Like many of you, I have been following Gopher football closely for many years. I’m not old (well maybe, but I’m not), but I’ve been a big fan really going back to the Jim Wacker years. I frequently would make the 90 drive north to watch the Gophers fail in the Metrodome as a kid. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be covering the Gophers for The Daily Gopher since roughly 2006, just in time for the Tim Brewster years.
Gopher fans have endured a lot. We suffered greatly through the Wacker and Brewster years. We were consistently teased in the Mason era. We build back respectability (brick by brick) under Kill/Claeys. And now we find ourselves finishing up year 6 of rowing the boat under Fleck.
Before I dive into where we stand and what comes next, it is vitally important for me to note that we fight against entitlement and/or a sense that if we aren’t taking 1 step forward every, single season then it is a system failure. We are not entitled to anything because 2019 was a great season. We are not entitled to 9-win seasons because we’ve become accustomed to 8-win seasons. Maybe it is less about entitlement and more about having unrealistic expectations and then how we respond when those expectations are not met.
Never, ever forget that consistently winning at this level is really hard. Everybody is investing in their programs, every institution is trying to find that right coaching fit to make their program better. Every program knows how important recruiting is. Some are better at this than others, but it is really hard. And some steps forward are harder than others. But the key here is to recognize that it’s hard, progress is not linear and we really should act as though we are entitled to anything.
But the questions today are about how far have we come and what comes next?
How far have we come?
PJ Fleck took over a program that was really in a decent place, especially when compared to what Jerry Kill was left with when he took over. The culture really did need to be changed, but the cupboard was not bare. The elite 2019 team was a really nice mix of some very good, early Fleck recruits (Rashad Bateman, Tanner Morgan, Daniel Faalele, Jordan Howden, John Michael Schmitz, Micah Dew-Treadway). But most of the offensive line and the defense were from that 2016 Empire recruiting class, courtesy of Kill & Claeys (Antoine Winfield Jr, Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin, Sam Schleuter, Connor Olson, Coney Durr).
But make no mistake, it was the Fleck staff that put this team in a position to succeed in the manner that they did.
Overall, it is really hard to argue the level of success that Fleck has had in his first 6 seasons.
For such a long time the ask of Gopher fans was to be at the level of Iowa and Wisconsin. To be a competitive football team that was in the mix for a division title once in a while. And to be fair, I would argue that this has been achieved. They clearly have not yet won a Big Ten West title (more on that in a bit), but they have clearly been in the mix for this in 3 of the last 4 years. And as far as competing with Iowa/Wisconsin? Well, again, more on that later.
But the list of accomplishments is long.
- He is the only Gopher coach in decades to have a .500 Big Ten winning percentage.
- He has put quite a number of players into the NFL, more than the last few coaching staffs can lay claim to.
- The Gophers have beaten Wisconsin 3 of the last 4 seasons!
- Achieved a top-10 BCS ranking in 2019.
- 3-0 in bowl games, including a drubbing of Auburn in a Jan. 1 bowl.
- A number of coaches have left for better jobs, indicating he is hiring the right people.
Recruiting is better, consistency of winning is better, competitiveness with the good teams in our division is there, the product on the field is just better, the number of distractions off the field has been non-existent and I have zero doubt that the program is in a far better place than it was 6 years ago.
There is room for improvement and criticism is fair, but any notion of massive changes needed or that there maybe the program needs a new direction is ridiculous in my mind.
So what comes next?
There has been a lot of meat left on the bone, so to speak. Despite having some good teams and getting in a position to represent the West in Indianapolis, it hasn’t materialized. Despite doing most of the things necessary to beat Iowa, a win over the Hawkeyes has not yet been realized. And the Rose Bowl has been tantalizing close a couple seasons, only to feel incredibly far away when the 12th game has been played.
Even writing that last paragraph out, I cringe a little bit. Is this a little entitlement seeping in? A program that hasn’t sniffed a Rose Bowl since the 60s and now I’m disappointed that we haven’t achieved this yet by Fleck’s 6th season?
But the misses have been frustrating. The Iowa losses are demoralizing.
So I think we all know what needs to come next.
First and foremost, Fleck needs to beat Iowa. I could make a strong argument that the Gophers were the better team in 2019, 2021 and 2022. We lost in all three of those seasons. The flip side of this is that we’ve taken control of the Wisconsin rivalry, but those Iowa losses are the biggest reason we did not go to Indy in 2019 and 2021. Iowa is THE reason we weren’t playing in Pasadena on January 1, 2020. Fleck needs to beat Iowa.
Secondly, a Big Ten West championship is reasonable. Hell, Purdue somehow managed to navigate the parity of the West this year and is going to Indianapolis for the first time. What makes this interesting is that the West is not going to get easier. Illinois appears to be getting better, the Nebraska & Wisconsin hires both appear to be very good, Iowa is always going to be in the mix and Purdue and Northwestern have combined to win the West 3 of the last 5 seasons.
By suggesting that winning the West is reasonable, I don’t mean that it is easy or even expected. Remember? Winning consistently at this level is hard and sometimes backwards steps are taken.
And a Rose Bowl? Well, that is going to remain elusive and maybe will never happen. Partly because of just how difficult it is to achieve, particularly when selection criteria is at least partially subjective. And also because with the shifting landcape of college football, the traditional Rose Bowl matchup may become a thing of the past.
The real next steps are to just keep rowing the boat.
The results have been good. Again, the only Gopher coach to have a .500 record in DECADES.
The recruiting has been good. You don’t see them vaulting up the Big Ten recruiting rankings but the results have spoken for themselves with 11 Gophers being drafted in the last 3 years, and four players going in the first three rounds. More will be drafted this year, including John Michael Schmitz who will also be a 1st or 2nd day pick.
There is stability on the coaching staff. Kenni Burns may end up getting a shot to be a head coach this offseason and there may be some changes made at other positions. But for the most part, there is a solid staff in place that does well.
The talent on the roster is balanced with some promising young players and a good track record of picking up quality graduate transfers to fill gaps.
There is reason for optimism. And it is OK to ask for patience. Patience is hard, especially in today’s sport’s environment. But let me point this out.
Kirk Ferentz had a good first 9 years as Iowa’s coach before he really had a few breakout seasons.
- 2008 (year 10 for Ferentz) - 9-4
- 2009 - 11-2 (Orange Bowl)
- 2010 - 8-5
Those three seasons saw three bowl wins at Outback, Orange (BCS Bowl) and Insight. They won 2 out of 3 against Minnesota with 2 shutouts! Things were looking up for Iowa, but through 12 seasons, they still hadn’t reached the Rose Bowl. Then this happened...
- 2011 - 7-6
- 2012 - 4-8
- 2013 - 8-5
- 2014 - 7-6
Four seasons of sustained mediocrity, losing 3 of 4 bowl games and splitting with the Gophers (including giving up 51 points in 2014). Can you imagine how Gopher message boards and Twitter would react if we followed up those prior 3 seasons by going 26-25 (15-17 in B1G) over the next 4?
But Iowa was patient. They had now gone 14 seasons under Ferentz without a Rose Bowl trip. Hayden Fry had been to 3 in his first 12 seasons.
Then in 2015 they went 12-2, earned a trip to the Rose Bowl and have had no fewer than 8 wins in any season until this year. They are consistently ranked and have been consistently successful in the Big Ten West.
The point is not that anything is guaranteed, but sometimes it just requires patience.
There is no reason to be concerned with the state of the Gopher program. There are steps yet to be taken, but be patient Gopher fans.