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Former Gophers coach Glen Mason remembers Marion Barber III: ‘One of my favorite all-time guys’

The 72-year-old retired coach and broadcaster dealt with the initial shock of the 38-year-old’s death in Texas

SPORTS-FORMER-GOPHERS-COACH-GLEN-MASON-1-SP.jpg
Minnesota head coach Glen Mason stands with his team before running onto the field before kickoff against Indiana University at the Metrodome in Minneapolis on Nov. 4, 2006.
St. Paul Pioneer Press file photo
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Once Glen Mason heard news that Marion Barber III had passed away Wednesday, the former Gophers football coach spent the rest of the evening reminiscing about his star running back.

Mason, who coached Minnesota from 1997-2006, chatted or texted with a handful of former U players, including Thomas Tapeh of St. Paul, and Mason did a handful of local media interviews.

The 72-year-old retired coach and broadcaster dealt with the initial shock of the 38-year-old’s death in Texas.

“It’s like losing a family member; it really is,” Mason told the Pioneer Press.

Mason then recalled what Barber meant to him and the Minnesota program.

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In 1977, Mason was an assistant coach at Illinois and was recruiting Barber’s father, Marion Barber Jr., a prospect out of Detroit. Barber Jr. picked Minnesota and rushed for 3,094 yards and 34 touchdowns through 1980. When he went to the New York Jets, he left as the U’s all-time leading rusher.

In 2000, Barber III was a standout running back and defensive back at Wayzata, but Mason only wanted him at Minnesota if he played D-back.

“Why? Because he was the only guy all year who intercepted Joe Mauer,” Mason said of the Cretin-Derham Hall quarterback who was committed to play football at Florida State before switching full time to baseball after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Twins.

Barber III was not interested in being a defensive back at the U. “He passed on it,” Mason said. “But no one else was recruiting him, so we went back again and I said, ‘Use your brain here. Come in as a defensive back.’ And he did.”

That spring, Barber visited Mason and asked for a favor.

“He said, ‘I know you don’t think I can play running back. Just give me a chance. One year. If I’m not good enough, then I’ll play any position you want,’ ” Mason recalled. “I told him, ‘What do we got to lose.’ He’s not going to play the first year anyway. Boy, was I wrong.”

As a true freshman in 2001, Barber rushed 118 times for 742 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. Tellis Redmon was that squad’s leading rusher with 1,091 yards.

Barber redshirted in 2002 after a hamstring injury limited him to two games. In 2003 and ’04, Barber and tag-team partner Laurence Maroney each rushed for over 1,000 yards.

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“They were almost a comedy team when they weren’t playing football,” Mason said. “They were something. They were best buddies and they fed off each other. They were a joy to coach. They liked football. They liked practice. They were joking around, but when it was time to be serious, it was serious. Those guys really complemented each other.”

Mason was prompted to retell the moped story and he jumped right in. “One day after practice and I get in my car to go home and I stop at the light,” Mason said. “Then right down University Avenue there goes Maroney driving and Barber on the back of a moped. They went right through a red light.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god.’ My heart stopped,” said Mason, who can laugh about it now.

Barber was an all-Big Ten first-team selection in 2003, and turned pro after a second consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2004 despite having another year of eligibility remaining.

While Mason wasn’t sold on Barber as a running back coming out of high school, Mason was confirming Barber’s ability to NFL teams.

Then-Cowboys coach Bill Parcells telephoned Mason during the NFL draft in 2005. Parcells said they were looking for a running back, not necessarily a starter, but one who could contribute 8-10 plays a game, help on special teams, provide toughness and good character.

“Is that Marion Barber?” Mason recalled Parcells asking him.

“Absolutely,” Mason replied.

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Mason later met Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and Jones raved about Barber, saying he was a better player than they thought.

Barber, who was listed at 5-foot-11 and 218 pounds, rushed for 4,780 yards and 53 touchdowns in 99 games from 2005-11. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2007.

While Barber had issues adjusting to his post-playing career, including run-ins with police, Mason said he saw none of that at the U.

“Everybody knows what kind of player Marion Barber was, if they watched him play in person or watched him play on TV,” Mason said. “When I think of him, I think of the kid with a smile on his face, great kid to be around. One of my favorite all-time guys. In the four years I coached him, he never gave me one minute of problems either on or off the field. Just a delight to be around.”

SPORTS COLLEGE FOOTBALL MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS MICHIGAN STATE ST SPARTANS
Minnesota's Marion Barber III, left, breaks away from Michigan State's Thomas Wright for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the Gophers 28-19 victory over the Spartans on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2001.
Chris Polydoroff/St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Related Topics: MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
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