Ex-Captain Opens Up on U Football
P.J. Fleck has more than a boatload of critics and doubters but the captain of the last Golden Gophers Big Ten championship football team believes Minnesotans should get behind the second-year coach, including filling up TCF Bank Stadium on game days.
Tom Sakal, captain of the 1967 Gophers, is retired now from a career as an insurance executive. Anyone who knew Sakal back in the 1960s isn’t surprised he climbed the corporate ladder. The former All-Big Ten defensive back from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania has long been a leader, and a person with the courage to say and do difficult things including military service in the jungles of Vietnam.
Between 1960 and 1968 the Gophers won one national championship, two Big Ten titles and split two Rose Bowls. During their best stretch, from 1960-1962, Minnesota’s record was 22-6-1. Sakal’s 1967 team tied for the Big Ten title and had an overall record of 8-2. That 1967 bunch, he will tell you, could play with any team in the country.
Minnesota’s title drought of more than 50 years has bugged the hell out of Sakal for a long time. More often than not, Minnesota hasn’t even been good enough to play better than .500 football during a Big Ten season. Since 1990, for example, the Gophers have just five years when they won more conference games than they lost. The Gophers have played in one New Year’s Day bowl game during their drought.
A year ago Sakal was in town for a 50-year reunion of his 1967 championship team. He was invited to breakfast with Fleck, who has been met with criticism and indifference by a lot of Gophers fans and media. Sakal told Fleck about his frustrations with U football for half a century. Sakal talked about how tired he was of losing games over the years, sometimes by large and embarrassing margins.
“I said this has been ridiculous over the years. It’s a disgrace,” Sakal told Sports Headliners in a telephone interview this week.
Sakal said he “pulled no punches” during the breakfast conversation with Fleck. “I said you need to recruit some big-time players. You need to get these facilities built up and continue to increase (them) on this campus.”
Fleck has two recruiting classes in as Gophers head coach after being named to his position in January of 2017. He and his staff had only a couple of weeks to work on the first recruiting class but since then things have become more interesting. The Gophers, in comparison with other major college programs, have drawn higher national rankings from recruiting experts than has historically been true at Minnesota. Another distinction from the past is Minnesota is bringing in more players that other major programs wanted, sometimes even convincing a recruit to say no to a blue-chip team like Georgia.
Sakal knows the importance of gifted talent from his own experiences in college football. He was part of a much publicized 1964 recruiting class at Minnesota that brought players in from football strongholds like Pennsylvania and as seniors they formed much of the 1967 title team’s core.
Now Sakal observes what Fleck is doing in recruiting and expresses some caution but also optimism. “Everything looks good on paper,” he said.
Sakal thinks about Fleck’s personality and sees a coach who can resonate with the teenagers he is trying to recruit. “The guy runs about 10,000 RPMs a second. He just has a different personality, a different approach to things. Enthusiastic. Boy, I haven’t seen anybody like him in a long time. Those are the things that I kind of like about the guy.”
Fleck is the first to acknowledge that not everyone likes him. His Row the Boat mantra and outspoken promotion about a new culture for the program has been too rah-rah for many in Gopher Nation. More to the point for many fans is that Minnesota won just two Big Ten games in Fleck’s first season after a 5-4 conference record in 2016. The overall record slipped from 9-4 to 5-7.
Fleck’s critics include friends Sakal made at the U while playing for the Gophers. Many were admirers of the Jerry Kill-Tracy Claeys era at Minnesota but are far from on board with Fleck. Those friends say Fleck hasn’t given credit to the foundation and good things from that Kill-Claeys era including the remarkable turn around in academics among players. Kill, known for his straight talk and folksy demeanor, was particularly popular with almost all Gophers fans and he had the program on the rise until health issues drove him out of coaching.
Sakal has watched the negative reaction of his longtime friends to Fleck and he is critical of them. “It started from day one. What the hell is wrong with you guys? He (hadn’t) even stepped on campus yet. You gotta give a guy a chance.”
Sakal receives second-guessing for being open-minded that Fleck can become successful at Minnesota. “I always get blasted. There’s only one thing I know about—winning and losing. All the other side rhetoric shows that go on, I could give a crap about. They were making a big deal out of this Row the Boat, Ski-U-Mah (stuff). …All I want is to look at the (news)paper and see Minnesota 9-1, 10-0, playing in a big bowl game, going for the national championship. I could care less about this stuff.”
Sakal isn’t guaranteeing the Gophers will become a consistent winner under Fleck but he argues everyone should give the 37-year-old coach time and support before making judgments. “I personally think it will take four to five years (to establish the program),” Sakal said. “And I think it needs a thousand percent support by all Minnesotans. There is no reason, no reason whatsoever, that we can’t have a full stadium regardless of what our record is. They need to support the Gophers. …I think we can be a power again.”
The Gophers have 113 players on their roster and 60 of them—or 53.1 percent—are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Those are the highest numbers in the country among major college football programs.
Those figures indicate a Gophers breakthrough isn’t coming this year. Sakal agrees with others, including local and national media, that Minnesota’s win total will be around five games. But a conversation with Sakal includes hints he believes the program is going in the right direction.
Some day, Sakal said, the U may have to make Fleck among the best paid coaches in the land. “I think the Gophers are going to find out they’re going to pay for his success in the end. He’s not going to come cheap, that’s for sure.”
If so, Sakal will consider the cost a long overdue debt that was finally paid off.