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.