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Minnesota Football: Coming to terms with a lost season

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Uncharted waters are best navigated with an oar, a boat, and a compass

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

“What if?”

Two words with which Gopher football fans are intimately familiar.

What if the Gophers hadn’t blown a 31-point lead in the fourth quarter against Michigan?

What if Joel Maturi had hired literally anyone else but Tim Brewster?

What if Jerry Kill had been able to coach at Minnesota without health problems?

And now the latest: What if COVID-19 had never reached the shores of the United States?

Others may have their own variation of that question – perhaps couched in their personal politics — but for the sake of this article I’m choosing to focus on the source of the ongoing pandemic (rather than the response to it). Because what’s done is done. A timeline in which the United States effectively contained the spread of COVID-19 exists only in our imaginations at this point.

Much like the 2020 season of Gopher football.

You know, the follow-up to one of the program’s best seasons in decades. The 2020 season that would have seen Minnesota take the field with one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, a former 1,000-yard rusher, the reigning Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year, and all five of their starting offensive linemen from a season ago. The defense would have needed to reload to replace seven starters, but it would have been a worthy challenge for defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and a chance to see the coaching staff’s ability to recruit and develop defensive talent.

But that season first started showing signs of collapse in July, when the Big Ten eliminated non-conference games from fall sports competition. Then came Rashod Bateman’s decision in August to opt out, followed a week later by the Big Ten’s cancellation of the fall season.

We’ll never know the disappointment of the 2020 season failing to live up to expectations, but we’ll almost certainly be plagued by thoughts of how it could have lived up to them.

As a Gopher fan myself, I know what you’re probably thinking: We can’t catch a break. And I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. At various points throughout the months leading up the cancellation, I noted it would be “very Minnesota” for football to get cancelled in the same year that the Gophers won 11 games in a season for the first time since 1904.

You may think Minnesota is snakebit, maybe even cursed. But the reality is that this is going to affect more than Minnesota. Everyone – well, the Big Ten and Pac-12 for now – is in the same boat. So let’s not pretend that this is a situation where it’s only raining in Minneapolis.

And I’m going to call back to something P.J. Fleck said after the loss to Wisconsin last season:

“Let’s not go back. 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.”

I doubt he anticipated the unprecedented events that would take place over the next eight months, but I imagine he would offer a similar message if he were to address fans today. Because lest you forget – and I know I’ve made this point before – sustained success is not always linear. And one lost season does not define a program. It’s how the program responds to adversity that defines it.

Look no further than how players have responded on Twitter:

It’s okay to mourn the loss of the 2020 season, because it is a loss, not only for the fans but especially for the student-athletes and the coaches. The months ahead are going to be challenging for a lot of people. This is a decision that is going to have far-reaching ramifications.

Gopher football will be back. I don’t know when, maybe in the spring, more likely next fall.

But until then, the best thing you can do is keep your oar in the water and row.

(Did you really think I was going to end it any other way?)