If Minnesota keeps winning, P.J. Fleck will get tantalizing offers to leave. But should he?
MINNEAPOLIS — They’re worried around here.
They usually are. See, in the Land of 10,000 Disappointments, there’s a formula.
It’s probably not gonna go well. If it does, be prepared for heartbreak at the end anyway.
The best season in Minnesota Vikings’ history ended in a fluke missed field goal. The best play in that franchise’s existence came a week before a blowout playoff exit. The Timberwolves have been to the NBA playoffs once in the past 16 years. The Twins haven’t made it past the LDS since 2002. The “State of Hockey’s” first NHL team reached the 1991 Stanley Cup Final only to be moved to Texas — Texas! — 2 years later.
Some of sport’s greatest luminaries started here but didn’t say. David Ortiz. Kevin Garnett. Marian Gaborik.
So it’s no surprise that, for many Golden Gopher football fans, P.J. Fleck’s departure for an apparently bigger gig is a foregone conclusion.
One fan recently said he hopes “Minnesota makes the Rose Bowl but then loses so we get to hold on to Fleck longer.”
What about the College Football Playoff?
“No. He’d be gone for sure.”
Afternoon KFAN sports radio host Dan Barreiro seems to make an almost-daily reference to Fleck’s imminent departure for USC or Notre Dame. Tennessee is one of several other eventual destinations that get tossed around on social media and message boards.
What was your favorite P.J. in Minnesota moment? https://t.co/6H39pO6mXR
— Dan Barreiro (@DanBarreiroKFAN) November 4, 2019
Of course, it was no coincidence Minnesota inked Fleck to a 7-year, $33.25 million contract extension when his name was tied to last season’s Florida State vacancy.
But even the most seasoned statistician or data analyst has to admit just because it was, doesn’t mean it will be. Past trends don’t guarantee future repetitions.
And truth be told, “Row the Boat” makes a lot more sense at a place known for its lakes than on the Pacific Coast or in the Great Smoky Mountains.
It’s already been 3 years since Philip John Fleck crashed into Planet Dinkytown with his Row the Boat banner, “#HYPRRR” (How Yours Process Result Response”) cultural mantra and frenetic use of the word “elite,” including in passing conversation and informal greetings in the hallways at coaching conventions.
Billboards hawking season tickets didn’t feature pristine TCF Bank Stadium or Goldy Gopher — just Fleck, pullover, dress shirt and tie included. Life-size cardboard pop-ups of him appeared in local Cub Foods locations. You couldn’t start the annual Goldy’s Run 5K without listening to an impassioned speech from Fleck over the PA system. You couldn’t miss him sprinting down the field after warmups or wearing a mic at open preseason practices, his already-booming voice reverberating around TCF Bank Stadium.
The reigning Big Ten coach of the year has about 10,000 more Twitter followers than his team’s official account.
Fleck isn’t just the face of the program. In many ways, he is the program.
The schtick attracts scorn around college football, and it did here, too — at first.
But it’s worked.
The 39-year-old Energizer Bunny’s ability to connect with 18-22-year-old athletes and get them to come to a nontraditional college football destination, then develop them into All-B1G talent, isn’t all that short of remarkable. The cupboard wasn’t bare in 2017, but Fleck and his staff deserve a lion’s share of credit for building the team that went 11-2 and beat a pair of Top 10 teams last year.
Before 2019, Minnesota hadn’t won 10 regular-season games since 1905.
“We’re doing everything we can to set a new standard and an expectation here of what Minnesota Golden Gopher football looks like,” Fleck said after Minnesota fell to rival Wisconsin in last year’s regular-season finale. “We just accomplished nevers, firsts, restorations. We’ve got the older-generation people thinking, ‘we’ve got a chance to go back to the Rose Bowl.’ Legitimately.
“Let’s not start thinking ‘well, (losing big games is) typical’ — that has to be out of our system. There’s going to be cynics, there’s going to be doubters, there’s going to be critics, but the true fans, what we want them to do is get that completely out of their mind because we are not going back to that.”
Today, Minnesota football is a cult of personality. Fleck’s big, boisterous personality.
But that doesn’t always work in places where college football is more central to the local cultural fabric. Ask a fan of any SEC team and most B1G bluebloods, for example, if they think their program is bigger than one man, and you’ll probably get a resounding “yes.”
Can you picture Fleck showing up at USC and putting an oar emblem on the helmet?
It’s hard to imagine Fleck showing up in a place Tennessee and pulling the same levers.
Minnesota is different. Its recent tradition includes wildly celebrating 8- and 9-win seasons under Jerry Kill. Before him, the Gophers spent decades just happy to make a bowl game — any bowl game.
Their last crack at the Roses? 1961.
Until recently, the U of M was well behind in the collegiate infrastructure arms race, too. The newly-minted Athletes Village in Minneapolis changed that, but nice buildings and state-of-the-art workout facilities are becoming table stakes in major college football.
And it’s never going to be easy to get a kid who plays football year-round in the South or California to spend 4 years in the coldest environment he’s ever experienced. Like feel-it-in-your-bones, have-to-cough-when-you-walk-outside-just-to-catch-your-breath, inside-of-your-nostrils-freezing-over cold.
It takes extraordinary energy. Effort. Relatability. In a society that celebrates individualism — especially among the members of Generation Z college football coaches currently deal with — Fleck captures all of that.
Is that healthy? Is it right? That’s a different discussion for a different column, likely on a different website.
The Gophers also spend every season vying for share of wallet and share of voice in a market featuring NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA and MLS teams and a bevy of other entertainment options. All in a time when college football attendance is already decreasing and a younger generation of fan consumes the sport on the couch or the smartphone just as much as in the stadium. Not to mention what the economic fallout of COVID-19 will mean for Minnesotans’ expendable income — or lack thereof.
Every successful business has at least one key differentiator that sets it apart from competitors.
You can see it in the way he’s handled the pandemic, inspiring players to work out as if there’s a full season on the horizon despite rampant uncertainty. He endeared himself to his team and the Twin Cities even further with messages of hope and understanding in the wake of George Floyd’s killing while in Minneapolis police custody.
On the more practical side, Fleck is also a born-and-bred B1G footprint guy. Time as both a player and coach at Northern Illinois and coaching stops at Rutgers and Ohio State before taking the reins at Western Michigan helped Fleck establish a network of contacts throughout the region. Fleck doesn’t recruit at the same level he has bereft of those connections.
He’s also a family man. Fleck’s wife, Heather, has become ingrained in the community herself, and their four children have found a home in Minnesota.
Sure, money talks. And Fleck’s never been one to shy away from the spotlight.
But there aren’t many programs where it can shine so obviously on one individual without drawing insurmountable ire.
We’re not saying Fleck won’t ever leave. It just might not come as quickly as folks around here think.
The opportunities will surely present themselves if Minnesota keeps winning. But when they do, Fleck would be wise to put down the loudspeaker for a minute, look in the mirror and ask if he’s going to find a better fit than he has here.