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Changing the culture of Minnesota Football

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There is more than one way to build a winning football program. And for the foreseeable future, that way is rowing the boat with P.J. Fleck.

P.J. Fleck Gopher Sports

“What I am here to do is change a culture.”

Those were the exact words that P.J. Fleck used in his introductory press conference back in January when he was first hired by athletic director Mark Coyle to replace Tracy Claeys as the head football coach at the University of Minnesota.

But what does that mean exactly? For members of the previous coaching regime, it was taken as an indictment of the culture established under former head coach Jerry Kill. Naturally, a few of them — even Kill himself — did not take the perceived slight lying down.

From a Big Ten Network interview with Kill:

Jerry Kill BTN Interview

Kill did inherit a mess. We’re all familiar with the Tim Brewster era. The Gophers were 17-33 over the previous four seasons when Kill was hired from Northern Illinois, with more losses to FCS programs than wins over Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Kill led Minnesota to three straight bowl games, back-to-back eight-win seasons, and a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time since the 1962 Rose Bowl. His tenure at Minnesota included wins over Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State. All this while dealing with the forced resignation of athletic director Norwood Teague, which left Kill to act as chief fundraiser for the Athletes Village.

With that said, I would dispute that Fleck is walking into a “gold mine.”

Here are a few things to consider:

  • There are no freshman or sophomore defensive tackles on the roster this spring, which is incomprehensible for a Power 5 program that has had, for the most part, the same coaching staff in place for the last six seasons.
  • There are five offensive lineman available this spring due to offseason surgeries and transfers. I’m less concerned about the transfers and more concerned with the fact that half of the offensive linemen on the roster needed surgery. The Gophers also haven’t had an offensive lineman drafted to the NFL since 2006.
  • No wide receiver on the roster caught more than 18 passes than last season. Just two of them hauled in double-digit receptions. Couple that with the fact that the most experienced quarterback on the roster is a former walk-on with 17 career pass attempts.
  • Four scholarship players, including a potential starter, have been expelled due to an alleged sexual assault incident that contributed to the firing of the previous head coach. As a result, the Gophers have just four scholarship cornerbacks on the roster.

I would hardly call that a “gold mine.” The Gophers are indeed coming off their first nine-win season since 2003, but there are deficiencies across the roster.

I’m not trying to diminish the accomplishments of Kill and co., but some perspective is needed here. Is the football program better than where it was six years ago? Absolutely. There is no disputing that. But Jerry Kill is not the Paul Bryant of this football program. Aside from resuscitating a program that had hit rock bottom — which is no small feat, mind you — Kill didn’t do much more than bring some respectability back to Minnesota. I appreciate what he did, but I’m not about to build a statue. He never beat Wisconsin. He never won the Big Ten West, let alone the Big Ten. He never won a bowl game. He never won more than eight games in a single season. His record against teams with a winning record? 11-24.

I mean, Ron Zook has been to more Rose Bowls than Jerry Kill.

To circle back to the topic of culture, Jerry Kill and his coaching staff certainly won a lot of football games at Minnesota. And when most people think of “culture” in football terms, they think of a “culture of winning.” But a program’s culture is about more than winning football games. And that’s not to say that Kill didn’t run a clean program. But no matter how Kill ran the program, P.J. Fleck has a different way of doing things. And that’s okay.

I’ll let Fleck take it from here:

Fleck emphasizes that the culture of a football program is about more than wins and losses, and he makes a point to differentiate between “culture” and “tradition.” He talks about a culture of selflessness, with an emphasis on giving and serving others. The point is that Fleck knows exactly the kind of program he wants to build at Minnesota. He’s not trying to be Jerry Kill. He was hired to be P.J. Fleck and bring his “Row the Boat” culture to Minnesota. What Kill and co. can’t seem to grasp is that there is more than one way to win football games at the University of Minnesota. Kill wasn’t the first coach to win at Minnesota and I doubt he’ll be the last.

Unfortunately, I also think Kill is looking at the program through the same rose-tinted glasses as some Gopher fans. This is a program that won nine games a season ago, so they should obviously be a contender in the Big Ten West next season, right? I’m not so sure. Aside from the previous roster deficiencies I listed, this is also a brand new coaching staff trying to introduce a new culture and install new systems on both sides of the ball. That doesn’t happen overnight. We’re not headed for an 1-11 disaster, but expecting eight or nine wins might be a bit of a stretch.

Fleck, when talking about his first season with the program, even said during his introductory press conference that this is not a rebuild, but rather a cultural change:

This is not a complete rebuild of a tradition and culture. This is cultural change though. Like I said, for the first year of digging, that's what that is. It's digging to find out how much we have to dig, what culture -- what types of culture we have to change, what doesn't need to be changed, how we can work through the different branches of how we've got to be able to get things done. But I do know this, the staff that was here before deserve those nine wins. They did a tremendous job on the field, and we want to continue that type of success as we move forward.

The Jerry Kill era of Gopher football is over — for better or for worse (I’ll let you decide). He deserves a lot of credit for raising the program from the ashes of Tim Brewster, but the University of Minnesota doesn’t owe him anything at this point. He’s coaching at Rutgers now and I wish him the absolute best of luck (he’ll need it). But the head football coach at Minnesota is P.J. Fleck and that’s really all that matters. It doesn’t matter what the culture was like under Jerry Kill or Tracy Claeys. All that matters now is rowing that dang boat.

And with Fleck at the helm, I’m excited to see where that boat takes us.