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The Gophers Have a Rival Problem

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For all the positive vibes from the PJ Fleck era, one Minnesota constant has been inescapable

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As fans, what do we want to see our team do? At the end of the day, why do we follow a team? I’m not over complicating things with this opening question. The answer is simple: we want to see our team win.

When we tailgate, whether at the stadium or at home, or when we sneak a look at the score during the dastardly event known as the fall wedding, or stream while at our child’s soccer game, we want to see that the Minnesota Golden Gophers have scored more points than the team they are playing that week.

I preface this examination by stating this obvious fact because most college football fans need to be grounded in some amount of realism to find satisfaction in their team’s performance. I don’t think that any Northwestern fans have any delusions of grandeur about participating in the College Football Playoff. I don’t think Kansas football fans believe they are winning the Big 12 anytime soon. Generally speaking, your average college football fan just wants to see their team win the game they are playing within the context of their overall season limits depending on whatever tier of program their allegiances find them tied to.

I do not want to fully address the nuanced discussion of where Minnesota falls on the spectrum of college football programs but I think it’s safe to say that what we saw in 2019 is a reasonable highest aspiration for our team in a given year. That season was incredibly memorable, fun, and full of talented players, wonderful personalities, and fleeting moments of being in national conversations about the sport we all follow so fanatically.

Sadly, though, when it comes to the 2019 season, part of it rings hollow for me. The nine-game winning streak to start the season was delightful. The Penn State game was one of my fondest memories as a sports fan. Seeing that beautiful maroon and gold M show up in the top 10 on the College Football Playoff rankings announcement show was surreal. The Outback Bowl victory over Auburn was spectacular. Watching a unanimous All-American in Antoine Winfield, Jr. patrol the secondary was truly a privilege.

But, despite generally considering myself an optimist, as soon as I think of those things, I think of the despair, frustration, and misery I felt as the Gophers fell to Iowa and Wisconsin. What should have been the most magical ride of many Gophers’ fans lives honestly turned into a bit of a haunted house full of unexorcised demons at the end of the regular season. The stakes of those two games were higher than they had ever been before for Minnesota in the modern college football era. And, like many, many, MANY times before, they still came up short.

The point of all this is to say that at the end of the day, a college football fan cares most about winning but especially about winning against your rival. And unfortunately, for Gopher football fans, regardless of who has helmed the program, victory over the school’s two biggest rivals (I’m sorry but Michigan and Nebraska can’t hold a candle to Iowa and Wisconsin) has been but a fleeting thing to be vigorously treasured, greater than any bowl victory, magical winning streak, busted bell, or broken chair. And despite a majority of the vibes around the program during the Row the Boat era being overwhelmingly positive (the Bowling Green and Illinois games notwithstanding), Coach Fleck hasn’t gotten it done when it has mattered most against our hated neighbors to the east and south.

Let me preface the rest of this pseudo-diatribe by stating that I have enjoyed the PJ Fleck tenure at the University of Minnesota. He has clearly created a culture that produces well-balanced individuals and knows how to push those individuals to succeed in the classroom and beyond. I think that Fleck is a decent football coach and what the team did in 2019 can never be taken away from Gopher fans. I also have no intention of suggesting that Fleck’s status as the head coach of the Gophers should be questioned. I am merely trying to discuss possible nuances in suggesting that his tenure may not be perfect and there is a gaping whole in his resume required to define his overall tenure as a resounding “success”.

Victories against Iowa and Wisconsin are more valuable than just about anything a Gopher football coach can accumulate. Considering historical rivalries, the current landscape of the Minnesota football program due to divisional alignment, and recruiting implications, wins against the Hawkeyes and Badgers are worth their weight in gold. Defeating Iowa and Wisconsin means that the Gophers have beaten the two programs who have won the Big Ten West Division five of the seven years the current conference alignment has existed. It also indicates to potential recruits within the regional geography of all three states that Minnesota is a program to be taken seriously when making the choice of which team to play for, especially if that choice comes down to the Gophers and one of those “other teams.” But, the sad truth of the matter is that PJ Fleck has not proven himself up to the task when it comes to this most valuable prize.

This is no referendum on the overall tenure of the head football coach. It is merely a statement of fact and something that must be considered when examining the current state of the program. Over the last 30 years — an arbitrary yet nicely round number that I believe depicts the “modern” era of college football — no Gopher football coach has seen any sort of sustained success against the likes of the Hawkeyes and Badgers. I don’t believe it unreasonable to suggest that a coach hasn’t truly been successful until they change this pattern of defeat and misery. Here are the specifics about what I am alluding to:

As shown above, the greatest accomplishment any one of those individuals can claim is the one individual who wasn’t officially the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. After the firing of Tim Brewster in the middle of the 2010 season, interim coach Jeff Horton memorably knocked off a ranked Iowa team at TCF Bank Stadium in the final game of the season 27-24. Once Horton was not made the head coach, he left the Twin Cities with a perfect record against Minnesota rivals. Other than that historical quirk, even the coaches believed to be “program changers” have had very limited success against the likes of Iowa and Wisconsin. Jim Wacker has the only winning record against Wisconsin but never beat Iowa in five tries. The recent history of these rivalries is littered with crushed hopes, broken dreams, and players and fans alike gazing into the distance as poor Floyd is trotted off to Iowa City and our goalposts are hacked down for the umpteenth time by Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Jerry Kill never defeated Wisconsin in four tries. PJ Fleck hasn’t defeated Iowa in four tries. And on top of this misery is the fact that there hasn’t been that much of a difference between the “successful” Fleck and failures of the past when it comes to the margin in these most important games. Losing by an average of 11.1 points per contest doesn’t indicate much of a rivalry. To me it indicates more of a wannabe rival akin to a little brother who believes him to be the older brother’s near equal but continues to get trounced. And while some may argue that the above graphic is over simplistic and allows for little nuance, I offer you this: Tim Brewster clearly stands out as the worst of the bunch so it has to be accurate for something, no?

All of this is to say that, despite three losses, one of which was the worst defeat of the PJ Fleck era, the most important games this season lay ahead. As strange as it seems (well, it seemed strange to me), this is year five of PJ Fleck. While I acknowledge that 2020 has to be chalked up to a lost year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can’t be losing to your biggest rivals by double digits in year five and consider the tenure of that coach a success. When examining his 1-7 record against Iowa and Wisconsin the previous four years, Fleck needs to make a statement in Iowa City this Saturday and Minneapolis on November 27th. Not just because the destiny of Big Ten West title will be in the balance in both games but because true program progress cannot be confirmed without these victories.

The importance in defeating Iowa and Wisconsin isn’t just the fact that they are the most despised teams among Gopher fans or saving Floyd and holding the Axe is essential to Minnesota fandom’s mental well-being. The importance is that, as much as we would never want to admit it, these two rival programs represent what we hope Minnesota football can become. Annually competitive, occasionally elite, and one or two bounces away from playing in the Big Ten title game, with the slimmest glimmer of hope for perhaps those mythic lands beyond. They represent the level that we so hopelessly desire and want our program to strive for and eventually attain. By beating these teams more consistently than once a presidential cycle, it would not only indicate yearly superiority but true upward movement for the program we so desperately want to see succeed at a level that is reasonable given the university’s size and resources.

Fan is short for fanatic. So excuse my hyperbole and fanaticism when I say that nothing else matters this season except those two late November games, especially now that they will very likely determine who wins the Big Ten West. I say that both for this season and beyond. If PJ Fleck is truly going to leave an indelible mark on the University of Minnesota, it starts with winning the games that mean the most. The 2018 victory over Wisconsin was proclaimed a “program-changer”. The 2019 victory over Penn State was as well. But if you still can’t come within a field goal of Iowa or beat Wisconsin more than once in four tries, did you really change anything about the Minnesota Golden Gopher football program?

I don’t mean to discredit what Fleck has done for the program, especially considering the incredibly challenging circumstances surrounding it when he took the helm in January of 2017 and the adversity faced in the midst of the pandemic. He has absolutely changed the program for the better. But at some point in time, we want to see our team win more than it loses against its biggest rivals. So it all boils down to one important question: If Coach Fleck can’t change the current trajectory of those marquee matchups, has he, in his five years as head coach, really changed the most important and essential component of the program’s on-field product?

While the answer to this question can be debated by Gophers fans ad nauseum, there’s no denying that more than just Floyd of Rosedale and Paul Bunyan’s Axe will be on the line come Saturday and the 27th, respectively. Mark your calendars accordingly, grab your oars, and hope that PJ Fleck truly is different from his predecessors at accomplishing a Gopher coach’s most essential and important task.