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Minnesota Football Recruiting: PJ Fleck won't sweat the weather and neither should you

Uff da, it gets cold up here dontcha know?

Ohio State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Did you know that it gets cold in Minnesota during the winter? If that fact eluded you, Ian Boyd is here to remind you not once but three times(!) in an article about the recruiting challenges facing P.J. Fleck. Boyd argues that Minnesota struggles to recruit talent because it is cold during the winter, in contrast to warm places like Florida.

On the one hand there is some truth to this. It is easier to develop football players when they can play outside year round. Minnesota tends to produce fewer high caliber athletes than states with comparable populations in warmer climates. Indoor sports are different story, but it is a fact that the state produces few four and five star recruits. Why then write an piece responding? Three reasons. First, dude come on, we know it’s cold in the winter here. Second, weather is not the reason that Minnesota does not recruit well. Third, the weather’s impact on schemes is less important than Boyd alleges.

Reading the article, I wondered if Boyd has ever actually been to a place where it is cold. For example, the phrase playing in ice makes no sense. More importantly, it’s not that much colder in Minneapolis than in Madison, Iowa City, Ann Arbor, East Lansing, or Evanston. It has snowed in every one of those places during the football season in the last decade. Cold weather is a fact of life in Big Ten football.

To Boyd’s credit, he added in the comments that because Minnesota produces few NCAA recruits they need to beat out other BIG powers for regional talent or beat out southern schools for non regional talent. In his view, the latter is difficult because “The cold weather makes a huge difference in recruiting the southern kids, especially the ones with lots of options. Why would they want to come to the coldest metroplex in the nation if they could go to a dozen other places?”

That is not a lot of extra credit. The first point happens to be the definition of recruiting. In order to have a good recruiting class, Minnesota will need to beat out competitors for recruits. Recruits tend to play close to home, and schools in the middle of talent hotbeds tend to be better at recruiting. Because Minnesota is not in a talent rich area, it will have more difficulty recruiting. This is equally true of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska.

The second one is also true for any northern school going into the south. Embedded within this point is an assumption that recruiting rankings are good (somewhat debatable), predictive (more debatable), and exogenous to the process (not a damn chance). The last point is important and often gets lost when discussing recruiting challenges. Schools that rank high in recruiting rankings tend to always rank high in recruit rankings. As Paul Johnson noted, “When’s the last time the University of Georgia didn’t have a top-10 recruiting class? So Coach Dooley was a great recruiter, Ray Goff was a great recruiter, Jim Donnan was a great recruiter, Mark Richt’s a great recruiter. Who was a bad one? Because I don’t remember having a coach when they weren’t top 10.”

As someone who has spent their entire life following Minnesota football, I can assure everyone that the historical reasons Minnesota has not successfully recruited a southern player with 12 good offers has nothing to do with the cold. They have struggled to get that recruit because for most of the last forty years is that Minnesota has been awful at football. Couple that with an administration that was at best disinterested in athletics and Minnesota struggled to recruit.

Much has changed in the last five years. Minnesota’s administration has begun a massive investment in athletics. Fleck will have a brand new facility in 2018 to sell to recruits along with an athletic director that cares quite a bit about the football program’s success. He also inherits a team who won more games in the last four years than any other iteration over the last forty.

Boyd’s second point is that Fleck’s scheme is unlikely to survive the tundra like conditions of Minnesota. That’s weak tea as an argument. It is not dramatically colder in Minneapolis than Chicago (and less windy!), yet Northwestern seems to do just fine with a spread option scheme.

Moreover, taking Boyd’s article as gospel, the keys to Fleck’s offense appear to be the following.

  1. Have big strong offensive lineman to bash the defense around.
  2. Have a QB who can make good decisions and have a high completion/low turnover rate
  3. Have an explosive playmaker of some sort at wide receiver or tight end who can beat man coverage
  4. Have Running backs that force the defense to add players to the box

Has Minnesota been able to run that kind of offense in the last 15 years when it was just as cold? Perhaps with offensive lineman with Scandinavian names like Setterstrom and Eslinger opening up holes for guys named Barber and Maroney? Maybe a receiver named Ellerson or tight ends named Speath and Utecht to run play action when defense stacked the box?

Yep, Boyd is describing the ideal Glen Mason offense circa 2003. Mason would have run the exact same offense in TCF Bank Stadium, so the Metrodome is not a valid difference. While there are differences in approach, Fleck and Glen Mason have the exact same running scheme (inside and outside zone). They like different passing concepts, but there’s reason to believe that the differences are the result of the evolution of the game as opposed to a philosophical difference.

Here’s the kicker. Mason’s offense that year revolved around kids from the upper Midwest. Mason found that talent because he was a good developer of offensive talent and because recruiting services tend to underrate northern players. Fleck appears to be good at this as well. See, for example, Corey Davis, the projected first round pick from that notable southern city of Chicago, Illinois.

Minnesota is not going to win many battles for kids with twelve offers regardless of Fleck’s ability to recruit. They also should not have to because the number of players with twelve offers as good or better than a Minnesota offer is small in a given year. This does not mean that Minnesota should not attempt to recruit the south. There is too much talent to ignore the south in the same way that no self respecting hockey program would avoid recruiting Minnesota. That does not mean though that the only good football players come from where it is warm. After all, it is not balmy in Michigan or Ohio in November.

Fleck will have a list of challenges recruiting to Minnesota and winning games. The temperature will be close to the bottom. Using it as a narrative has always been lazy, and hopefully Fleck’s team will start winning games so outside observers will have to spend some time researching in places other than Weather Underground.