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Minnesota is having a banner year in college football just about everywhere but at U — why?

Many good home-state players are opting for small-college programs, and lots of coaches have interesting theories why — and some advice for any new U of M coach.

You wouldn’t know it by the school in Dinkytown, but it’s been a spectacular year for college football in the state of Minnesota.

Four teams — Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State in Division II, and Bethel and St. Thomas in Division III — qualified for the NCAA playoffs. All but St. Cloud, which lost to UMD last week 20-17 in overtime, advanced to Saturday’s national quarterfinals.

And two more schools packed with Minnesotans are still playing — Division II quarterfinalist Augustana of South Dakota, which has 33 players from Minnesota, and Football Championship Subdivision qualifier North Dakota State, with 28.

Bethel (11-1) and the Tommies (12-0) meet at noon Saturday at St. Thomas, the first time two teams from Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference made the Round of 8 in the same year. Augustana (11-1) faces top-ranked UMD (12-0), while the Bison (8-4) play a second-round game at Montana State (9-2).

Meanwhile, the 3-9 Gophers are done and looking for a head coach for the second time in five years.

So how does a state of about 5.2 million people produce so many good players in Division II and III, and the FCS (which used to be called Division I-AA), and so few in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1-A)?

The University of Minnesota last won a Big Ten title in 1967, hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the conference since 1986, and again is in search of a miracle worker after firing Coach Tim Brewster in mid-October.

More opportunities at small schools
In talking to successful Minnesota small-college and high school coaches this week, I’ve decided maybe that’s the wrong question. Here’s a better one: Why do Minnesota kids who could play in the FBS, with the Gophers or somebody else, instead opt for the FCS, Division II and III?

Opportunity, for one.

Besides the Gophers, 24 other four-year colleges in Minnesota play varsity football — nine in the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, and 15 in Division III among the MIAC, the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, and one independent (Macalaster). Plus, 10 junior colleges make up the Minnesota College Athletic Conference. A kid who prefers playing close to home and cares about his education has tons of options.

“That’s what makes the state of Minnesota so unique when you look at it,” said UMD Coach Bob Nielson, who recruits about half of his players from the Twin Cities metro area. “You go to a lot of states, and other than Division I, there are very limited opportunities for kids to play.”

Cretin-Derham Hall High School Coach Mike Scanlan, whose program produced two of Minnesota’s most heavily recruited players in the last five years — wideout Michael Floyd of Notre Dame, and lineman Seantrel Henderson of Miami — sees more prep standouts choosing smaller Minnesota schools where they can play two, three or even four years, rather than redshirt at a bigger school and ride the bench before maybe getting a chance as a junior. And since Division III prohibits athletic scholarships, any kid who takes that route must pay his own way, though many qualify for financial aid.

“They’ve got to understand that at that level (Division 1), it’s treated as a business, and you’re going to be looked at as a commodity,” Scanlan said. “It’s a tough, tough business. I tell kids to enjoy the time they’re recruiting you, because that’s the last time they’re ever going to be nice to you.”

Last Tuesday, Bethel Coach Steve Johnson looked over the approximately 90 Royals players practicing indoors at the Sports and Recreation Center and counted 10 starters, five on each side of the ball, whom he felt could play Division II or I-AA. One was Mitch Hallstrom, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman safety/wideout from Eden Prairie High School who chose the Royals over several Division II schools, including UMD. Johnson thinks St. Thomas and St. John’s probably have a few more than Bethel.

On Saturday, the Tommies are expected to start four players who began their careers in the FBS — three-time All-MIAC safety Brady Ervin (Iowa State), All-MIAC second-team linebacker Tommy Becker (Minnesota), right tackle Joe Schafer (Wisconsin) and left guard Curtis James (walk-on at Minnesota). Two others, linebacker Zach Sturm and center Josh Ostrue, transferred from St. Cloud State.

Schafer, a 6-5, 300-pounder from Cretin, never played a down last season at Wisconsin (he redshirted in 2008) and decided to go elsewhere. Players who transfer from Division I to Division III do not have to sit out a year, and the MIAC abolished its rule that counted redshirt seasons against a player’s eligibility. Going to up-and-coming St. Thomas meant Schafer could play right away, and for three seasons.

“I was excited to be at a place that was exciting,” he said. “Obviously, getting a chance to play was important to me.”

Strong high school programs
St. Thomas Coach Glenn Caruso, who has recruited Minnesota for more than a decade — previously as an assistant at North Dakota State and South Dakota — credits the high school programs for making football so enjoyable and ingrained in their communities that the good players try to continue on. The Minnesota State High School League lists 392 football-playing high schools in the state, including nine-man. At least 27 have artificial turf fields, according to research by the Owatonna People’s Press newspaper.

“High school football is still a big deal in this part of the country,” Caruso said. “The traditional sports — football, baseball and basketball — still play a big role in kids’ upbringing.”

Exactly how many Division I players Minnesota produces in a year remains open to debate. And even the best guesses may be skewed. Brad Anderson, who coached Wayzata to three state 5A titles in six years, believes some Minnesota prep players bloom late, and programs like the Gophers often overlook them.

You don’t have to hunt far to find examples. North Dakota State Coach Craig Bohl built a program with Minnesota kids that came within a blocked field goal of beating the Gophers in 2006, Glen Mason’s last season, before winning 27-21 in 2007. South Dakota only has eight Minnesota kids, but one, junior safety Shane Potter of Becker, had a team-leading 10 tackles in the 41-38 upset of the Gophers on Sept. 11 that sped up Brewster’s departure.

Anderson mentioned Wayzata High product Marion Barber III, a Gopher who wasn’t heavily recruited, and wideout Eric Decker, who considered St. John’s before choosing the Gophers. Both made it to the NFL.

“I don’t think there’s a huge difference for some of those athletes,” Anderson said. “Someone who could go Division I might wind up in Division II or III because they can get a good education and play football.”

The task for the next Gophers coach, then, is to attract more of those players, especially ones with killer work ethics. Mason and Brewster both recruited the state poorly, and count Johnson among the legion of Gopher fans who prefer more Minnesota representation in maroon and gold.

More home-state flavor?
“Even at the U, why couldn’t some of our backups be like the rural South Dakota kids that beat us?” Johnson said. “I don’t want a backup left guard that’s from Texas. I want my backup left guard from Minnesota. That’s what I feel like Minnesota is missing that Iowa has. Iowa has, like 60, Iowa kids. They might not all be superstars, but the crux of their club is in that.”

Actually, 48 of the 110 players on the Hawkeyes’ roster are from Iowa, according to the school’s website. By comparison, only 34 of the Gophers’ 105 players are in-state products.

And Johnson added one more thing:”They need to change the culture. I don’t think the culture at the U is a picture of the culture of Minnesota. There ought to be a bunch of guys who are hard workers, but it doesn’t feel like it’s that way … You build the culture, and then you get good. You need to attract Minnesota kids, not only to a stadium and facilities — and it’s a great school — but you need to attract them to a culture of guys who care about each other.”

Scanlan, when asked what advice he would give the incoming Gophers coach, put it simply. “Win,” he said. “Then the recruiting takes care of itself. It sounds really, really sappy, but that’s what it comes down to.”

Around the state, it’s certainly working in enough other places.