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Does PJ Fleck have to leave Minnesota to prove he’s Elite?

You don’t have to coach at Alabama or Michigan to prove yourself. Winning will do it for you.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know, to be considered a top tier head college football coach you have to leave your lowly pathetic Power-5 school to coach at a tried and true blue blood school? No really, I’m serious, just ask Fox Sports Stewart Mandel. Which sadly means only one thing, the Gophers will definitely lose PJ Fleck after he gets the team to Pasadena in the next few years since that will be the only way he can prove he is an elite coach.

Let’s back up a second and see how we got here. In Mandel’s February 22nd Mailbag he was asked the following:

As you can see, Rod is from Montana, so one can assume he is just a college football fan, not a Gopher homer who asks these types of questions. Personally, I think the first question is a very fair question. My answer to that would be Washington and Clemson proved this year any team can get there in any given year (keep Washington and Clemson in mind as they will come up again later).

Here’s the first part of Mandel’s response:

These are all fair points, though I do wonder what Nick Saban could do in East Lansing today with all of the resources available to Mark Dantonio. Saban didn’t have the same resources available to him. Up until he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Saban had also been a career climber always looking for his next stop so there were no signs he would become the coach he is today. Whereas, Dantonio has been in East Lansing for ten years and has seen his building project all the way through. Also, the Nick Saban that took over Michigan State 22 years ago wasn’t the Nick Saban that took over Alabama.

I understand what Rod is asking with the second question. But I’m troubled by it. What Nick Saban is doing at Alabama has never been done before over such a long period of time at any school. He’s won four national titles and was on the cusp winning a couple more. It’s hard to fathom this type of run of dominance if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes. Think back to the run USC had under Pete Carroll; everyone believed that type of dominance would never be seen again. That USC run lasted for four years and then it was over. Yes, yes they had the sanctions and everyone bolted, but they weren’t going to keep that run up forever. What Saban is doing at Alabama is now going on ten years and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Quite frankly, it’s amazing Alabama ever loses a game with the type of talent they bring in year after year. So I don’t think it is really fair or realistic to expect any coach, anywhere to do what Saban has done at Alabama. I’d also point out, it might not be four national titles type of success, but I think Mark Dantonio might have something to say about being able to sustain success at Michigan State.

Mandel then went on to talk about PJ Fleck and the Gophers. I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but there are four points he made that I take umbrage with for a few different reasons.

Here’s the first quote I have an issue with:

Maybe I’m just nitpicking here, but knowing the Gophers are a favorite whipping boy of Mandel’s ever since he picked them to reach the BCS Title game in 2003, I read that as him making the Gophers out to being one of the worst B1G teams for “several decades” when that has been proven absolutely wrong. Have they had some bad years, of course, but they have historically been a mid-level B1G team. Mandel’s snarkiness towards the Gophers is right up there with a certain local curmudgeonly media member who would make this type of claim.

Again, I’m probably nitpicking, but Mandel brought up the 10-win 2003 season like that was the last time they’ve had any type of success. Why not mention they were a 9-win team this year? Why not mention they have been one half of football from winning two of the last three B1G West titles? The answer is simple, it’s again to make it look like the Gophers have been bottom feeders for the past 14 years. As much as we may dislike Tim Brewster and as bad as it was under him, the fact is, he still won some football games in the middle years he was here. Just like we can’t ignore the really bad years under Brewster, we also can’t forget they were right there at the end three of the past four years under Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys. Unfortunately, Mandel has decided the past four years never happened.

The next point that struck a nerve with me is the following:

Mandel is probably right in the fact the Watson’s of the world aren’t going to flock here in droves. But who is to say Fleck won’t start bringing Watson caliber players here? We all know Fleck isn’t afraid to recruit against the Saban’s and Urban Meyer’s of the world for those types of players. Whereas Kill/Claeys refused to even get into the game with them on account they didn’t think it was worth the time. I could be wrong, though I don’t think I am, Fleck is going to win his share of recruiting battles for the Watson caliber players. They may not flock here in droves but Fleck is going to raise the overall talent level here.

As for fans being “stoked” about Brennan Armstrong. Well, I think this is a pretty broad statement to make without knowing or stating all of the facts. Yes, Armstrong is currently a 3-star ranked composite player. But all of the services indicate he will most likely be a 4-star when it is all said and done. So do fans have a reason to be excited about him, I’d say yes. The other thing Mandel left out is the fact people are excited because for the first time in five years the Gophers have recruited a quarterback, not an athlete who plays quarterback. Not since Phillip Nelson was recruited have the Gophers recruited a pure quarterback. Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys philosophy on recruiting quarterbacks was position flexibility. They wanted athletes that could change positions if QB didn’t work out for them. Love or hate Mitch Leidner, there is a reason he was the best option at quarterback for the past three years. The Gophers now have a coach who wants pure quarterbacks, not athletes who play quarterback. So I am sorry Mr. Mandel if that gets the fans a little excited.

This last part of Mandel’s response circles us back to the beginning:

Do any of these names do anything for you? Chris Petersen, David Shaw, Gary Patterson, Dabo Swinney and Mark Dantonio. There are a couple more names I could add but I think you get the point. This is just my opinion but every single one of them are elite head coaches, yet every single one of them are not head coaches at a “blue blood”. Does that take away from what they have accomplished at their respective schools? Chris Petersen just took Washington to the CFP in his third year in Seattle. Washington had a lot of success in the early ‘90’s but they are anything but a blue blood. Does anyone think Petersen isn’t going to have the Huskies at or near the top of the Pac 12 every year while making the CFP on a regular basis? But according to Mandel, Petersen will need to leave Washington for USC to prove he’s the elite of the elite.

How about Dabo Swinney? He has taken Clemson to the CFP twice, while winning the national title this past season. Does anyone think Swinney won’t continue to build on this national title and keep things rolling at Clemson? Some may argue Clemson is a blue blood, I would argue they are not. They had some success in the early ‘80’s but they have been an average to above average program since. There is a reason “Clemsoning” became a thing. But according to Mandel, Swinney will need to leave Clemson for Alabama after Saban retires to prove he’s the elite of the elite.

This brings me to PJ Fleck and Minnesota. We may make fun of our neighbors to the East. We may make fun of Overlord Barry. As much as it pains me to say this, the facts are the facts, they have been on quite the run the past 30 years. What have we as a fan base been saying for years? We need our version of Barry Alvarez. A young coach to come in and build a winning culture who then stays and builds upon that winning culture. We may finally have that coach in PJ Fleck. He is being given resources no coach at Minnesota has had since Bernie Bierman stalked the sidelines. If Fleck gets the Gophers to Indianapolis, Pasadena and gasp, the CFP, why does he need to leave Minnesota to prove he is an elite level coach? Who is to say he can’t build the type of program here at Minnesota that Chris Petersen is building at Washington or the Overlord Barry built all those years ago?

Yes, the blue bloods have built-in advantages that schools like Minnesota don’t have. But you don’t have to coach at a blue blood to build an elite level program. Just like being a blue blood program doesn’t guarantee you success either. What Nick Saban has done at Alabama is simply amazing. There is no denying that. But you don’t have to have Nick Saban type success to be elite.



Follow: @dvits14