Big Ten Media Days kicked off this morning at the Hilton Chicago, and Minnesota Golden Gophers P.J. Fleck took the stage with a brief prepared statement before covering a range of questions from the assembled media (myself included).
Last season was truly a “Race to MAHturity”
The Gophers were 4-5 last season after their 55-31 shellacking at the hands of the Fighting Illini, which ultimately led to defensive coordinator Robb Smith being relieved of his duties. Minnesota was able to quickly turn a corner though, going 3-1 over their final four games of the season, including a Quick Lane Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
When asked what about the catalyst for that turnaround, Fleck cited the change at defensive coordinator but also credited his team with learning from failure.
“The team last year had the entire spectrum, and at one point, I think they failed enough to become successful and they were mature enough to handle it,” he said. “And our whole theme last year was a race to maturity. We might not be the oldest team, but we can grow up fast by our experiences, and I thought that’s what changed.”
The Big Ten West is cranking up the competition
Most prognosticators are anticipating a wide open battle for supremacy in the Big Ten West this fall and P.J. Fleck is no different, citing the hirings of Scott Frost and Jeff Brohm at Nebraska and Purdue, respectively, as examples of how programs elevating the level of competition.
“It’s a wide open West. There are no easy games. No matter what side of the division you’re playing, there are no easy games. One thing I’ve learned in this conference is there’s zero easy games here. They’re all hard, no matter who you play, and you have to be at your best every single week.”
Singing the praises of Joe Rossi
Referring back to his own history as a sixth grade social studies teacher, Fleck said he believes Rossi to be an elite educator, and that is part of what convinced him to remove the interim tag and name him permanent defensive coordinator last season.
“When you can get people to respond to you immediately by how you teach and what you say and the gap of the learning curve is way smaller by how you teach, that’s efficiency. It’s efficiency in your teaching and your coaching, and I want that guy on my staff.”
Fleck also made a candid comment about the tumultuous period during which Rossi took over as defensive coordinator. He “made sure that the grass was cut back in our home” and “the beds full of mulch” because his house could have been on the market in the weeks after the embarrassing loss to Illinois, had the Gophers not been able to turn the corner.
The formula for winning football games
Fleck’s staff conducted a study of the last 50 years of football and identified three statistics that have an outsize impact on the outcome of games: turnover margin, explosive plays, and missed tackles. They determined that if you can come out on the positive end of those three battles in a game, you’re going to win at least 78 percent of the time.
“When we won the 78 percent battle, we were 7-0. When we lost, we were 0-6. So you immediately take numbers and you show them, this is how you go win a game. And when we did it, we were really, really good. When we didn’t do it, we weren’t. So that takes the youth out of it. Just focus on these things. It helps practice, it helps young people be able to focus on a little bit more than just this big picture of winning. Focus on these things, and it helps our coaches through individual practice, through the time they spend with the players, what we had to focus on.”
The Axe is back — and so is the rivalry
Bucky’s 5th Quarter’s Tyler Hunt came prepared with a question for Fleck about the momentum from re-claiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe and if the Gophers can sustain that.
“I thought meant a lot for both teams,” Fleck said. “I know maybe Wisconsin is not happy that we have the Axe, but it’s healthy for the rivalry. Trust me, Wisconsin didn’t let us win. But it’s healthy.
“After 14 straight years of one of the greatest rivalries in college football, Paul Bunyan’s Axe being one-sided for 14 straight years, there’s a lot of things that happen to people’s minds especially in our state. They doubt it more. They say “we’ll never.” They use words like that, “if that ever happens.” Well, winning that game, especially how we won it and where we won it and hadn’t won there since 1994 — hadn’t won the game in 14 straight years — breaking that mold creates this hope for the future, and that’s what I hope our state of Minnesota understands is we’re doing things that haven’t been done in a very long time.”
We’ll have more Big Ten Media Days coverage to follow, including more from Fleck and interviews with Carter Coughlin, Tyler Johnson, and Mohamed Ibrahim.