Football season ended last weekend with the Super Bowl, and, at least for those of us who cheer hardest for the Minnesota Gophers, it was fun.
Minnesota finished the season ranked in the Top Ten for the first time in over 50 years, and was a play away from making the Rose Bowl. Much of that is attributable to third-year Gopher head football coach P.J. Fleck, whom I heard speak Jan. 31 at the Minnesota Newspaper Association annual convention.
How much fun was it? This season, the Gophers won 11 games. That’s the most wins since they went 13-0 in 1904. That was when football was still in its infancy. The forward pass would remain illegal until 1906.
Comparing the final record in 1904 to that of 2019 underscores the latter team’s achievement. The Gophers’ 1904 schedule included wins over Grinnell College, 146-0; Twin Cities Central High School, 107-0; and Shattuck, 75-0. Also, on the schedule were Carleton, Lawrence and St. Thomas, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota.
A better measurement of what Fleck’s team accomplished last year can be found in four games in the middle of the season. Starting Oct. 5, they beat Illinois, 40-17; Nebraska, 34-7; Rutgers, 42-7; and Maryland, 52-10. The total margin of victory over those four Big Ten opponents was 125 points. How often has Minnesota had a run like that within the conference? Only once before.
That was in 1934, when the Maroon and Gold went undefeated and were the consensus national champions. In a four-game stretch, the Gophers beat Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Chicago by a combined total of 128 points, just three more than the current squad. (By the way, Chicago was led by Jay Berwanger, the first winner of the Heisman Trophy. Michigan State replaced Chicago in the conference in the late 1940s.)
When Fleck arrived in Minnesota, my first impression was that he was another song-and-dance type. I now admit I was wrong. We have had such coaches come through here before, but the reality is that it has been 53 years since the Gophers even shared a Big Ten title. Mediocrity has reigned.
Hearing Fleck speak, one quickly understands that he is a force with which to be reckoned. He said, “My mother took me to the pediatrician three times. She said, ‘There’s something wrong with my child. He has more energy than anyone I’ve ever seen.’”
Fleck brought with him his “Row the Boat” mantra, which some people think is just a gimmick, but you should first know that his second son died in 2011. He told us, “When you hold your child when he dies, it will change your life forever.”
Every penny raised from selling “Row the Boat” paraphernalia goes to the Masonic Children’s Hospital.
As a Gopher fan, all I ask is that the team be competitive, winning its share of conference championships, and also that it not embarrass the state’s citizens with criminal behavior or cheating as the U of M’s athletic programs occasionally have in the past.
Fleck was successful at Western Michigan, taking a team to the Cotton Bowl, before he came to Minnesota. He said he is doing the same thing here as he did at Western. He’s not just trying to win football games; he’s trying to change the culture, which is a much more difficult thing to do. “I am not for everybody,” he said. “I’m not here to be liked.”
Regardless, one of the things I like about Fleck is that he is doing more than preparing players for the NFL. He has them all take a class on how to manage their finances because, he said, 77% of the players are bankrupt within three years of leaving the National Football League.
His teams have been showing improved grade point averages at both Western Michigan and Minnesota. At Western Michigan, the collective GPA went steadily upward from 2.46 in 2013 to 3.14 in 2016. At Minnesota it went from 3.07 in 2017 to 3.21 last year.
Under Fleck’s system, if players skip classes, they pay. If they fail a drug test, they are gone. “If you want to live a life worth remembering,” he said, “it will never be easy.”
He is also teaching them to give back to the community, becoming involved in various community service projects. “If you are having problems in your life,” he said, “get your butt out there and serve.”
On bad teams, he said, nobody leads. On average teams, coaches lead. On elite teams, players lead. So, when he recruits, he looks at players’ stories more than their ratings from the recruiting services. He noted that Auburn, the team Minnesota beat in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, had 58 four-star players while Minnesota had only five. Fleck himself was told he was too small, too short, too young to play in the NFL. He looks for players who have something to prove, just like he did.
He concluded, 95% of people are afraid of the scrutiny. He wants people who are not afraid to be criticized, people who are not afraid to be elite. “I took the job at the University of Minnesota to be legendary, not to be average,” he said.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.