Hands on his head, Ed Meierkort appeared to be on the verge of tears as he looked for someone, anyone, to hug after his South Dakota Coyotes football team defeated the University of Minnesota, 41-38, on Saturday.
It was the 100th - and one of the biggest - career win for Meierkort, who spent seven years in the 1980s and early '90s on the sidelines in Marshall as the Mustangs' assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator, defensive coordinator and strength coach. He was assistant coach from '89-93 and defensive coordinator from '84-89.
"If I looked shocked, it's probably because I was - not because I didn't think our team could win, but it was just a surreal environment for me," Meierkort said Sunday.
"I had taken my kids to many Minnesota games; it's kind of like where you wanted to be someday when you start your career. Then, halfway throughout the game you're looking around at 50,000 people and realize it's your team competing and you realize you got a chance to win. I'm very proud of the way our guys handled it."
When Meierkort was with the Mustangs, SSU was still an NAIA team, and they were a good one. A real good one. They won the Northern Sun Intercollege Conference twice and qualified for the NAIA playoffs twice. The Mustang offense broke records, but Meierkort was the guru of a defense that led the nation in 1988.
"(Former SSU head coach) Gary Buer gave me my first shot and I've taken a lot of what he taught me at SSU with me," said Meierkort who said he saw some familiar faces from the area at Saturday's game. "I don't call any plays, I don't even wear a headset and people ask me, 'What do you do?' I manage the game and try to put the team in the right position to win, and that goes back to my roots at SSU. We were able to turn that program around and we left a pretty good team over there. We had some of the best players I've ever coached there -Wayne Hawkins, Jeff Loots, Derrick Jordan; Chad Johnston was a hell of a player for me. I take a ton from my experience there."
Neither defensive unit put on much of a display at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday - the Gophers racked up 462 yards, USD, 444. The defensive-minded Meierkort, whose young team has allowed 38 points in each of the first two games this year, said there have been only two defensive plays that have upset him this year - one Saturday where one of his defensive backs bit on play-action and one in the Coyotes' opener against Central Florida where they missed "three or four" tackles on a screen play.
"We got tired on that play; it was tough because of the heat, but it gave us a good run-through of what to expect against Minnesota," Meierkort said. "We're playing football at the highest level in the country and this was a very big win, not only for the players and myself, but for the university."
Meierkort left success behind in Marshall and found more across the border at then-lowly Div. III Wisconsin-Stout, where he brought the team to a No. 5 national ranking in 2000. At Stout, which was 2-8 the year before Meierkort's arrival, he recruited and coached 16 All-Americans and had two players make it to the NFL.
Success enjoyed spending time with Meierkort so much here at home it obviously followed him to Wisconsin, and if there was any doubt it has continued to shadow him in South Dakota, Saturday's win erased it.
A Division II team three years ago, the Coyotes have made the successful transition to D-I, thanks mostly to Meierkort. In their first year in D-I, the Coyotes were 6-5. They were a .500 team last year and have started this season 1-1. But that 1 on the left is a big one.
"It was one of the biggest (wins); the conference championship wins are always big," Meierkort said. "I certainly didn't expect my 100th win to be against Minnesota, but we've got a special product going on here."
It would be fair to say both Meierkort and Minnesota coach Tim Brewster had their own type of hangover Sunday morning, but it was Brewster who was left with a pounding headache.
As big of a win as it was for Meierkort, the loss won't go over well on the Minnesota campus. And it shouldn't. Big Ten teams who pretend to be good enough to compete against some of the nation's elite teams aren't supposed to lose to small schools new to Division I. The Gophers, who face - gasp! - USC on Saturday, are 1-1, but losses like Saturday's really sting and could be the beginning of the end for Brewster.
This master recruiter, who has seen the likes of Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson bolt from Minnesota - obviously hasn't mastered recruiting. A mix between Glen Mason and Jim Wacker, Brewster might be his own worst enemy -?he might be too good of a salesman. Every year he tells us how good the Gophers are gonna be, he boasts about bringing in top-notch competition like the Trojans, and then his teams fall on their faces against teams they "should" beat. Of course on Saturday, they didn't fall on their face as much as South Dakota knocked them on it.
Luckily for Brewster, fans continue to buy his pitch, even though struggling against smaller, upstart teams is nothing new under the Brewster regime. North Dakota State came within one point of taking the Gophers down in 2006 and beat them at the Metrodome three years ago. Last year, Minnesota nearly lost to South Dakota State. And on Saturday, the Gophs fell to a team still relatively new to Division I with a quarterback in his first year as a starter.
Saturday's game will go a long way in defining both coaches' seasons. It could be a special one for Ed and the Coyotes in South Dakota. And it could be a long one for Tim and the Gophers in Minnesota.