Succeeding where others have failed is the job description of most head coaches, but particularly Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck.
He accomplished a measure of that last season in guiding the Gophers to an 11-2 season filled with milestones, exposure and a final Associated Press poll ranking of No. 10 in the country.
Such a season seemed nearly impossible to many long-suffering fans.
And now it gets harder.
Local sports history is littered with examples of teams that had surprising success and then failed to duplicate it the next year.
The Twins and Vikings both made the playoffs in 2017 and 2019; in between was a disappointing year, and both will try to avoid the same fate in 2020. The same is true of the Gophers men’s basketball team with its 2017 and 2019 NCAA tourney appearances and comedowns in 2018 and 2020. The Wild made the playoffs six years in a row from 2013-18, but its progress stalled.
Different versions of those teams are naturally compared against one another, but as Fleck said Monday in advance of spring practice opening Tuesday, “Comparisons steal your joy. If we compare this year to last year, anybody is going to find somehow, some way – wins, losses or any statistic known to man – where we didn’t measure up. And it could be a failure. We’re not going to allow that to happen.”
If Fleck’s Gophers succeed where those teams failed – and, you know, where a half-century of Gophers teams also failed – he will ascend to a different echelon.
Then again, none of those teams probably invoked a mantra involving bamboo in their quest to take another step.
“Grow higher” is the theme of this year’s Gophers, Fleck said, and bamboo is the vehicle by which he is delivering the message because “it takes three years to build underground by the time it actually shoots to the top. Year four is where you see it shoot 90 to 110 feet in the air,” he said.
This of course is Year four for Fleck in Minnesota, and he promised “you’re going to see bamboo trees everywhere.”
As for the house analogy Fleck has been fond of as a means of describing the stage of development of his program: this year is the installation of the windows.
“You can look out and see whatever it is you want to see. … However, different from last year – in which we didn’t have any windows – we were picked sixth in the (Big Ten) West. That probably won’t happen this year. Now we have windows the outside world wants to peek inside and see.”
Whatever your reaction to that, this much is true: Fleck’s approach is probably the best way to manage expectations while continuing to ascend.
Teams that have failed in the past have often been buried under the weight of sudden external expectations.
“Those don’t matter internally to our football program,” Fleck said of outside expectations, “but we have to make (players) aware of those things because when they leave our walls they’re going to hear those things. … Our internal has to be more powerful.”
Powerful enough to overcome the force of history.