As Scott Frost and P.J. Fleck shook hands at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, my mind went to their similarities.
Both came to B1G West schools after delivering perfect regular seasons and earning their respective Group of 5 teams bids to New Year’s Six bowls. Both were considered the top or the second-best up-and-coming coach before taking the jobs they took. Both probably got a dose of reality soon thereafter that as much as they preached program progress, that was easier said than done.
It was Frost who was celebrated in front of a packed Memorial Stadium following his first victory. Frost was welcomed with a Gatorade bath that he jokingly called “inappropriate.” After all, it wasn’t like his team just clinched a division title or anything like that.
It was only a 25-point win against a Minnesota squad that came into Lincoln without a victory in conference play. Fleck admitted that he got out-coached by someone who got his first B1G win of 2018 before he did.
He’s right. He did get out-coached. And in the fourth straight game, his team got outplayed. The Gophers are now 0-4 in B1G play, staring at the possibility of missing a bowl in consecutive years for the second time in the 21st century.
As Frost appeared to right the ship, I couldn’t help but wonder about Fleck’s boat and if fans are frustrated that it appears to be stuck in neutral.
Fleck might’ve earned the Minnesota job similar to how Jerry Kill did — have a huge season in the MAC and cash in — but to say that they came in with the same buzz would be wildly inaccurate.
Fleck’s trademarked “Row the Boat” was the phrase of the year in college football when he was leading Western Michigan to a 13-0 start. A popular topic of discussion when Fleck was hired was “why?” As in, why wouldn’t Fleck hold out for a more prestigious program?
Now, there has to at least be some fans wondering if Fleck was good enough for Minnesota. The Gophers did win at least eight games in three of the previous four seasons with Kill and the ever low-profile Tracy Claeys. Even if there was an inevitable step back in Year 1 of the Fleck era with all of Minnesota’s roster attrition, most probably assumed that Fleck would start off better than 2-11 in B1G play.
In each of Fleck’s first two seasons, his team started off with at least a three-game losing streak in conference play after a sweep of a weak non-conference slate. You could probably make the argument that Fleck, like Frost, lost a few games his team could’ve won in the first part of 2017. Heading into the final two weeks of the season in need of one win for bowl eligibility, only one team had beat the Gophers by more than 14 points.
Since that time, Minnesota lost six straight B1G games by a combined score of 243-86 (-26.2 per game). And every one of those losses was by more than 14 points. Just for a little perspective, Rutgers has been outscored 247-66 by B1G teams in that same stretch, and actually it has a smaller margin of defeat at 25.9 points per game.
That’s rowing the boat the wrong way.
Pardon the bad joke, but a high profile coach tends to become an easy target when he doesn’t win. Pre-2018 Jim Harbaugh could relate to that to in a certain way. Obviously Gopher fans would love it if eight wins was their floor. That doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon.
The reality is, Fleck’s team has looked significantly overmatched playing in one of the most favorable divisions in the country. Has anything that happened in conference play suggest that he’s ready to take the program to the next level? Hanging tight with Ohio State for awhile shouldn’t be the answer to that question.
The offense that he was brought in to fix ranked No. 110 in scoring last year and is at No. 89 this year. Since that 48-point showing in the opener against woeful New Mexico State, Fleck’s offense is averaging 22.2 points per contest.
Yeah, Minnesota has a true freshman walk-on starting at quarterback who’s had some growing pains. But that really hasn’t been the issue. It’s a defense that’s allowing 43.3 points per game in B1G play. That’s not just a product of being without defensive stud Antoine Winfield Jr., either.
Even after allowing 653 yards of offense and 53 points, Fleck stood by defensive coordinator Robb Smith and said that he had faith in all of his coaches. In Fleck’s perfect world, he won’t have any staff turnover at season’s end and he can build the next Iowa or Wisconsin.
Remember this long-winded answer to a question about a coach staying at the same place for 20 years?
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 2, 2018
Call me crazy, but I don’t think that entire answer was about Kirk Ferentz. I think that Fleck, who just watched athletic director Mark Coyle sign a three-year extension, wants patience. He references “not being afraid to be younger,” which makes sense considering his roster was 72 percent freshmen and sophomores. Fleck also mentioned that he laid out a plan for how things would develop at least through Year 8.
In Fleck’s plan, I highly doubt that it consisted of struggling this much in Year 2. His idea of capitalizing on the university’s new $166 million Athletes Village was not looking like Rutgers West. His marketability has a shelf life, and unless he starts digging his way out of the B1G basement, it’ll get staler by the day.
On Tuesday, Fleck addressed the criticism he received in the wake of the Nebraska loss. He appreciated it, and admitted that criticism of his team’s performance was fair. He then ended his press conference with his usual “Row the Boat, Ski-U-Mah, Go Gophers,” which was said with a smile.
Fleck isn’t losing patience, but I can’t blame Minnesota fans if they are.