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Gophers Fleck Eyes Stadium Expansion

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April 2, 2017

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You have to give P.J. Fleck credit for ambition and vision. The new Gophers football coach hasn’t even completed the team’s spring practice schedule, but last Friday night he was talking about expanding the seating capacity of TCF Bank Stadium.

The dynamic 36-year-old arrived in Minneapolis January 6 after four years as head coach at Western Michigan, and he started pointing the program toward eventual Big Ten and (yes) even national championships. On Friday evening he stood in front of a packed room at the DoubleTree Hotel in St. Louis Park and spoke about creating a lot more ticket buyers at TCF Bank Stadium.

“You see, we have 55,000 seats in our stadium, but my plan already three years down the road is to expand it to 85,000,” Fleck told an audience of high school and youth football coaches.

Fleck wants to grow his program’s budget and referenced a “certain rival” who has $40 million more in budget than the Gophers. How to catch up?

“(Add) 30,000 more seats,” Fleck said. “But to be able to do that we have to connect people who don’t even like football.”

P.J. Fleck

At the Minnesota Football Coaches Clinic Fleck didn’t talk Xs and Os. Instead the message was often about “culture,” or connecting with people inside and outside his program. He hinted at aggressive marketing efforts for Gophers football coming this spring and summer.

Part of the messaging will be to convince the public, even those who don’t care much about football, that the Gophers enrich the quality of life in the state with what they do both on and off the field (think community service)—and are worthy of support including on Saturday afternoons at TCF Bank Stadium. “Our program is about two things. Serving and giving. That’s it,” Fleck told the audience.

When speaking about budgets, Fleck didn’t say who that “certain rival” is but it could likely be Wisconsin. The Badgers draw sellout crowds of more than 80,000 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. There is no doubt behind the scenes Fleck is taking dead aim on the Badgers who turned around their program in both results and support in the 1990s. Wisconsin has won 13 consecutive games against Minnesota.

Fleck, who years ago started a bucket list that included becoming a Big Ten coach, is full of energy and ideas. He concedes his dynamo style and lofty ambitions aren’t for all, but some authorities think Fleck deserves a place among America’s most promising young coaches.

“I’ve got a good feeling about him taking this job,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe told the coaches Friday night at the clinic, which is an annual project of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association. Cutcliffe is 62 and old enough to be Fleck’s dad, but he knows the young coach’s story at Western Michigan where in four years he took the Broncos from 1-11 to 13-1, and built a fan base never seen before in Kalamazoo.

Fleck received a standing ovation when he stepped to the podium Friday night and then he reached out to his audience. His talking points included praise for the work of the state’s prep coaches. He acknowledged there are many resources to make Gophers football elite but said, “…If we didn’t have the (quality) high school coaches we have in the state of Minnesota, I would not have taken the job. I recruited this area. I remember it vividly.”

Fleck referred to himself as a young “schmuck” when he was recruiting as a member of the Northern Illinois staff and Minnetonka High School coach Dave Nelson showed him the kindness of inviting him into the Nelson home. That made a lasting impression on Fleck and he acknowledged Nelson, the MFCA Hall of Fame coach who was seated in the audience.

Many coaches in attendance at the DoubleTree are admirers of former Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “Jerry Kill saved my career,” Fleck said. “I was let go when (Northern Illinois head coach) Joe Novak retired. Jerry Kill retained me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Jerry Kill.”

Worth Noting

Ron Stolski

MFCA executive director Ron Stolski said there were over 1,700 attendees at the clinic—the ninth consecutive year attendance has increased.

Totino-Grace’s Jeff Ferguson was recognized as the MFCA’s Man of the Year. His Eagles won the 6A state title last year. In 15 seasons as head coach of the Eagles his record is 173-21, with eight state titles in classes 4A, 5A and 6A.

Clinic speakers included North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman and several assistants. Bison defensive coordinator Matt Entz told Sports Headliners that 40 percent of the NDSU players are Minnesotans.

Stolski will speak at the Bison spring football clinic on Friday. The Brainerd coach’s talk is titled “A Coach’s Journey: Lessons Learned in Six Decades on the Field.”

The clinic’s keynote speaker will be Jon Gruden, the former NFL head coach and now an ESPN football analyst.

The Twins announced this afternoon they have placed left-handed pitcher Glen Perkins on the 60-day disabled list with a left posterior shoulder strain. They have also selected the contract of catcher Chris Gimenez and optioned first baseman Kennys Vargas to Triple-A Rochester. Minnesota’s roster is now set at 25 with 13 pitchers, two catchers, five infielders and five outfielders.

Rick Stelmaszek, the longest tenured coach in Twins history with 32 seasons through 2002, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at tomorrow’s Twins regular season opener at Target Field. Minneapolis rapper Dessa will sing the National Anthem, accompanied by a brass quintet from the Minnesota Orchestra.

World War II vet HenryHankLangevin, 94, will raise the American Flag. He was born in St. Paul in 1922 and enlisted in the Army in 1941. He trained for two years to be a paratrooper and later as a glider. He fought in the Battle of Sicily and the Battle of the Bulge.

An online story in last Thursday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that per the Westgate and Station Casino sports books, the Twins’ odds of winning the World Series are 100-1, with only four other MLB clubs facing longer odds. The Twins’ predicted win total is 74.

A week ago today the Gophers basketball team held its season-ending banquet on the floor of Williams Arena for the first time ever. “It was absolutely fabulous,” said former Gopher Al Nuness who attended. “I can’t figure out why we never had it there before. Everybody was just mesmerized.”

Minnesota native and Kings coach Dave Joerger talking about the Timberwolves who haven’t made the playoffs since 2004: “I think the future is very, very bright. This is a team that will be in the playoffs next year. …Nothing but the best is in front of them.”

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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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