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Monson's redemption
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Head coach Dan Monson of the Minnesota Golden Gophers enjoys a winning moment at the Big Ten Conference tournament, as his team beat the Indiana Hoosiers in a quarterfinal game, 71-55. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Dan Monson knew it wasn't going to be easy to lead Minnesota out of the depths of a cavernous hole created by an academic cheating scandal.

He admits that there have been "a lot more downs than ups" in his six years at the helm of the Golden Gophers, which makes his first NCAA tournament appearance with the Gophers that much sweeter.

"It's kind of hard to believe, isn't it, considering where this team has come from?" athletic director Joel Maturi said.

At this time last year, the din was growing louder from fans and Gophers supporters who wanted to see Monson fired after a disastrous season that included a 3-13 record in the Big Ten.

Even this season, rumors swirled that fired Timberwolves coach, and ex-Gopher, Flip Saunders would be hired to replace Monson at the end of the season.

But as the Gophers prepare to play Iowa State in the team's first NCAA tournament game since 1999, Monson finally stands as a coach with some job security.

"For people to start getting off his back and start giving him a little credit is nice to see," forward Brent Lawson said.

It's been a long road to this point.

It all started, coincidentally, with Monson on the opposite sideline. He was coaching Gonzaga against the Gophers in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1999 on the day in which widespread academic cheating by the Gophers' basketball team was revealed.

It's kind of hard to believe, isn't it, considering where this team has come from?
- U of M athletic director Joel Maturi

An NCAA investigation in 2000 found that Minnesota committed 21 major academic violations. The probe was prompted by the admission of a former tutor that she wrote more than 400 term papers for at least 18 players over five years.

Coach Clem Haskins' contract was bought out, two high-ranking university officials were fired, the Gophers' records between 1993-98 were erased and scholarships and recruiting privileges were reduced.

The program was in ruins, and Monson was asked to take on the immense rebuilding project.

He was nothing if not flexible.

Monson tried, three times, to build a team around a star recruit - first Joel Przybilla, then Rick Rickert and then Kris Humphries. All three left school early for the pros.

He tried using four guards and outscoring teams. That didn't work either.

"I went on an extreme makeover deal," he joked. "I think a good coach changes every year. When you're rebuilding a program, you don't have the luxury to have a 'system.' That's reserved for the Dukes and the Arizonas, where they just plug people in that look the same every year, it's just a different person. We would like to get that way, certainly."

Monson finally found some success this season with an unheralded group of three seniors, including two walk-ons, and a couple of junior college transfers.

Juco transfer Vincent Grier has led the way as the team's primary offensive threat. But the first-team All Big Ten selection has been complemented by three plucky seniors - Lawson, center Jeff Hagen and guard Aaron Robinson - who have emerged as legitimate support players.

"Coach has done a great job with his limited resources and now that he's starting to get full resources, he's starting to turn it back into a top program," Hagen said. "We like the direction we're headed right now."

And while skeptics may be hesitant to admit it, players say Monson deserves plenty of credit.

"You could tell that the coaches had a hard job to do with the limits on recruiting and sanctions and those types of things," Lawson said. "Coach Monson did as good a job as he could. It took a little longer than some fans and some people might have wanted but he's got this program back on track."

For the most part, Monson has deflected the praise, saying the team, not the coach, deserves the credit.

"Certainly the program's going to benefit from this but these players need to savor it because they earned it," Monson said. "They're the ones that went out and did the work. ... They're the ones that stuck through it all and I can't be more happy for a group."

Robinson said he knows Monson was frustrated at times by the slow progress.

"He just didn't have the team that he needs to have to be successful," Robinson said. "They criticize him even despite how good of a coach he is. Now that he has the team to be successful, everybody is giving him pats on the back."

That's fine with Monson, who has stayed optimistic through it all, thanks to a healthy support system.

"What I feel really good about is my cell phone calls haven't changed," Monson said. "I've got a great family, I've got great friends. Those people that called me on my cell phone have always believed in my ability and believed in me. Most of them asked, 'What the hell took so long?"'

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)