A lot has been written about what happens in a programs third season at the helm. The New York Times wrote a piece in 2016 that explains the phenomenon well enough at the elite level. Bill Connelly explored if coaches overachieve after their second or third year (they don’t). So it seems sensible to see the 2019 Gophers season as a harbinger of what will come in future seasons under PJ Fleck.
Since I’m interested in using the past to glimpse the future, I looked at 13 Gopher coaches third years to see how things worked out.
Doc Williams 1902 — Record 9-2-1
In Doc Williams third season he finished third in conference. A highlight was beating Grinnell 102 to 0. Whereas losing to Nebraska and Michigan kept it from being a great year. In 1902 Doc was still ramping up to a conference championship in 1903 and a national title in 1904.
William H Spaulding 1924 — Record 3-3-2
After losing only 1 game the previous year the wheels came off in 1924 for Spaulding. The opening of Memorial Stadium by stopping Red Grange on November 15th were the lone bright spots. Spaulding was out at the end of the year, he’d go on to UCLA afterwards.
Clarence Spears 1927 — 6-0-2
Tying for the Big Ten Championship, this would be the high water mark of Spears tenure at Minnesota. He vastly improved over his first two seasons. He only stayed for five years and the fourth and fifth the Gophers finished slightly lower in the Big Ten than they did in 1927.
Bernie Bierman 1934 — 8-0
Bierman’s teams improved in each of their first two years and 1934 was the beginning of three straight national championships. So yeah do this PJ.
Wes Fesler 1953 — 4-4-1
This was the last season of Wes’s football career, and was par for the course from his two others at Minnesota. Things probably would have been a lot worse in 1953 if Wes hadn’t had Paul Geil. Geil was the Big Ten MVP and finished second in the Heisman voting, despite the team finishing 5th in the conference.
Murray Warmath 1956 — 6-1-2
Murray had teams that were either very bad or GREAT, this was one of his better teams. The 1956 year was sandwiched by terrible seasons in 1955 and 1957. In fact after Murray’s third season it’s surprising he was still at Minnesota for his Rose Bowl season of 1960, that’s how bad the 3 years in between were.
Cal Stoll 1970 — 4-7
This was the beginning of a downward trend for Cal. After a promising first two seasons the final 3 years of Cal Stoll were under .500.
Joe Salem 1981 — 6-5
Smokey Joe had similar middle of the pack finishes in his first 3 years. However in his final 2 years the bottom fell out and Minnesota finished in last place in 1982 and 1983.
John Gutekunst 1988 — 2-7-2
A weird record, and the October 29th game against Illinois is the last time the Gophers would tie a game. Unfortunately it was also the closest the team would come to a victory. The high water mark for Gute was his first year (6-6 and a Liberty Bowl loss) and they trended down quickly. A little out of the ordinary Gute was able to have better 4th and 5th seasons (both 6-5), but it’s still a little surprising he was given 6 years in charge.
Jim Wacker 1994 — 3-8
This was an average year. It wouldn’t get better and (almost literally) couldn’t have gotten much worse. But hey the team beat Wisconsin and had some fire jerseys.
Glen Mason 1999 — 8-4
After winning 8 combined games in 1997 and 1998, he matched that total in his third year. Many years later Bill Connelly would coin the term “Glen Mason Territory” describing a kind of consistent competency without ever having a great year. I’d say Glen first reached his Glen Mason Territory in his third season.
Tim Brewster 2009 — 6-7
After being worried Brew would leave Minnesota for Tennessee after 2008, he came back for a third season and things started going down hill.
Jerry Kill 2013 — 8-4
Brick by brick describes the season by season improvement of the Kill era. By his third year he stacked those bricks about as high as they would go.
Thirty coaches that have led the program and 13 have made it to a third year. So I suppose PJ beat the odds to make it this far. Of those 13 the average number of years coached is just over 8. Going on this alone PJ should be around for a few more years, but what will they be like? I’m not you dad, so the answer depends on your feelings of Fleck, so you can draw whatever conclusions you like.
It’s likely that 2019 will be similar to results PJ has in 2020 and beyond. Only Doc and Murray had substantially better seasons after their third season, and both had the benefit of coaching 21 and 17 years respectively. Most who had success in their third year plateaued. Bernie just plateaued on a higher level than say Mason.
Or if you’re a pessimist you could compare PJ to trajectories of folks like: Wes Fessler (crash and burn), Joe Salem (doing fine initially then the bottom fell out), or Tim Brewster (on the decline) or even Clarence Spears (great 3rd year dwindling returns after).