Preview 2017: Can P.J. Fleck Make Minnesota A Champion?
Minnesota has been good, but can P.J. Fleck be a star and make the program great?
Is P.J. Fleck the spark who can take Minnesota to an extra level, or is this going to be a bit of a step back to possibly take a giant leap forward?
Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys were on to something. It was a good plan – run well, play great defense, win the turnover battle, find recruits who fit the system, repeat.
The problem, though – before Claeys was fired after supporting the players who protested with a horribly ill-informed boycott threat over the suspensions of a few teammates following a sexual assault scandal – was that Minnesota was following the Wisconsin plan, but Wisconsin was and is doing it a whole lot better.
Had Claeys still been the head man, and if there weren’t the problems that kicked in at the end of last season, Minnesota might have been seen as one of those teams that might just sneak up on everyone and do something special.
However, while the program was building to the point where it might have been on the very of being really, really close to great, it also had the feel of being the try-hard type that one year might be in Big Ten title contention, and the next year – if there were a slew of injuries or bad breaks – could easily be fighting for some bottom-feeder bowl appearance.
And in comes Fleck, who’s sort of the anti-Kill/Claeys.
Fleck takes cheesy rhetoric to a whole other level, but he’s slick, young, brash, good-looking, and he knows he’s a star.
Turning 37 this season, he’s got the youthful energy to fly around at 1,000 miles per hour with his go-go-GO brand of coaching, but he also showed off the chops to take Western Michigan to a 13-0 regular season and the Cotton Bowl by building up the program that was sinking fast.
If he wins, he’s all of a sudden the Big Ten West’s biggest star and personality for a program that hasn’t known a whole lot of star power lately.
While Kill and Claeys were more like the coach’s coaches who were brilliant at figuring out the best way to take an undermanned underdog and keep games close, Fleck just thinks his team can beat your team – and he’ll utilize a dopey catchphrase to let you know it.
Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Illinois’ Lovie Smith are all great guys and fantastic to talk to, but they’re not Jim Harbaugh when it comes to promotion.
Pat Fitzgerald is the ultimate fire-and-brimstone coachey coach when it comes to pumping up Northwestern, but it’s been hard for him to break out into college football celebrity status, mainly because it’s Northwestern.
But how will the whole Fleck thing come across if Minnesota doesn’t win right away? The act will be fantastic theater if the Gophers become players in the West chase, and he’ll be a perfect lightning rod for opposing fan bases, but will it all wear thin when there’s a three-game losing streak?
It was a chance worth taking. He was the perfect hire at the perfect time for a program that needed to start fresh with a coach who somehow got through the offseason musical chair coaching search without a Power Five gig.
He almost certainly could’ve had the Cincinnati or Temple jobs – or almost any of the open Group of Five gigs – but he wanted bigger. Now Minnesota is hoping the meteoric rise continues.
But here’s Fleck’s issue in his first year – Minnesota got close, and there’s no taking a step back. Last year’s team might have been 9-4, but it was just this close to being truly amazing.
The Gophers had Penn State almost dead, but they couldn’t close – the Nittany Lion OT win turned out to be the spark to a Big Ten championship season. They lost to Iowa and Nebraska by seven points each – in games that could’ve gone either way – and had Wisconsin in trouble before melting down in the second half.
This year’s team has to find a new quarterback to replace Mitch Leidner, but that’s okay – the Gophers couldn’t throw a lick. There will be an instant boost to the passing game, while the rushing attack should be among the Big Ten’s most effective with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks leading a strong backfield behind another solid O line.
The defense that made such great strides last season has a terrific linebacking corps to work around and a good-looking secondary, but the pass rush has to come from the ends. Claeys – for all of his faults – did a marvelous job with the D last year, and there’s no reason for a slip.
In PK Emmit Carpenter and P Ryan Santoso, Minnesota might have the best kicking tandem, too.
And now it’s up to Fleck to make it all work.
The team is in place, the schedule is manageable, and now that Fleck owns the “Row The Boat” mantra – because Fleck isn’t the only one who can go cornball – the Land of 10,000 Lakes is ready for him.