tests.
“I don’t miss things,” says Ben. “You have to pay attention to time management. I have a day planner type of calendar. Besides, I really like my classes, especially math and my major.” Ben will graduate in Civil Engineering and, after whatever happens in pro football, wants to manage construction projects.
Karon did not lift weights at Martin Luther King High School in Detroit. “Because,” says Karon, “I was always in sports. I played three sports and I was naturally strong.” Karon was All-State in both football and basketball. He also ran a 10.8 100 meters at 210 pounds. Karon carried a 3.65 GPA.
Karon never did drugs or drank alcohol in high school. “Never,” exclaimed Karon! “I was petrified. I was scared to drink. A lot of my friends did. I was usually the mediator. Detroit is not a good place not to be sober. My uncle was a police officer and I learned that it was just not worth it.”
Being in the “hood” was part of Karon’s everyday life while growing up. He gives the following advice to survive: “First, be aware and be smart. Second, be down to earth. Don’t try to seem better than others. Third, be careful where you go and who you are with. You can be guilty by association.”
Karon chose SMU to play football and made an immediate impact. He became a starter for the Mustangs at mid-season during his true freshman year. Karon also did well the following year but he wanted to be closer to home. Thus, a monumental decision was made. He transferred to Minnesota. However, according to NCAA rules, Karon sat out the first year, but was given the Defens