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Minnesota Football: The Gophers’ missed opportunity also represents a step forward

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The best is yet to come

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This may sound bizarre coming from a fan of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, but I’m also a fan of the Cleveland Indians. I was born and raised in Iowa, so I was something of a free agent when it came to declaring sports team allegiances. Gopher football and Indians baseball were the two teams I gravitated toward most when I was growing up, for different reasons.

If you follow Major League Baseball at all, you know that the Indians made the World Series in 2016. They lost that World Series to the Chicago Cubs, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t crushed. Cleveland hasn’t won a World Series since 1948, and that 2016 postseason run represented their best shot at a Commissioner’s Trophy since at least 1997.

To make it that far — one win from the franchise’s first World Series championship in 68 years — only to come up short is the kind of missed opportunity that can linger in your heart for years. When World Series appearances are so few and far between, you better win it when you have the chance, because you never know when the next chance is going to come around.

This is how a lot of Gopher fans, myself included, felt about the Gophers’ 9-0 start to the season, which culminated in an emotionally-charged upset of then No. 4-ranked Penn State. Seasons like this don’t come around very often. The Gophers haven’t won a share of the Big Ten since the 1960s, and have never even won a division title since the Big Ten split. Minnesota hadn’t even been 9-0 since 1904. So when you’re 9-0 and a division crown and a trip to Pasadena are within your grasp, it’s easy to despair that a rare opportunity has been wasted.

And to be clear, an opportunity was wasted. The Gophers were in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West, needing only to beat Iowa or Wisconsin to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. They couldn’t get it done against either team. The sobering truth is that even though this is the program’s first 10-win season in 110 years, there is still a sizable gap between Minnesota and the top contenders in the West. They’ve come far, but there is still a ways to go.

It hurts. And it’s okay to be disappointed. But draw the line at despair. The only reason to despair is if you believe this season was a complete fluke. That it’s all downhill from here, and the Gophers are never going to have as good an opportunity as the one they squandered in 2019.

But here’s the thing: P.J. Fleck wasn’t hired to build a championship team by Year 3. The plan was never 2019 Big Ten West Champs or bust. The goal was not a flash in the pan, but rather sustained success. And now that they’ve experienced success, the next step is to build on it. It’s not going to be easy, and as a tortured Indians fan, I can attest that there is no guarantee they’ll have a chance like this again. No one knows what the future holds. You can either pull your oars out of the water or keep rowing. The choice is yours.

But consider this: If you’re going to be critical of the team for squandering an opportunity to win the West — and that criticism is fair, to be clear — you also have to give them credit for creating that opportunity. No one handed those 10 wins to Minnesota. They earned every one of them, and did something that no team in program history has done since 1905.

And it’s only Year 3.