They played for the Minnesota Gophers football teams. Some were fortunate enough to be on successful teams, some were not. Some played on teams many years ago, while some were on more recent teams. But all of them wore their uniform proudly. Now, we're asking eight former players from the Tribune coverage area that donned the Maroon and Gold what they think of the current situation of the University of Minnesota's football program and what type of a coach they think it will take to turn the corner. The Gophers fired head coach Tim Brewster recently with the team showing a dismal 1-7 record. They have since turned the reins over to offensive coordinator Jeff Horton on an interim basis for the remainder of the season. A search committee, assisted by former Gopher quarterback and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, will look for a new coach.
Stan Skjei, Appleton
Gophers DB (1962-64)
Skjei won the Tribune's first Hengstler (now Hengstler-Ranweiler Award) in 1961 for outstanding male high school athlete in the area. As a Gopher, he was in the same defensive backfield as Bob Bruggers of Danube, who won the Hengstler Award in 1962. Skjei, who was inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006, was the 1994 Metro Coach of the Year while at Bloomington Jefferson where he coached from 1987-99. One of his players was current USC coach Lane Kiffin. Skjei is now a part-time real estate broker in Lakeville.
"I think part of the problem with the Gophers is their budget ranks in the bottom third of the Big Ten. They are nowhere near Iowa and Wisconsin. And they've had seven coaches since Murray Warmath (his last year was 1971). Minnesota spends more on non-revenue sports than most Big Ten schools, but the football program is what is funding those non-revenue sports. If they don't start putting fans back in the seats, those non-revenue sports will also suffer. I have season tickets and the Gophers play in the best stadium I've ever been in. But the stadium obviously isn't selling the team. They will have to bring in a coach like Tony Dungy, who I know turned down the offer. I thought maybe he would take the job out of loyalty to the 'U'. They need someone like him, though, that has been successful as a coach and can recruit. I don't think there are too many people around like him, though. I'm really impressed with (Chris) Petersen at Boise State. He defied all the odds for years and turned that team into a BCS team. And even bringing back Lou Holtz isn't a bad idea to get this program jump-started again."
Joe Pung, Paynesville
Gophers LB/C (1962-64)
Pung played linebacker behind two future NFL standout defensive linemen in Bobby Bell his sophomore year and Carl Eller his junior year. After those two graduated, Pung took over as the standout on defense and was named the team's Most Valuable Player in 1964, as well as serving as captain. He was also selected to play in the Blue-Grey All-Star game. After graduation from the University of Minnesota, Pung coached the Gophers' freshmen for four years (freshman were not allowed to play varsity then). He is currently retired and living near Braham.
"I think the major problem with the Gophers is that they don't have very many programs for at-risk kids like most other major colleges do. You need programs in place where these kids can get help when they get into trouble or to keep them from getting into trouble. Or, if they are having academic problems, you have programs in place to keep them in school, rather than losing these kids all the time. The problem is also more than just the coaches. The Vikings are Minnesota's team and the state doesn't support the Gophers like they do the Vikings or even the Twins. For schools like Iowa and Nebraska, college football is the whole show. Not only do you need to bring in a good head coach, but the whole staff needs to be good. We've had horrendous offensive coordinators lately. The head coach needs to have more of a say in the play calling. My coach, Murray Warmath, was actively involved in every play. We need to get a head coach like Steve Spurrier. He calls most of the plays (at South Carolina)."
Deryl Ramey, Atwater
Gophers C-LB-K (1963-65)
Ramey, Pung, Skjei and Bruggers were all teammates on the 1963 team when a regular-schedule Saturday game had to be moved to Thanksgiving morning because of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ramey was the head coach of the Willmar Cardinals from 1978-86 and is now a volunteer assistant at Brainerd, where his son, Jeff, is an assistant coach. Deryl was inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2004.
"It's so hard to figure out how the program got to this point. Minnesota fans are fickle. They won't support a team if they aren't winning. If the team is behind in the third quarter, fans will get up and leave. It's embarrassing. They are going to have to bring in a coach that can recruit, first of all. But he's also got to be able to coach, too. It's a complex situation. There is such a negative image when it comes to sports from the non-athletic administrators for some reason. That has to change. You need to get back to the old ways and get a coach who is tough and not let these kids get away with everything they want. College players today have almost a professional mentality in that they want everything to be their way and to be given everything they want. They need to be shown that this is like a work study job for them and they are being given their room and board, tuition and books because of football."
Ben Kuznia, Olivia
Gophers WR (2006-2009)
Kuznia also won the Tribune's Hengstler-Ranweiler Award in 2007 as the area's oustanding male high school athlete. Despite naysayers saying he wasn't a Division I player, Kuznia walked on at the University of Minnesota and eventually earned a scholarship and was a starting wide receiver in 2008. Kuznia played mostly special teams in 2009. The two time All-Academic Big Ten currently works for Cargill in the Twin Cities.
"It's hard to say exactly what's wrong. It's a number of things. It's partly the players' fault, partly the coaches' fault. There isn't a lot of support right now from the fans, but that's because the team isn't winning. Like (Gophers athletic director Joel) Maturi said at a press conference 'Brewster over-promised and under-delivered'. The bottom line is that this is a business. I think they can get it straightened out if they bring the right people in. I'd like to see them get a Minnesota guy in here who will work hard and stresses academics. I'd like to see them get someone like (former Gophers quarterback) Cory Sauter (currently the head coach at Southwest Minnesota State). He was a graduate assistant coach here when I was a freshman. He was soft spoken, but was a very good teacher and he was fair to everyone."
Rick Meyer, Granite Falls
Gophers RB (1988-90)
Meyer led the area in rushing twice while at Granite Falls, helping the Kilowatts win state titles in 1984 and 1987 and also finished second in 1986. After running for 4,685 yards and 77 touchdowns with Granite Falls, Meyer signed to play with the Gophers and was behind standout running back Darrell Thompson on the depth chart. When Thompson missed a game in 1989 with an injury, Meyer started against Northwestern and gained 64 yards in 15 carries. An injured shoulder eventually ended his career. He is currently an assistant football coach and special education teacher at MACCRAY.
"The Gophers are not able to attract the 'elite' talent in the country, not even in the state ... like (Seantrelle) Henderson from Cretin-Derham Hall. That's the biggest thing. But right behind that is that the players don't appear to play with any urgency. I don't get the feeling that they have a deep passion for being successful on Saturdays. It looks like some of the players are just going through the motions. What I think the Gophers need in the next head coach is a task-master with, obviously, a marquee name for recruiting purposes. I don't know ... offer Jon Gruden a lot of money."
Jon Lilleberg, Atwater
Gophers OT (1981-85)
Lilleberg was a dominating two-way lineman for Atwater and earned All-State recognition his senior year. With the Gophers, Lilleberg played tackle under Joe Salem for three years, two seasons for Lou Holtz and one game for John Gutekunst, all coaches with varying styles and popularity. He was a captain on the 1985 team. Lilleberg is currently a co-owner of the 33-person Johnson and Condon law firm. A litigation attorney in Minneapolis, Lilleberg has been with the firm for 19 years.
"As much as I hate to say it, I'd like to see the Gophers use Wisconsin as a guide to where they need to be. They need a firm commitment and belief from the 'powers-that-be' to build a top-class academic institution and a winning football program. I don't think they have that right now. Wisconsin and Iowa both seem to be doing things the right way in terms of money put into the program, hiring the right coaches and maintaining successful programs. As far as a coach, I don't think Brewster was ready to be the head coach here and I don't think fans were ready for him. He didn't have any head coaching experience. They need a coach with a total commitment to having a clean program and also a major interest in academics. He needs to have immediate legitimacy to cement an irrelevant program. Someone like Mike Leach at Texas Tech might be a good choice. He's tough, has proven he is a good coach and should be able to recruit here. They're going to have to find someone with all three of those qualities.
Nick Tow-Arnett, Redwood Falls
Gophers TE (2005-2009)
Tow-Arnett, 26, is one of three brothers (Nathan, 28, and Jeff, 23) that walked on with the Gophers. Nick, who didn't play football as a senior for Redwood Valley because of an injury, eventually earned a scholarship with the Gophers and became the team's starting tight end. He was signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks before being cut. He is currently working out daily in hopes of still getting a chance to play professionally.
"The biggest thing the programs needs is more funding. We are last in the Big Ten. They need to spend more money on a coach and more money on equipment and things like that. There were times in the spring that we had to wait for new gloves if we ripped ours. And we used to get protein shakes during spring practice. A couple of years ago, they didn't offer them for a few weeks because the budget didn't allow it. Little things like that shouldn't happen. We've had some good (assistant) coaches leave for more money, too. I don't think we necessarily need a 'big-name coach' to come in. They just need to get a young coach that generates excitement and allow him to stay for more than three years. It's tough for coaches to come in and take over a mid-tier team and bring it to the top tier like Ohio State or Michigan in just three years."
Jeff Tow-Arnett, Redwood Falls
Gophers C (2005-09)
Tow-Arnett was a two-year starter for Redwood Valley as a defensive and offensive lineman and also kicked off for the Cardinals. After walking on with the Gophers, Tow-Arnett eventually became the team's starting center before tearing his ACL during his junior year and was forced to miss 10 games. He then broke his leg in the fifth game last season against Wisconsin as a senior and worked his way back much sooner than the team expected, playing the final three games. He was signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and made it through all of training camp before being cut. He is still hoping to catch on with another NFL team.
"Money is the biggest issue with the Gophers. They are at the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of money spent for the football program. I was at the Nagurski Complex (a University of Minnesota training facility) the other day when it was raining and there was water dripping everywhere inside the building. That shouldn't be. I doubt if Ohio State and Nebraska have problems like that. (Minnesota athletic director Joel) Maturi said at a press conference that the 'U' has money to spend on a big-name coach. If they have the money, they need to spend if on other things. I don't think there are a lot of big-name coaches out there willing to take the job anyway. It's hard to even think of any that are looking for a job. Everyone talks about Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy and people like that. Those guys won a Super Bowl. They aren't going to come here and coach a program that doesn't spend money and then be on the hot seat after three years if they haven't turned things around."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Calls to Bob Bruggers (formerly of Danube, who played for the Gophers from 1963-66 and then spent four years as a linebacker with the Miami Dolphins and two with the San Diego Chargers), and to Eric Decker (Rocori, who played for the Gophers from 2005-09 and is currently a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos) were not returned. Nathan Tow-Arnett, Jeff and Nick's older brother, is a current sophomore for the Gophers and was not asked to assess the current situation. Norm Sixta (Willmar), who played tackle for the Gophers from 1955-58 and was drafted by the New York Giants, politely declined to answer the questions, saying he "was out of the loop" in terms of following Gophers sports in recent years.