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Despite Loss, Gophers’ Future Bright

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December 1, 2019

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The Golden Gophers lost two of their last three games, including getting axed last night by border rival Wisconsin, 38-17. But their regular season ended with a 10-2 record and a share of the Big Ten West Division title with the Badgers. Prior to the season Minnesota was a popular media pick to finish sixth among the division’s seven teams.

It was the kind of season more than 100 FBS programs wish they had experienced. And most Gophers players and coaches from the last 50 years didn’t even come close to the highs achieved by the 2019 team that was coming off a 3-6 Big Ten record last fall.

Minnesota won a school record seven conference games. The Gophers were 7-2 in the Big Ten, with the other league loss coming two weeks ago to another hated border rival, Iowa. The Saturday prior to the Iowa loss, the Gophers had upset No. 5 ranked Penn State in Minneapolis. The victory was the most significant in the 10-year history of TCF Bank Stadium, and vaulted Minnesota into a top national 10 ranking, and into the conversation of qualifying for the four-team College Football Playoffs.

That’s a lofty place for a program that hasn’t had one of its teams finish a season in the national top 10 since 1962. Minnesota will drop from that grouping when the polls come out later today, but this Gophers team will be the first with 10 wins since 1905. That team from long ago had a 10-1 record.

What head coach P.J. Fleck, his assistants and players did this fall was to revive a dormant program and make the Gopher brand respected here and nationally. The last two home games of the season sold out, with a beyond capacity crowd yesterday of 53,756 turning out on a snowy day. ESPN College GameDay came to town and Gophers fans packed the Northrop Mall Saturday morning despite the wintry weather.

The Badgers spoiled the fun later in the day, showing better line play on both offense and defense. The Badger coaches made successful adjustments including sustained blitzing of Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and having their defensive backs push the boundaries of pass interference. On offense, the Badgers found the Gophers packing the line of scrimmage to stop Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor from dashing through the snow unrestricted, but dialed up misdirection plays and mismatches that confused Minnesota.

The Badgers travel party left Minneapolis with Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a ticket to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis next Saturday to play the nation’s best team, Ohio State. That will be the Badgers’ sixth conference title appearance in the nine year history of the game.

Overlooking the program’s success is the man who started a remarkable change in Madison in 1990, Barry Alvarez. Now the Wisconsin athletics director, Alvarez’s first assignment in Madison was as head coach, taking over a laughing stock program that had minimal talent and fan support. The cocky Alvarez, though, had a plan to change the culture of Wisconsin football and after a few years it was evident to the college football world he was a winner.

The 1993 Badgers won the Big Ten title and earned their way to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1963. Among those witnessing the Badger miracle was athletic department administrator Joel Maturi, who would take over as Minnesota’s athletic director in 2002.

P.J. Fleck

Maturi told Sports Headliners he sees similarities between Fleck and Alvarez, who during his 16 year head coaching career won three Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls for the Badgers. “I’ve said that more than once (the similarities),” Maturi said.. “There is no question, and I was there when that happened.”

Although the Badgers didn’t take off under Alvarez until year four, Fleck came up with a breakthrough year in his third season at Minnesota. “But they both had a plan,” Maturi said. “They both stuck with the plan. It was sold internally immediately. The kids bought into it, and then eventually the fans bought into it, and that’s what happened at Wisconsin and that’s what happened here at Minnesota.”

Alvarez created a new culture in Madison, and Fleck used the “C” word from day one in Minneapolis. Fleck’s enthusiasm was at first over the top for a lot of Gophers followers but his “Row the Boat” philosophy caught on inside the program and eventually in the community.

“I don’t think he cared what everybody else thought about it,” Maturi said. “I think he said that very openly and publicly. I think that rubbed some people the wrong way. But winning has… changed that. It’s…(gone) from the team rowing the boat to everybody rowing the boat.”

Fleck inherited a program that was in a better place than Alvarez did. The Gophers won nine games in 2016, the season before Fleck took over at Minnesota. That 2016 season and in 2014 Minnesota had winning Big Ten records, twice having five victories. But Fleck started chasing and getting higher ranked recruits like potential All-America wide receiver Rashod Bateman, and he fixed what seemed like a forever struggle at quarterback, with Tanner Morgan becoming one of the most efficient passers in the country. Yesterday had a disappointing result, but dating back to last year Minnesota has won 13 of its last 16 games.

“You gotta give the guy credit,” Maturi said. “He’s done one heck of a job. I think what I am excited about is I don’t think it’s a one time thing. I am excited…for the future of Gopher football.”

The Gophers benefitted this year from a favorable schedule, with only four opponents having above .500 records. But Fleck, his staff and players made the most of their opportunities, including winning close games and upsetting Penn State. They handled their success as the season developed, with their only losses coming in games where they were underdogs. A week from today they will receive a quality bowl invitation and a chance to build momentum and fan interest for 2020.

In a heartbeat Gophers fans would take a career path from Fleck like that of Alvarez.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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