PJ Fleck is entering his 6th season at the Gopher head football coach. The season kicks off this week on Thursday against the man who had previously run the Gopher football program.
With 5 seasons under his belt, Fleck has coached the exact same number of games as Jerry Kill who abruptly retired after 4 1⁄2 seasons leading the program. Each with basically 4 1⁄2 seasons under their belt. Which makes a program comparison interesting, doubly so when you factor in that they face each other at Huntington Bank Stadium to open the 2022 season. It was during his 6th season that Kill abruptly retired for health reasons and Tracey Claeys was allowed to take the reigns for a season and a half.
But since the two most tenured Gopher coaches since Glen Mason are facing each other in week 1 of the 2022 season, it makes for an interesting comparision and a look at where the program stands.
The Jerry Kill Era (2011-15)
Kill took over a Gopher program that was by all accounts, a complete disaster. There are very few good things to be said about Tim Brewster and the state that he left the program. Kill was specifically chosen because he had a demonstrated record of rebuilding programs and putting them on a solid foundation.
“Brick by brick” was the mantra as Kill and staff worked to build a foundation for the program. It started with instilling more team discipline. His methods may not have been ideal, using shaming to get kids to be compliant isn’t usually a teachable moment. But nonetheless, the team slowly began improving their reputation for showing up to class and doing the work necessary to become better football players.
Discipline on the field became more evident as well. Players understanding where they needed to be and how to stay within their assignments translated improved play on the field as well.
He build the program brick by brick in recruiting as well. Instead of recruiting to star ratings, Kill and staff began to identify players who fit, players who would learn the system and could grow into Big Ten caliber players.
This began to work.
After struggling to a 3-9 initial record, Kill’s teams won 6 in year 2 and then went 8-4 in the regular season during his third and fourth seasons. Only Glen Mason had accomplished this since Murray Warmath in the 60s.
Taking the next step? Much like Glen Mason, that proved elusive. Whether that was because of the unfortunate circumstances of Kill having his health force him into retirement after the first 7 games of 2014? Or if the program was plateauing.
Kill retired after starting 4-3, with Tracey Claeys taking over to finish out the season and was offered the job for 2015 as well.
What becomes an interesting discussion is whether or not Kill and staff, or even Claeys on his own, would have been successful in the following years.
On the one hand, this staff struggled mightily to recruit a capable quarterback. But on the other hand, it was Kill/Claeys who recruited the likes of Antoine Winfield, Carter Coughlin, Tyler Johnson, Sam Schlueter, Kamal Martin, and Conner Olson; all of whom were instrumental to the success of that 2019 team.
Undeniably, Kill and Claeys raised the floor of the program. It was in better shape when they left than it was when they took over. The cicumstances surrounding Claeys being dismissed were multi-faceted, primarily driven by the fact that a new athletic director had been hired who wanted to hire his guy for the future of the football program.
PJ Fleck Era (2017 - present)
And the guy that Mark Coyle targeted was PJ Fleck.
Fleck came in and limped to a 5-7 record in his first season. Largely due to being saddled without a quarterback from the prior staff and trying to establish his culture into those who were a part of the program.
But following that first season, Fleck has been very good at continuing to build the Gopher program to one that is consistently in the mix for a Big Ten West title (though has yet to actually accomlish this feat).
Year three was the real breakout season when the Gophers earned a top 10 ranking at one point in the season, finished with 11 wins and managed to dominate Auburn in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
The overall health of the program appears to be very strong. The depth across all positions is there, the team is consistenly winning, Paul Bunyan’s Axe has been here 2 of the last 3 seasons, the team is very successful in the classroom and there have been little to no issues of players misbehaving off the field.
This 2022 season is one where depth and the concept of reloading instead of rebuilding should be tested. But there is optimism that many of those questions are going to be answered and this team could be very good again.
The Kill Chip
What has been increasingly currious is the byplay between Kill and Fleck.
This has all been well-documented and Kill has been rather vocal of his dislike of PJ Fleck since 2017. I debated making this the key focus of today’s TMP, but it has been covered well by Blake.
Ultimately, since departing the University of Minnesota, Jerry has shown himself to be rather insecure and thin-skinned about things. He was not happy that his guy Claeys was let go. He was not happy that Fleck made public comments about changing the culture here. And he has made his thoughts on PJ Fleck as a man very clear.
But the joke is on Kill as he gets to hit the road on Thursday and is the week 1 opponent of the Gophers in Huntington Bank Stadium.
Surely his comments about Fleck are on Fleck’s mind. The current Gopher coach is very adept at playing nice publically and claims he has nothing but admiration for Jerry Kill. But also, Fleck has some pettiness to him as well and I’m sure he will do something in Thursday’s game to remind Coach Kill that this program is on another level now.
I would not expect your typical early-season game from the Gophers where they are vanilla and easing into the season. I still think they understand there is more to this season than running up the score on New Mexico State, but there will be points scored this week. A lot of them.