Tag Archives: gophers

Easiest schedule in Big Ten football? It’s the Gophers

Most college football coaches who take over programs are wise to manage expectations in the early years, and Gophers coach P.J. Fleck is no exception.

The Gophers are still inexperienced at several key positions going into Fleck’s second year — quarterback being chief among them — and any coaching change brings about a new way of doing things. Fleck’s culture change, one would imagine, is more dramatic than most. Hence, the urging of fans to be patient.

But if you’re looking for one area where the Gophers should have an edge over their Big Ten peers this season, it’s in the slate of foes who will line up across from them. The Gophers’ schedule looks objectively favorable, and CBS Sports has taken it a step further.

Using a methodology that includes the five-year history of teams, whether games are at home or on the road and whether teams are coming off bye weeks, the site says the Gophers’ 2018 schedule is the easiest of all 14 Big Ten teams.

The site points to a favorable home slate: non-conference games against New Mexico State, Fresno State and Miami (Ohio) as well as conference games against Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers do have five Big Ten road games — including at Ohio State and Wisconsin — but CBS Sports concludes that “it won’t be easy, but compared to their Big Ten brethren, it might be easier than others.”

We’ll see if that — plus another year of growth within Fleck’s system — is enough to help the Gophers improve substantially on their 5-7 finish in Fleck’s first year. Given the schedule, at least gaining bowl eligibility (a low bar to clear, but still) is a place to start.

U coach P.J. Fleck finding ‘fun’ in building starting QB from scratch

There’s an old expression in football that says if a team has two potential starting quarterbacks, it really has zero starting quarterbacks.

The Gophers used both Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda at the position last season, and the results were often less than ideal during P.J. Fleck’s 5-7 debut.

But what if a team has four quarterbacks?

Sorry, still zero starters.

But that’s the position the Gophers football team and Fleck find themselves in this year after Croft transferred and Rhoda graduated. After a few spring practices, there isn’t really any more clarity on how things will sort themselves out when the Gophers open the season Aug. 30 vs. New Mexico State.

The candidates are redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan, junior college transfer Vic Viramontes, sophomore Seth Green and true freshman Zack Annexstad. They are all tied in a very important category: Division I passes thrown (zero), meaning this is a true competition in every sense. Fleck has already said he’d prefer to settle on one starter instead of using two QBs this season.

But figuring things out is going to be … fun? That’s at least part of how Fleck is approaching it.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do there. We have a bunch of guys that have never thrown a pass in college football. That’s not an excuse, that’s just reality,” Fleck said Tuesday evening at the conclusion of practice. “That’s the fun of it. We get to develop from the ground up. But I think we’re making strides. … We have to take major, major steps forward as we continue in the spring.”

Fleck said practices have been different already this spring because of the inexperience at the position. Coaches are running more simulated scrimmages and pushing the tempo to get the young QBs up to speed as quickly as possible.

Fleck wants to evaluate the candidates on “the things we talk about making an elite quarterback around here. Getting the ball at your hand, making decisive decisions, moving in the pocket well, being comfortable in those positions,” he said. “It’s hard when you’ve never really played quarterback and thrown passes. It’s difficult to do as you’re becoming ‘the guys.’ I can’t say ‘the guy’ because we don’t have a guy yet, but the guys.”

Green and Morgan have an edge in leadership so far, Fleck said, simply because they are returning players familiar with the program and their surroundings. Viramontes and Annexstad are “just finding a way to get themselves in the right spot and throw to the right guy,” but Fleck is confident their leadership will shine through as the spring and summer wear on.

As the process plays out, Fleck said he expects the four to separate themselves not only with their skills but with the amount of work they put into their craft. Less than six months from now, four will become one — and we’ll no longer be able to say the Gophers don’t have a QB on their roster who has thrown a Division I pass.

Gophers practice in new facility for first time; Lynch will practice, Pitino says

There might not be a perfect word to describe everything that is happening with the Gophers men’s basketball program right now, but star forward Jordan Murphy came up with a pretty good one at Tuesday’s media access in advance of Wednesday’s game at Northwestern.

“This week’s been very eventful, obviously, with the injury and suspension and stuff,” Murphy said.

The injury refers to starter Amir Coffey, whose right shoulder problem kept him out of Saturday’s loss to Indiana and has him out indefinitely. He will not play against Northwestern, head coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday.

Same goes for big man Reggie Lynch, who was suspended Friday after an investigation found that he violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy. Lynch is eligible to practice with the team during his suspension, which he is appealing.

When asked Tuesday if Lynch has practiced since last week’s ruling, Pitino said, “He didn’t do much (Monday) just because I’m more focused on the guys who are playing more than anything. But he was there. It was more of a short (practice) because we’re so banged up right now, but he is there if need be with certain things.”

Pitino did say that Lynch will practice with the team going forward.

Against that backdrop, Tuesday marked the Gophers’ first practice inside their new facility at the Bob Eddy Court of the Cunningham Basketball Performance Center, located in the new Athletes Village complex.

“This is amazing,” Murphy said. “I’ve never been in a building like this, ever. Just to be able to call this our own … is a big honor.”

Even that good news for the long-term future of the program, though, is juxtaposed against questions about the short-term future.

Media access was held just inside the doors of the new facility, with a screen-print style mural covering the inside wall. On it was a picture of four players: the injured Eric Curry and Coffey, as well as healthy starters Nate Mason and Murphy.

The two injured players in the mural, along with the lingering Lynch suspension, serve as a reminder of how a season that began with promise has continued to take negative turns.

“We’re just trying to keep our heads up and not feel sorry for ourselves,” Murphy said, adding that the team had a meeting Monday in which the goal was to not “lose sight of what we’re really here to do.”

Davonte Fitzgerald, whose role and minutes as a “stretch four” style of power forward figure to increase significantly with Lynch out and Murphy being used more at center, said Pitino “got on us” at that Monday meeting but that the ensuing dialogue was good.

“It all hit us out of nowhere, especially day before the game,” Fitzgerald said. “Now reality has really set in and it’s about how we’re going got move forward. … We had to talk it out and get it all out.”

With the Gophers sitting at 13-4, 2-2 in the Big Ten while missing so many key players, a season that started with Minnesota being mentioned as a dark horse Final Four candidate feels a lot different now.

“Do we feel like with who we have, can we go win some games? Can we still go do what we’re hoping to do, which is make the tournament?” Pitino said, reiterating some of his message to his players. “I believe we can, and they believe we can.”

For Gophers football fans, the vision should be 2020 (and beyond)

The Gophers football program and head coach P.J. Fleck deserve the victory lap they were able to take Wednesday, when they delivered the most highly regarded recruiting class around here in almost a decade, if not of all-time.

Fleck was brought in to provide energy and build a program, with recruiting at the heart of his message. He’s been everything as advertised so far.

At times like this, it’s easy to get swept up in the momentum. It’s just as important, then, to hit the pause button around signing day to remember that winning the recruiting battles leads to eventual success — not immediate success — on the field.

If you’re a Gophers football fan, your vision should be 2020 and beyond.

That’s the season when these recruits — the first group Fleck was able to spend an entire cycle pursuing at Minnesota — will be in their third year in the program. Those who stick and devleop will be redshirt sophomores or true juniors, depending on quickly they earn their way onto the field.

That would be Fleck’s fourth season, which seems to be a magic number if we look at a couple of meaningful (if imperfect) parallels.

In his previous head coaching job at Western Michigan, Fleck went 1-11 in his first season, 8-5 in both of his next two seasons and then 13-1 (with a competitive Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin) in the fourth year.

Fleck is often compared at Minnesota to Richard Pitino, another young coach who preached patience after taking over for a regime that had experienced some success but not quite enough of it.

Pitino’s Gophers had enough holdovers to just miss the NCAA tourney his first year, instead winning the NIT title. They faded his second year and bottomed out his third year before jolting forward with 24 wins and an NCAA tourney berth last season — year four.

Fleck’s Gophers were 5-7 last season. They might have been able to squeeze another win and bowl game appearance out of their talent and schedule, but ultimately the program would have been in the same spot as it is now.

Fleck’s Year 2 Gophers — and their fans — should expect more competent QB play if junior college transfer Vic Viramontes is as good as his numbers suggest. Next year’s schedule is friendly enough that a spot in a bowl game is a reasonable expectation as long as the QB play is upgraded.

We might say the same thing about 2019, Year 3, as well. The first five Big Ten games that year — at Purdue, vs. Illinois, vs. Nebraska, at Rutgers, vs. Maryland — are potentially cushy enough for Minnesota to arrive a year early, at least in the standings.

But 2020, Year 4, is where sights should be set in terms of real and meaningful expectations. The schedule is less forgiving, but by then it shouldn’t matter. If Fleck has done the job he wants to do, the Gophers — led by this year’s incoming class and other classes that follow — should be competitive against pretty much every opponent.

If we’re talking in December 2020 not just about a meaningful recruiting class but a meaningful bowl game, you will likely be able to trace its origins back to Wednesday. Now it’s just a matter of watching and waiting.

Richard Pitino, Gophers working to avoid ‘illusion’ of being good

The Gophers men’s basketball team was ranked No. 14 in the most recent Associated Press poll. That figures to go down a little after the loss earlier in the week at Nebraska, but the Gophers have been ranked all season.

They have been branded as “good,” and for good reason after returning plenty of talented players (and adding some more) from last year’s NCAA tournament team.

That said, because the Gophers have already been told they are good, this year also presents a different challenge for players and particularly head coach Richard Pitino. Countless teams in countless sports, both locally and nationally, have struggled through an adjustment period in the season following unexpected success.

In advance of another key December game at Arkansas on Saturday, Pitino talked Friday about making sure his players know the difference between perception and reality.

“People are telling us we’re good. So the illusion of people telling us that we’re good should not mean that we’re good,” Pitino said. “We can’t fall into the trap of the illusion that just because people tell us we’re going to beat Miami at home because it’s a great atmosphere. That’s not really why you’re going to win. So it is a challenge. I found it a lot easier when people told us we were going to stink to get everyone to band together.”

Pitino referenced last season, when the Gophers were barely ranked all year but wound up with the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“Everyone told us we stunk last year, and we weren’t ranked,” he said. “Rankings are great for fans, but in my ideal world it would almost be like the college football playoff. Don’t unveil rankings until like late January. … We have games to play, and we have to get better.”

Believing their own hype was far from the only reason the Gophers struggled in that loss at Nebraska. There were some questionable calls. It was a tough environment.

“The biggest thing they have to understand, and it’s so early, but when the elements hit you — crowd gets into it, a call you don’t like — that’s when you have to get stronger, tougher, better together,” Pitino said. “That’s where I thought (Thursday’s) practice was really good.”

As for the broader message of not believing their own hype? It sounds like the players are hearing that, too.

“We just have to take the mindset of not thinking teams are going to roll over for us just because we have a top-25 ranking,” big man Reggie Lynch said. “We need to flush that down the toilet and understand every team is going to try to come at us this year because we have that number in front of us. There aren’t going to be easy games throughout the season.”

Fleck’s struggles in 2017 show that a coaching change was the right move

The Gophers football team was shut out in its final two games this season, with bowl eligibility on the line, by a combined score of 70-0. In the game before that, Minnesota put up 54 points in a win over woeful Nebraska. Before that? 20 points combined in losses to Michigan and Iowa.

This thudding end to P.J. Fleck’s 5-7 debut season took another turn after the Wisconsin loss, when quarterback Demry Croft asked for his release from the program, which the U will grant.

Combine the poor finish with the rah-rah nature of Fleck — and, oh, 50 years filled with a lot of hard times for Gophers football — and you have a restless fan base wondering what the heck is going on in Dinkytown. In the most unscientific of polls — seriously, the flat earth guy launching himself in a rocket is deploying more science than we are here, so be wary — Star Tribune voters graded Fleck’s Year 1 performance. Out of about 1,000 votes, only 7 percent gave him an A or a B. That left 26 percent with a “C” grade and a full 66 percent at either D or F.

What I imagine those folks must be thinking is something like this: Didn’t this team win nine games, including a bowl game, last year under former coach Tracy Claeys? What in the world is going on?

Here’s the thing, though: This season was destined to be mediocre at best regardless of who was coaching the team. Because for all the chatter about changing the culture — real talk, don’t get me wrong — the biggest challenge Fleck faced in his first year (Year Zero, if we let him define it) was a stunning lack of talent, particularly on offense.

For all of Mitch Leidner’s inconsistency as a quarterback, there were two things you knew about him: 1) He was a better runner than passer, but he would pass well enough often enough to win you some games. 2) Though it seemed like he might play forever — 47 career games and 41 career starts don’t lie — there was no doubt 2016 was going to be his final year of eligibility.

Though it wasn’t necessarily for a lack of trying, the previous coaching staff created a shaky (at best) succession plan after Leidner was done. This offense was going to struggle regardless of who was coaching this year, and as Chip Scoggins notes it’s not just a QB problem. This team needs receivers and offensive linemen, too.

Had he remained the coach, Claeys with his defensive acumen and the continuity from year-to-year might have been enough for the Gophers to squeeze out another win this season against a soft schedule, allowing them to go to a bowl game.

And you could argue that by virtue of a 9-4 season in 2016 — analyzing just on performance, without any off-field controversy taken into account — Claeys deserved a chance to stay.

It’s impossible to know for sure how Claeys would have fared this year. The unknown is the fuel for almost every great sports argument/discussion that is worth having. But the suspicion here is the Gophers would have won been a far cry from nine wins this year had the old regime stayed in place, given the talent we saw on display in 2017.

We do know that every other coach in recent Gophers history who took over at the start of a season actually won fewer games than Fleck did in his first year: Jim Wacker (2), Glen Mason (3), Tim Brewster (1) and Jerry Kill (3). We know that Fleck seemed to inherit a better situation than most (if not all, with Brewster being the debatable one) of those coaches.

But the offense he inherited was a mess, and the defense he inherited lost a bunch of talent in recent years.

We don’t know yet if Fleck was the right hire. But what we saw this year, in Fleck’s struggle, was that a coaching change was the right move.

Gophers, Vikings made history by scoring a combined 92 points

The Gophers have had high-octane offenses who feasted on weak nonconference opponents in past years. The Vikings had a team in 1998 that set an NFL record for points in a season at the time, and they’ve had several other turbo-charged offensive teams in other years.

But in a combined history spanning more than half a century, the Gophers and Vikings had never done what they did this past weekend, when a scuffling first-year head coach of one team and a defensive-minded head coach of another led their teams to a combined 92 points against Nebraska and Washington.

That’s the most these two teams have ever combined to score in one weekend.

Yes, this is a weird sort of “record” only discovered because I was strangely curious about it and looked it up this afternoon, painstakingly comparing season-by-season results for each team dating back to the Vikings’ first year (1961).

They have combined to reach the 80s a few times and had some near-misses when big outputs missed each other by a weekend. But if you like points from the Division I college football team and the NFL team in Minnesota, this past weekend was as good as it has ever been.

The Gophers started things off with a 54-21 rout of Nebraska on Saturday. It was their biggest output of the season, and perhaps a surprising one at that even considering the Huskers’ struggles. Minnesota, after all, had combined to score just 44 points in its previous three games combined.

The Vikings kept it going with 38 points at Washington — their highest total of the season as well.

The Gophers had scored at least 50 points 15 other times — and had tallied at least 60 points in five of those games — since the Vikings came into existence. But each time, the Vikings either didn’t play or didn’t score enough to push the total higher than 92.

Likewise, the Vikings have had plenty of big scoring days — they topped 40 points five different times in 1998 alone — but the biggest ones have never managed to line up with the Gophers’ biggest days.

There were some near-misses along the way. The 2004 Gophers opened on Sept. 4 with a 63-21 win over Toledo, but the Vikings didn’t open the season until the following Sunday when they put up 35 points against Dallas on Sept. 12.

The 2001 Gophers put up 66 points on Murray State on Oct. 27. The Vikings had topped 30 points each of the previous two weeks but mustered just 14 points that weekend at Tampa Bay.

The biggest combined weekend I could find other than this past one came in 1969, when the Gophers defeated Wisconsin 35-10 and the Vikings routed the Steelers 52-14 on Nov. 22-23 for a total of 87 points.

As @tgagemurphy noted on Twitter, the 92 combined points by the Gophers and Vikings were ALMOST as many as St. Thomas scored on its own this weekend in a 97-0 Division III rout of St. Olaf.

And finding a weekend when the two teams combined to allow more than 92 points? Well, a few savvy Twitter followers noted that was pretty easy considering Nebraska beat the Gophers 84-13 on Sept. 17, 1983. The Vikings only gave up 16 the next day, but that’s an even 100.

I’m not sure if that’s a record, but it’s a lot of points.

P.J. Fleck’s graph makes him an easy target, but he’s right about success

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, with his “Row The Boat” mantra, relentless energy and 4-5 record in his debut season, has made himself a pretty easy target for criticism and/or fun at his expense.

The latest example came Tuesday at his weekly news conference. About 8 minutes in (full video on this link), as Fleck was talking about expectations and the process the Gophers are going through, the coach began to draw on two pieces of paper.

On the first, he drew a diagonal arrow — a straight, smooth line that gained height. “This is what everybody thinks success is, right?” he said to the assembled media. “You start here, we hire the guy, and there he goes. We’re going to win, and we’re going to keep winning because we had change. That’s not realistic.”

Then he made a second drawing of a jagged line. It started out high, dipped down, then crept up and down at intervals until finally getting higher than it started. “This is what success really looks like. … There are going to be a lot of peaks and valleys. … There is going to be doubt and criticism. I hear everybody. I get it. Nobody likes to lose. When we haven’t won a championship in 50 years everybody wants it to be this year. And i’m with you. … It just takes a while to get there.”

The jagged graph became a “Twitter moment” with the heading, “Minnesota football’s graph of success isn’t all that inspiring.” Fleck, in trying to prove a point, had become a punchline.

But really, this is how it’s worked for Fleck throughout his playing career. This is how it worked at Western Michigan, before he was hired here.

This is also how it has worked at Minnesota with whatever relative success the football program has achieved.

The Gophers have ousted five football coaches in the last quarter-century. None of the coaches hired as replacements had more wins in their first year than the departing coach had in his final year.

John Gutekunst was 2-9 in his final year in 1991. So was his replacement, Jim Wacker, in 1992.

Wacker went 4-7 in his final year, 1996. Glen Mason was 3-9 in his first season, 1997.

Mason went 6-7 in his final year, 2006. Tim Brewster went 1-11 in his first year, 2007.

Brewster (and interim Jeff Horton) went 3-9 in their final year, 2010. So did Jerry Kill in his first year, 2011.

Kill retired midway through 2015 and Tracy Claeys took over. Claeys went 9-4 in his final year, 2016. Fleck’s Gophers are 4-5 this season and will win a maximum of eight games even if they win their remaining conference games and a bowl game.

Mason, Brewster and Kill all went to bowl games by Year 3. Mason and Kill built the Gophers to much higher levels than their immediate predecessors.

The arguable difference with Fleck, of course, is that he inherited a program that went 9-4 and was in better shape than the messes a lot of previous Gophers coaches inherited.

While acknowledging that’s true, the counter-argument to that is two-fold: 1) Had the Gophers stuck with Claeys in 2017, they very well might be struggling just as much this year. We’ll never know, but it’s certainly possible given the roster turnover. 2) A new college coach with a new system and new culture is inevitably going to struggle regardless of talent level because change is hard.

Should the Gophers have a better record this year? Maybe. Their schedule was certainly favorable enough to suggest a better immediate trajectory.

But does it matter that much whether the Gophers win five, six or seven games this year? Not really. All that really matters for a program that hasn’t won even a piece of the conference title in a half-century is whether Fleck ultimately can build a program that perennially — not just every so often — has a chance to win nine, 10 or 11 games.

That’s a point on the chart Fleck drew Tuesday that we can’t see. Nobody knows if the Gophers will get there, but Fleck’s notion of how the Gophers would get there, if they do, is correct.

Goldy Gopher runs over youth football player during Vikings mascot game

On the list of controversial topics to come out of Sunday’s slate of NFL games, this ranks pretty low.

But it has come to my attention that there was a mascot vs. youth football players game at U.S. Bank Stadium as part of the Vikings vs. Buccaneers halftime festivities.

Goldy Gopher — perhaps inspired by P.J. Fleck, the 120 mph Gophers football head coach who was on hand for the ceremonial sounding of the Gjallarhorn — took a pitch, ran right, showed an elite burst of speed to turn the corner … and then basically ran over a young defender on his way to the end zone.

Ben Krause got a fantastic picture of it (shown above with his permission), but seeing it all happen in real time makes it more cringe-worthy.

It was enough, in fact, to get former running back LaDainian Tomlinson talking about it on NFL Gameday Prime along with former defensive back Deion Sanders.

“Who does he think he is?” Tomlinson bellows at one point as the highlight is shown. “This is a little kid right there. Man, you can’t do that.”

Tomlinson then evoked his best Mike Gundy impersonation, challenging Goldy to pick on someone his own size. “I’m a grown man,” Tomlinson shouted. “I’m 38.” (That epic Gundy rant, by the way, just celebrated its 10th anniversary).

Goldy doesn’t seem to upset about it. The mascot’s Twitter feed from yesterday is filled with links to the video of his play. On one Goldy writes, Put me in ! I think I still have some eligibility left!!! .”

Maybe Tomlinson is right. Next halftime should be former NFL players vs. mascots. Then we can have some real fun.

TCF Bank Stadium getting huge food upgrades for Gophers football

When Target Field opened in 2010, it revealed itself as more than just a ballpark. Among other things, it almost instantly became one of the best open air summer dining destinations in the Twin Cities.

Partnering with local institutions such as Murray’s (steak sandwich) gave fans extra reasons to check out the new ballpark and keep coming back.

“It was designed to be a really large restaurant in many ways,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said Thursday.

It also changed the game for pretty much every other sporting venue in the area.

Soon after, the Wild and Timberwolves were taking a page from the Twins’ playbook by attempting to lure fans (and media members before them with preview tastings) with restaurant quality options that went beyond the standard stadium fare of hot dogs and popcorn.

U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Vikings, did an extensive rollout of specialty food items before opening in 2016.

It was only a matter of time, then, until the University of Minnesota jumped into the game in earnest. On Thursday, TCF Bank Stadium hosted a food tasting event designed to showcase some of the new foods that will be offered at Gophers football games this season.

“I think (other teams) prodded us forward,” said John Cunningham, Gophers deputy athletic director. “We looked around the city and realized we have to step up our game and increase value.”

If you’re going to get into this game, you’d better do it right. The Twins model, St. Peter said, was built on picking the right brands and making their food partners feel like it was special and valuable to be inside Target Field. It appears the Gophers duplicated that nicely with their choices of both partners and food options.

Ike’s Restaurant, Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, Curds & Cakes, and Jax Cafe will offer a menu of items while operating in what Gophers officials is a revamped west end of the stadium on gamedays. That area, which is open to all fans in the stadium, will also include a standing room drink rail and new beer options (to be announced soon).

Every item sampled Thursday had appeal. None of the meal-sized items were more than $12, while the smaller items were more in the $6-8 range. The loaded tater tots ($10) from Jax Café and the jerk chicken and pork bowls ($11-12) from Pimento Jamaican Kitchen were particularly good.

It makes sense, of course. Teams can correctly pitch such upgrades as initiatives that cater to fans’ changing expectations and needs. The modern fan doesn’t always have time for separate trips to a restaurant and a game. If you can combine the experiences, though, it’s win-win. Teams, meanwhile, can reap additional revenues from specialty food items that are in demand and typically more expensive than regular stadium fare but no more pricey than, say, what a fan would find at a restaurant.

“This is really focused on the fan experience,” Cunningham said. “Hopefully, any revenue would come just because we were offering a better experience. We want people to come into the stadium and feel really good about the food options.”