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P.J. Fleck and Minnesota are a match made in mediocrity

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“Tread Water” would be a more fitting mantra than “Row the Boat”

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Do you remember how you felt after the Penn State game in 2019?

I do.

I remember feeling relief, like a weight had been lifted. The stage had been set at the end of the game for the kind of heartbreak with which Gopher fans are intimately familiar: No. 4-ranked Penn State was in the red zone, needing only 11 yards for the go-ahead score that would snatch victory away from Minnesota in the final minutes of the game. But, as you well know, that game scripted a new ending to a familiar story. In doing so, it felt like some of the demons that have plagued this program had been exorcised, and P.J. Fleck spoke on that after the game:

“I’m sure there were some people on the final drive who said, ‘Oh here we go again.’ Gotta let go of all that. 50 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago. We gotta change at some point. I think this team’s proven that, that as we continue to go into the future, we don’t have to keep saying things like that.”

I was ready to change. I was ready to believe a corner had been turned. I went so far as to purchase one of those overpriced panoramic posters of the fans storming the field at TCF Bank Stadium after the game. That’s how much that game meant to me at the time.

As of this writing, that poster is in a dumpster. That’s how much it means to me now.

In hindsight, that game changed nothing. Minnesota traveled to Iowa City the following week and lost their fifth straight game to the Hawkeyes, ending their undefeated season. Two weeks later, the Gophers lost to Wisconsin, squandering the opportunity to punch their ticket to the program’s first Big Ten Championship. Since that win over Penn State, Minnesota is 11-10.

Nothing has changed. But this team is getting closer, P.J. Fleck assures us.

In the postgame press conference following the Gophers’ 27-22 loss to Iowa on Saturday, Fleck was asked what the program can do to get “over the hump” against the Hawkeyes, who are 5-0 against Fleck and have not lost to Minnesota since 2014. Though he made clear in his opening statement that there are no moral victories, he said he thought the team “played really good football,” adding that “we haven’t Iowa played like that” before.

“It’s so frustrating to say it, but it’s the next step, right? We got closer. And you gotta get closer before you can get over,” he said.

I don’t know about you, but I feel comforted. Five years into the P.J. Fleck era and we’re still looking for his first win over Iowa. But we’re getting closer. Fortunately he signed a new contract that runs through 2028, so he’ll have plenty more opportunities to close that gap. How long does it take to build a program that can beat Iowa once? Stay tuned to find out!

Gopher fans really don’t ask for much. They’d like to avoid embarrassing losses to teams like Bowling Green, take care of Big Ten cellar dwellers like Illinois, and beat Iowa and/or Wisconsin enough to breathe some life back into what have become one-sided rivalries.

But maybe we are asking too much of P.J. Fleck.

Consider this: Fleck is 2-8 at Minnesota against Top 25 opponents. He is 3-14 against Big Ten opponents with a record above .500, and 0-5 against Iowa and 1-3 against Wisconsin. But those records are consistent with his predecessors. Jerry Kill was 2-14 against Top 25 opponents, 1-3 against Iowa, and 0-4 against Wisconsin. In his first five seasons as head coach, Glen Mason was 3-15 against Top 25 opponents, 3-2 against Iowa, and 1-4 against Wisconsin. Kudos to Mason for that 3-2 record, though he would end up 4-6 in that rivalry series by the end of his tenure.

The point is that this is who Minnesota has been for 50+ years, regardless of who has been at the helm. University of Minnesota athletic Mark Coyle made as much clear when the Board of Regents, in reviewing Fleck’s new contract, asked about the bonuses for eight- and nine-win seasons. Coyle noted that consistent winning at that level has been rare for the Gophers.

He’s not wrong, either. In the history of the program, Minnesota has recorded 21 eight-win seasons, and only seven of those seasons have happened since 1968. They’ve only won nine games in a season nine times, and this is a program that has been around since 1882.

So it’s no use getting upset with Fleck. He’s simply upholding the standard of mediocrity that has been in place for decades now. We’re the fools who keep thinking this program can change.

I can live with Fleck as the head coach for the foreseeable future, but I’m done rowing. This boat’s not going anywhere and I’m tired. You are free to keep your oar in the water or break it over your knee. That’s up to you. I just don’t see the point in investing in this program anymore when it has never given us anything worthwhile in return. I don’t know that it ever will.