Last week we talked about the fact that the Gophers are 5-0, acknowledging that we haven’t played anyone particularly challenging, not looking ahead but just enjoying the season. And that still rings very true after the team improved to 6-0 on Saturday night.
Today’s TMP is really a step back for a moment.
I really appreciate where the program is and how it has been built for future success. This year is fun and I’m going to enjoy it. Regardless of how things play out in the final six games. Things are playing out well.
But as I watched the team thoroughly dominate Nebraska I began appreciating where this program currently sits.
Since 2011, when Jerry Kill took over, this program has slowly been improving. Some ups and downs, because this process is never linear, but overall this program is gaining respectability. Brick by Brick is where it started and Jerry Kill did a fine job of getting things back on track. It wasn’t perfect and at times it really wasn’t very exciting, but back-to-back seasons with 8 wins and then a 9-win season under Claeys were.
For a number of valid reasons the administration decided it was best to move on. Coaching searches and changes are nothing new to Gopher fans. But the idea is always that you are going to bring in someone who will take you to the next level. That’s always the idea. It rarely works out.
PJ Fleck was the homerun hire of that coaching carousel in 2017. He had just taken Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl as an undefeated MAC team where he very nearly beat a very good Wisconsin team. He was the hot commodity. Mark Coyle did what he had to do to land the guy that he wanted.
We are now 2 1⁄2 years in to the PJ Fleck era and I am very pleased where this program is. It really isn’t the fact that we are 6-0. To be honest, we have been looking ahead to the 2019 schedule for a couple years, knowing that it was one that really broke in our favor. Winning the games is never easy, but the record is not the reason for my excitement. At this point in the Brewster era I recall writing an article where I stated I was pleased to be where were were and I thought there was the possibility of taking further steps, but I wasn’t completely sold. Now, I’m all in. And here’s why.
I’m going with roster construction as a reason for my optimism, rather than just recruiting. But they both apply. This staff works their tails off recruiting and I’ve always thought they do it well. They are bringing in talented kids who fit their system and it is really interesting to see how they are managing their roster. It isn’t a set formula. Last year they were playing quite a few freshmen. Partly due to necessity, partially because there was plenty of talent and because they were getting the right kids valuable experience (which is paying off this year).
This year? Very few freshmen are contributing in any meaningful way. This program is being built for future/sustained success.
The second half of last year and the first half of this year are really demonstrating how well this staff is doing at player development.
Watch tape of Curtis Dunlap Jr. in the South Dakota State game and then watch him in the Nebraska game. In half a season he is making tremendous strides. Sam Renner was a walk-on to a contributor to one of our best defensive linemen. Kamal Martin was enigmatic most of his sophomore and junior seasons but has not turned into an NFL Draft candidate and one of our most consistent defenders. Tanner Morgan, Sam Schleuter, Chris Autman-Bell...I could go on.
But the adjustments made, the way this staff puts their players in position to succeed and how they TEACH them is impressive. It happened last year as well. The team that finished the year was dramatically different than the one who started it. Culminating in a really impressive win in Madison.
This word gets thrown around often, particularly by Fleck. And this is sort of a trigger word for Jerry Kill’s old staff. But it is so true. I have so admired how Fleck has gone about establishing his culture for this program. On the field and off.
From a football perspective it totally works. He has a style, he has a shtick. It rubs some people wrong way. But it works. It works to get 105 college kids to be on the same page and going (rowing?) in the same direction. And if you aren’t on board, then this isn’t for you.
Fans of other programs get annoyed or assume he has only selfish ambitions. Locals who find him annoying and say, “it’s just not for me.” But you are never the intended audience and never were. This is about getting the right kids here, getting them all on the same page and that base is important before you can think about winning games consistently in the Big Ten.
But I am even more impressed with the culture that is completely unrelated to football.
He is facing culturally relevant issues head on. But rather than telling his players how to act, he is bringing people in to help them understand the issues, to help them learn how to act as responsible young men. I’m not going to dive into these issues here, but I love how Fleck has made these teachable moments for his players. Not moments to make sure they aren’t going to get into trouble, but teaching them how to be good human beings. If he’s here for a decade will he be immune to a scandal or bad team behavior? Probably not, but his method for teaching his team is one I appreciate seeing rather than crossing your fingers and assuming they’ll do what’s right.
Beyond that the classroom is important. The numbers are high. Of course, since I have been blogging for over a decade, every staff touts academic numbers. Jerry Kill’s team had such a high APR that they earned a bowl with 5-7 record in 2015. But this program his a very high GPA and currently a slightly higher APR score than that 2015 Gopher squad.
Ultimately I believe that PJ Fleck is good for this program. I believe he is impactful in the lives of the 105 kids on his roster. And when everything is added up, I believe that he has this program poised to be consistently successful.
Does that mean next year is guaranteed (or even likely) to have at least 1 more win than we have this year? Or if we go to a New Year’s Day Bowl that next season means a BCS caliber bowl? No, of course not. Every program (well, almost every program) has up and down seasons (Northwestern is the most recent example).
I truly like where this program is headed, to the point where with any previous staff I would have cringed at a contract extension when the University is at it’s weakest negotiating point. But now, I’d likely applaud it (pending details, of course).
For years we have wanted a program that is consistently competitive with a shot at Indianapolis once in a while. I like what PJ Fleck is building, I like how he has built it and I’m very excited for the future of Gopher Football.