After Minnesota suffered a 38-17 loss to Wisconsin in the regular season finale a year ago, denying the Gophers the Big Ten West division crown and a trip to Indianapolis, head coach P.J. Fleck made a direct address to the fans in his postgame presser.
“Let’s not go back,” Fleck said, trying to distinguish his program from the Same Old Gophers™. “Let’s not start thinking, ‘Well that’s typical.’ That has to be out of our system. And there’s going to be cynics, there’s going to be doubters, there’s going to be critics. But the true fans, what we want them to do is get that completely out of their mind. Because we are not going back to that. You don’t have to worry about that with me, our staff, our recruiting, our culture, our support, our administration, our president, Mark Coyle. You don’t have to worry about that anymore.
“So let it go.”
Easier said than done, even after Fleck’s Gophers were able to add an exclamation point to the end of their season with a 31-24 victory over No. 12-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
Fleck describes “Row the Boat” as “a never-give-up mantra.” Fitting for the fan base of a football program that has not won a share of a Big Ten title since 1967. In the 50+ years since Murray Warmath led the Gophers to their last conference championship, sustained success has eluded Minnesota, and their fans have been conditioned to treat hope as a bad omen. Like a black cat, when it appears you can be certain bad fortune is soon to follow.
In the 21st century alone, Gopher fans have watched Glen Mason revive a program that hadn’t finished above .500 since 1990, only to have his tenure drown in deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball. Tim Brewster brought bluster and buzz words to Minneapolis but not much else. Jerry Kill was one win shy of a Big Ten West title before epilepsy ended his head coaching career. Tracy Claeys led the Gophers to their second nine-win season since 1905, but self-immolated with his mishandling of a sexual assault scandal and an ensuing player boycott.
So even when Fleck led the Gophers to the program’s first 11-win season since 1904 last year, there was a voice in the back of every fan’s head reminding them that it wouldn’t last. And two games into the 2020 season, that voice is eerily quiet, because Minnesota is doing the work for them. The Gophers are 0-2 and allowing an average of 47 points per game, 268.5 rushing yards per game, and 309.5 passing yards per game. Less than a year removed from one of the best seasons in program history, Minnesota seems headed towards one of the program’s worst.
Even with the understanding that progress isn’t always linear, such a catastrophic step back is difficult to stomach. Whether the culprit is recruiting, development, attrition, or some combination of all three, the coaching staff bears responsibility for the product on the field. And for this to happen in Year 4 of the Fleck era, with his culture firmly in place and a roster composed almost entirely of his recruits, feels like a red flag, and opposing fans have eagerly seized upon it as validation that he is nothing more than a showman and 2019 was smoke and mirrors.
And make no mistake, Gopher fans want to believe. They want to believe that Fleck is for real and that the program turned a corner last season. But their desire for success is frequently at odds with what reality presents them. Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi talked last week about creating habits through repetition, and turning those habits into instincts. Gopher fans have developed instincts of their own, calcified by decades of mediocrity. If Fleck wants to rid Gopher fans of those instincts, it is going to take more than one good season.
As for Gopher fans, I don’t need to tell them what to do in the face of what could one of the most miserable seasons of Minnesota football in years. They know by now. They’ve had their oars in the water, so to speak, for longer than Fleck has been on campus. This is a program whose most loyal fans have given more than they have ever received in return. 2019 felt like the start of something special, but 2020 has been a return to the familiar. These are not uncharted waters. So we’ll keep rowing, even if these are the Same Old Gophers™. Because that’s all we’ve ever known.