As the season is just about over and the Gophers lost their remaining home game while sitting one game shy of bowl eligibility, The Monday Perspective is looking back on the season, perhaps just a little early.
Why, you ask?
Well if they go out and beat Wisconsin on Saturday to earn Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since Facebook was founded...then this season will be universally be considered an improvement over last year. Earning a bowl game while beating the one rival we haven’t defeated since before Rashod Bateman was in kindergarten, would be significant and whatever missed opportunities came in the first 11 games would be irrelevant.
But before we get to that game, I still want to look back at the first 11 games of the season and focus on expectations. My belief is that we need to stay the course, practice patience (at least a little while longer) and let this play out still.
First and foremost I think we need to recognize that almost everyone generally agrees a new coaching staff should be given at least 3, probably 4, years to establish their program before any sort of changes be made. When a staff is first hired, this is very common in the discussion. This is a reasonable timeframe to accept. That is, until you are actually in year two and you are not seeing the type of improvement you had dreamt of when the new staff was hired.
I am really not into comparing current staff to the previous one as that is truly and exercise in futility. But looking back at early seasons of prior staffs can be helpful. As easy as it is to remember that Tracy Claeys was 9-4 in the year he was fired, it seems to be easily forgotten that Jerry Kill was 9-16 in his first two seasons with just 2 Big Ten wins in each of those seasons.
Prior staffs in their first two seasons...
- PJ Fleck (10-13, 4-14) - commentary for later.
- Jerry Kill (9-16, 4-12 in B1G) - highlights include making a bowl game in year 2, beating Iowa in year 1. Lowlights include losing to New Mexico State and North Dakota State at home in year 1.
- Tim Brewster (8-17, 3-13) - It was pretty much all lowlights but year 2 did include a 3-game Big Ten winning streak before dropping the final 5, including the 55-0 loss to Iowa.
- Glen Mason (8-15, 3-13) - Mason, like Kill, did get one trophy win in his first two seasons by beating Iowa in the final game of the 1998 season.
You should notice that all four of those coaches have rather similar records in their first two years. The three prior staffs all ended up having very different careers as the head coach of the Golden Gophers. Mason went on to be the most consistently successful. Tim Brewster was a disaster and Jerry Kill built a nice program before health issues forced him to call it quits here. What is the point then? Well, there really isn’t a whole lot to be gleaned from the first two seasons and for us as fans, we really just have to wait this one out.
Where things get interesting it taking a look at year 3 of all of the prior staffs. Both Mason and Kill took steps forward in year 3. Mason went 5-3 in conference and ended the season
beating in a bowl game against a 9-win Oregon team and finished the season ranked in the top 20. Jerry Kill won 4 consecutive Big Ten games, getting the Gophers to 8 regular season wins for the first time since Mason. Brewster? Well he had a 6-6 regular season and things were beginning to unravel.
Each of the new coaching staffs mentioned above all had different challenges and advantages when they took over. Fleck inherited a couple great running backs and a pretty nice group of defensive players (that was largely squandered so far) but also he had to face a 7-game conference schedule and was left with one of the worst quarterback situations we’ve seen here in years. Jerry Kill also had some nice defensive upperclassmen in his first couple years, he also had USC on the schedule and had a host of disciplinary issues to deal with on the team. Point here is that all staffs were new staffs for a reason and each had challenges to overcome, some greater than others.
What does this all mean for PJ Fleck, the future of the program and most importantly for the sanity of Gopher fans?
I think that it is fair to say that year 3 is going to be more telling than years 1 or 2. In this third year is when Fleck’s recruits have had a few years to become Big Ten caliber athletes who have been in the same system for a few years now. Year 3 is not the make or break year for this staff, but it certainly is one where we need to see a little more.
2018 Northwestern is a perfect example of program consistency. Fleck talked about it in his post game press conference. Pat Fitzgerald played at NU, was an assistant coach and took over the program where he’s now coaching his 13th season. That kind of consistency breeds teams that know what to do and how to do it, they are consistent.
I will never guarantee that PJ Fleck is going to be successful, but I will guarantee that it won’t happen for anybody until we are patient. Some things may present themselves in years 3 or 4 that make it obvious one way or the other. But we haven’t seen that yet. I know we want more and we want it faster, but a 5-7 season is not an indication of future success or failures.
Patience is needed from the fans, we can’t do much of anything about it anyway. Year 3 will be a big one, and there’s still one game left to dramatically change the perception of Year 2.