Here’s Your College Football Finale
The University of Minnesota season is over but my college football notebook has unfinished business. Here’s an offering of year-end thoughts about not only the U, but also the Big Ten Conference and national scenes.
Many Gophers fans remain open-minded after one season of the P.J. Fleck era—disappointing as it was at 5-7, ending with just two league wins and outscored 70-0 by the final two opponents. That’s the fair approach because it’s too soon to judge Fleck and his staff.
The 37-year-old coach has big ambitions for Minnesota and will mostly either realize them or fail based on the talent of his players. Minnesota’s 2018 recruiting class is No. 31 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings. If that impressive ranking sticks through Signing Day on December 20, the Gophers will have their highest ranked recruiting class since 2008 and head coach Tim Brewster.
A prominent businessman, U alum and big-time Gopher booster thinks Fleck is going to be a coaching star. He told me this fall Minnesota will be on its way as soon as Fleck’s second season. The view from here: with so many inexperienced and new players in 2018, that’s not likely.
Fleck needs to not just eventually breakthrough with a couple of winning seasons, but more importantly develop a program with continued success. Can he do it?
That’s the golden question in Dinkytown. He has only been a head coach for five years. At Western Michigan he had one knockout season, his last one in 2016 when the Broncos were 13-1 and a damn good team. His first season at Western, in 2013, the record was 1-11, then came two 8-5 years.
Fleck’s combined record as a head coach is 35 wins, 29 losses. Certainly circumstances, including resources available, have much to do with a coach’s record but it’s interesting the Broncos program he left behind was just 6-6 overall and 4-4 in Mid-American Conference games this past season. Maybe the Broncos missed Fleck’s leadership that much, or perhaps he left a program still not built for sustained high level success.
The Mid-American has long been an incubator of coaches going on to big-time jobs—from Ara Parseghian to Urban Meyer. The league has also produced its share of Big Ten coaching busts including Darrell Hazell who was a one-season hit at Kent State before piling up the losses at Purdue over four years. Brady Hoke used some brief success at Ball State to move on to San Diego State for two seasons before he failed at Michigan.
Gophers’ athletic director Mark Coyle is all in on Fleck, having hired him for more than $3 million annually last January. This fall Coyle proposed extending Fleck’s original five-year contract through the 2022 season (pending Board of Regents approval next week).
The opinion here is the first attribute an athletic director needs is the skill to identify and hire the best coaches. How is Coyle doing?
It’s too soon to judge Coyle who was hired at Minnesota in 2016. However, it’s interesting that Fleck isn’t the only ex-Mid-American head coach with limited experience and success that Coyle has hired. As Syracuse’s athletic director he hired Dino Babers who coached at Bowling Green where he was 18-9 in two seasons and won the 2015 MAC championship. Babers has coached Syracuse for two seasons with 4-8 overall and 2-6 ACC records both years.
Among the best things that have happened to Gophers football this century is being placed in the Big Ten’s West Division. The power in the conference rests in the East where bullies Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are usually better than most teams in the West—or is that all except for Wisconsin?
Mike Riley was the wrong coach for Nebraska but his presence in Lincoln was a plus for the Gophers who beat his team 54-21 this season. New hire Scott Frost looks like instant improvement for “Big Red” and leaves the West Division with only one apparent coaching soft spot, at Illinois where Lovie Smith is 5-19 (2-16 Big Ten) in two seasons.
The coaching scene in the West Division looks like it’s really settling in except for some drama at Minnesota and with the Illini. Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who turned UCF from a 0-12 team in 2015 to an undefeated one this fall, looks like a perfect fit in Lincoln. Northwestern, with former Wildcat All-American linebacker Pat Fitzgerald heading the program with success since 2006, is already the West Division’s legacy model fit.
As head coach, Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez resurrected Badgers football in the 1990s. As athletic director, he remains the CEO of the program. Now with Madison native and Alvarez disciple Paul Chryst as head coach the Badgers keep winning division titles, and it’s “On Wisconsin” every year.
It’s not easy to win at Iowa but head coach Kirk Ferentz has made an 18-year career as the Hawkeyes boss. Here and there Iowa has known glory including the 2016 Rose Bowl and the day this fall when they embarrassed Ohio State with a 55-24, beat down in Iowa City. Things remain stable at Iowa with Kirk’s son, Brian Ferentz, seemingly a solid bet to one day succeed his dad as head coach.
Jeff Brohm’s first season as Purdue head coach gave long suffering Boilermaker fans some bright moments including a 31-17 win over the Gophers. Purdue, with an overall 6-6 record and 4-5 in the Big Ten, will play in its first bowl games since 2012. A year ago Purdue finished 1-8 and 3-9 under Hazell. With his offensive pedigree, Brohm could be the right guy at a school that years ago was referenced as “Quarterback U.”
The Gophers are the opposite of “Quarterback U.” Minnesota’s last All-American quarterback was Sandy Stephens in 1961. The NFL last drafted a Gophers quarterback in 1972 when Craig Curry was an eighth round pick.
Quarterback Victor Viramontes, the junior college transfer from California expected to sign with Minnesota December 20, is already a social media fave of Gophers fans. He was even interviewed on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” last Sunday before going to church.
Perhaps Viramontes, who has drawn comparisons to former Florida Heisman winner Tim Tebow, can emerge as a starter next year and also a star. The Gophers will need box office appeal not only because of this year’s record. The home schedule is not exactly a who’s who of college football—New Mexico State, Fresno State, Miami (Ohio), Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern.
Speaking of college football’s elite, the Big Ten was left out of the four-team playoff to determine the national champion. The selection committee may well have put the best teams in the field—it’s hard to vote for the Big Ten champion Buckeyes after the debacle in Iowa City—but the playoffs do have a provincial look. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma collectively cover a small part of America geographically.
The prediction here is that won’t happen in a few years because the playoff will likely be expanded from four to six teams. Champions from the five Power Conferences, plus a wild-card team would ensure more geographic balance and lessen second-guessing about who gets in the field. The motivation for going to six teams will also be to create more TV viewers and advertising revenues.
In case you didn’t notice, TV is king. The guy who spends $100 per ticket at the stadium isn’t as important as all those folks sitting at home in their recliners watching the endless parade of TV commercials. The ticket buyer is fortunate if he or she is provided more than six-days notice regarding the start time for the next game.
Meanwhile, the viewer at home may be sitting in his pajamas and enjoying all the game action up close on an Ultra HD TV. Commercials? Whoever invented the mute button is a genius.