MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Critics of college football’s bloated bowl system say it’s too easy to qualify for postseason play and only a handful of the games actually mean something.

Tell that to Glen Mason.

Minnesota fired Mason on Sunday, two days after the Gophers blew a 31-point third quarter lead against Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl and exactly one year after signing a four-year contract extension.

“If we had not lost the way we had lost, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” athletic director Joel Maturi said.

Mason was 64-57 in 10 years at Minnesota and led the Gophers to seven bowl games. But he was just 3-4 in those games, with his latest loss proving to be the backbreaker despite the lengthy contract extension.

The Gophers led the Red Raiders 38-7 in the third quarter on Friday before Tech orchestrated the biggest comeback in bowl history. The 44-41 loss dropped the Gophers to 6-7 for the season, the first time they have finished under .500 in five years.

Maturi said he received plenty of e-mails from angry fans and alumni after the historic collapse in Arizona, two months after chants of “Fire Mason!” started springing up at home in the Metrodome.

“I try not to let any influence like that make any significant difference, but at the same time, I’m sure those kinds of things are involved in what is the long-term future of Gopher football,” Maturi said. “And how positive can it be? Are students going to be behind us? Are fans going to be behind us? Are we going to have the energy that’s necessary that we would like to move forward.”

Way too many questions for him.

Mason was not present at the press conference on Sunday, but issued a statement that said he was given “no specific explanation” for his firing during a phone call from Maturi.

“Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed, however I respect the decision of my superiors, Mr. Joel Maturi and president Robert Bruininks,” Mason said.

For the second time in just over a month, the university will be forced to buy out the contract of a high-profile coach. Men’s basketball coach Dan Monson was ousted on Nov. 30, seven games into the season.

Mason was being paid $1.65 million annually and it will cost the university close to $4 million to buy him out.

Mason came to the Twin Cities from Kansas in 1997 and took over a Big Ten doormat that hadn’t had a winning season in seven years.

The Gophers made several strides under Mason, emerging as one of the premier rushing offenses in the nation with stars such as Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney carrying the ball.

Minnesota beat Michigan in Ann Arbor for the first time in 20 years last season.

and also had big victories at Ohio State and at Penn State during his tenure.

The improvements helped the university gain approval for a new outdoor football stadium that will open in 2009 and finally get the Gophers out of the dingy Metrodome and back on campus.

But the Gophers never were able to build on that success and become a legitimate Big Ten contender, and fans grew weary of heartbreaking losses in big games.

Perhaps Mason’s toughest loss came in October 2003, when the 6-0 Gophers hosted Michigan and led 28-7 in the second half. But the Wolverines stormed back to win 38-35, and the Gophers folded down the stretch.

Minnesota also blew a 24-0 lead in the 2000 Micronpc.com Bowl before losing to North Carolina State 38-30 and lost to Wisconsin last year when punter Justin Kucek dropped a snap in the end zone that the Badgers recovered for a touchdown in the final minutes.

And so Mason’s legacy at Minnesota will be defined not by the improvements made on offense and in recruiting, but instead by missed opportunities and a 3-15 career record against Michigan and Wisconsin, two of the school’s three biggest rivals.

“I felt we needed a new voice, a new vision and new leadership to bring a football championship to the University of Minnesota,” Maturi said.

He will have to move fast. National signing day is just over a month away, making this a prime time for recruiting.

“It will certainly make us hurry the search, but I don’t want to do it so quickly that we don’t hire the best long-term fit for the University of Minnesota,” Maturi said.

AP-ES-12-31-06 1931EST

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