Expectations can be a bitch.
We all very much expected the Gophers would beat Bowling Green (reasonably so) and were very disappointed when they did not.
We all expected they would beat Illinois at home and go into a huge Iowa game with a winning streak, the disappointment following that Illini loss was intense.
And really I personally came into this season with rather high expectations, expecting a couple bumps but a 9-3 regular season with a legitimate shot at winning the West.
They fell short of those 9 wins and they are not playing next Saturday in Indianapolis. And really two of the team’s 4 losses were kind of ugly.
But here’s the perspective today. Winning at this level is really hard. Like really difficult.
I’ve mentioned before that I really cringe at what I suspect will be the attitude and expectations of Gopher fans when we take yet another step with a successful season like winning the West or (gasp) getting to the Rose Bowl. This season was a good season. Not a great season, not an elite season but if we are going to be disappointed with an 8-win regular season that includes a win over one or your chief rivals, then we REALLY need to check ourselves and evaluate what are realistic expectations for this program.
It is often said over and over that we just really want to be at the same level as Iowa and Wisconsin. Consistently winning seasons, having a shot at winning the West late in the season and winning rivalry trophies more than once in a decade.
But here is the truth, winning and especially winning consistently is hard.
There are teams with more resources, a stronger recruiting base, more support from administration and a much richer history of success than the Gophers who are really struggling to win consistently.
Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016. Say what you want about the unrealistic expectations of that fanbase or athletic department, but not even a .500 record in 5 years is something. Texas has been below .500 in half of their seasons since Mack Brown retired. We do not have the recruiting base, the cache, the history or the money that Texas has and they have been incredibly mediocre in the Big 12 for just shy of a decade. Florida is about to be on their 4th coach in 12 seasons since Urban Meyer. Florida State had things going well under Jimbo Fischer but since he bailed they have been very average as well. Again, the recruiting bases and national brand that those two schools have and they were playing against each other with bowl eligibility on the line last Saturday.
Winning is hard.
And I haven’t touched on the dozens of other programs that are really in the same boat as Minnesota. Mid-level teams that are trying to gain a foothold and take a step towards a higher level of consistency. Indiana was primed to take another step forward and had the bottom drop out under Tom Allen. Purdue has been up and down, lacking consistency from season to season under Jeff Brohm. It took Dave Clawson till year 10 at Wake Forest before he hit the 10-win mark and the ACC Championship game. Pitt, the other ACC champ participant, has been lingering around 7 or 8 wins until this the 7th year of Pat Narduzzi. There are so many teams at this level who are trying to win consistently and take “the next step.”
Winning is hard for helmet schools AND the mid-level schools.
If getting to the level of Iowa or Wisconsin is the goal for now, we are rather close. Because the Iowa/Wisconsin level is not far off for the Gopher program when looking at the last 3 seasons. Minnesota is getting there, they have not arrived and even if they do there will be steps back once in a while.
After Kirk Ferentz got his Hawkeye program up and running, he went on a 10 year stretch with winning 7 games or less in 6 of those seasons. Seasons 2005 through 2014 he had 8+ wins only 4 times. My point is that even after three consecutive seasons of 10+ wins, Iowa was relatively middle of the pack for the next decade. Progress is not linear and once you have an elite season that is NOT the baseline. Because winning is hard.
So about the current Gopher program?
2019 for the Gophers was a fantastic ride, but it is not the baseline. 2021 was a good season, even if it fell short of winning the West or getting to the Rose Bowl when the West was very winnable. And when we do accomplish those, there may still be 7-5 or 6-6 seasons in our future. There is another post in my future that addresses the steps we are still looking for this program to take, but 2021 was a good season and the day that people not happy with an 8-win season and The Axe is either the point when we are competing consistently as a national level or expectations are OUT OF CONTROL and I may need to hang up my keyboard to save my sanity.
To date, I cannot be more thrilled with PJ Fleck as the man leading the Gopher program. Make no mistake, he is not perfect. His staff is not perfect and his recruiting success will not be 100%. But once again, winning consistently at this level is hard and although Fleck is not perfect my question will always be, “if not him then who?”
Looking back over the last couple decades there is not a Gopher coach who has done more in his first five seasons and shown that taking the next step is possible. Glen Mason certainly elevated the program from awful to respectable. Tim Brewster did his best to reverse that momentum. Jerry Kill and Tracey Claeys build a foundation brick by brick to have a nice run between 2013 and 2016. But PJ Fleck seems to be the best of all of what’s been built.
I do firmly believe that Fleck is going to continue to build this program and more wins will come. A trip to Indy will happen at some point, more rivalry trophies will be collected and maybe, just maybe a trip to Pasadena.
Is it a guarantee? Nope, but of any coach in my lifetime this is the first time I have confidence that it is a realistic possibility. Just keep rowing that boat.