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Piling on P.J. Fleck Won’t Help Gophers

November 26, 2017 - 4 Comments


It’s too soon to make final judgments about whether first-year coach P.J. Fleck can establish a winning football program at the University of Minnesota. It’s not fair to conclude hiring Fleck last January was a mistake.

P.J. Fleck

Fan and media criticism about Fleck and the Gophers aren’t surprising following a disappointing end to the 2017 season. The Gophers lost four of their last five games to finish with a 5-7 overall record and 2-7 in the Big Ten. Minnesota was outscored 70-0 in its final games against Northwestern and Wisconsin.

The Gophers were mostly a bad offensive team during the Big Ten season. Minnesota finished 11th among conference teams in scoring at 18.4 points per game. League leader Ohio State averaged 46.3. While the Gophers were fourth in conference rushing, they placed 13th in passing yards averaging just 110.4 yards per game and producing seven touchdowns.

Fleck inherited a lack of talent and experience at the quarterback position. He’s not to blame for that, nor is it on him that the offensive unit lacked skills and depth in other places. The offense had its moments, including impressive production against Oregon State and Nebraska, but right now that unit has a long way to go.

Minnesota’s defense carried too much of the burden in trying to win games. The unit had its playmakers led by linebackers Jonathan Celestin and Thomas Barber but often lacked consistency in the biggest of games. The combination of defensive backs that left the program after the 2016 season and injuries this fall wrecked a promising secondary.

Mitch Leidner

Before the season a reasonable expectation seemed like a final record of 7-5, 6-6 or 5-7. The Gophers were 9-4 overall and 5-4 in conference games in 2016. Minnesota returned seven starters on offense and six on defense, but significant roster losses included quarterback Mitch Leidner who graduated, and two offensive linemen and two defensive backs with remaining eligibility who left school. The college football world isn’t static and to expect another 9-4 season wasn’t realistic.

But the opinion here is the coaching of Fleck and his assistants didn’t get the most out of the team. Minnesota lost close and winnable games to Iowa, Maryland and Purdue. The Gophers often lacked focus and sometimes even effort. Too many times there was obvious lack of execution including players in the wrong defensive gap, taking poor angles while tackling, or throwing foolish passes.

Neither the coaches nor players can blame their schedule for a disappointing record. Minnesota had a soft nonconference schedule, and faced more mediocre than quality opposition in the Big Ten. Minnesota also played five of its nine league games at home.

Fleck and his assistants—as with any new coaching staff—deserve to be judged mostly on their work over a period of time. The judgment day on Fleck is probably two years away. By then three seasons will be history and it will be more evident what the trend line is for a program that wasn’t broken when he came to town.

Fleck is trying to produce a conference champion at Minnesota for the first time since 1967. His progress toward that goal is obviously tied to improving the talent level, and 247Sports ranks the Gophers 2018 class No. 36 in the nation. That’s better than all but one other rival program in the Big Ten West Division, Wisconsin.

Fleck’s reputation as a superior recruiter will be tested at Minnesota where his resources include a new indoor practice palace. There are also challenges including the program’s losing reputation (no titles, mostly below .500 seasons in conference games for decades) and a fan base that can be characterized as both apathetic and cynical.

Those who rip Fleck yet want to see the Gophers become champions might want to think twice. Rival recruiters use any negatives they deem useful to influence high school prospects. This can be a very toxic town when it comes to U football.

Fleck told Sports Headliners last summer negativity won’t dampen his resolve. “I came here to bring the positivity,” he said. “I am one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet. I don’t care what people say about me negatively, that will never affect me as a person. …”

If Fleck signs a top 40 recruiting class next month that’s noteworthy. Nearly all of the program’s classes in the past haven’t been as highly ranked. Minnesota could even end up with the highest rated class in its division.

That would be a good start for Fleck and his assistants who probably will need to produce even more highly regarded classes in 2019 and 2020. Gophers fans can judge those classes not only by where they are ranked but also as they begin to see the skill sets of players on the field.

Fans should wait for more results before piling on Fleck. About 18 months ago another young Gophers coach was under heavy criticism including from University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler. Richard Pitino had produced a 2-16 Big Ten season in 2015-2016 and his players had embarrassed the program with off-court issues. This followed Pitino’s third season at Minnesota and three years of mostly struggles.

Then came a turnaround in 2017 when the Gophers went 11-7 in the Big Ten, finished fourth in the standings and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Pitino’s team is showing even more promise this fall with a 7-0 start and top 15 national ranking.

Pitino, like Fleck, was hired as much or more for his recruiting acumen than anything else. It will be interesting to see if the 36-year-old Fleck can follow the path of Minnesota’s 35-year-old basketball coach.


Myles Standish, Me & Thanksgiving

November 20, 2017 - 3 Comments


Thanksgiving has always been near the top of my favorite holidays. Perhaps my feelings were founded during grade school while playing the role of Myles Standish in a stage production about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. The memory is enduring, although it was my first and last time on stage. Sir Tyrone Guthrie never came knocking on my door.

In this space you won’t find any Grand Turkey winners (see the Strib’s Patrick Reusse for that). Instead, I want to reference individuals who I am thankful for—and please give me a pass for many others I should have singled out.

I begin with my Website readers, some of whom have followed this effort since my 2006 startup. The encouragement and appreciation expressed by them has played a significant role in my continuing to crank out over 115 columns per year. Thank you.

Gratitude also to my amazing wife who cares little about college or professional sports but graciously edits almost every column before being published.

Thanks to all the advertisers, past and present, who have supported my efforts and made it possible for others to enjoy this Website’s reporting and commentary. It’s also satisfying to learn about readers who told advertisers they saw their ads on my site.

When my Website needs code to be written, or the server is down, it’s my go-to guys David and Dan who always pitch in. Gracias!

I battled many times on the court with my tennis buddy and lifelong friend Myron, but more importantly he’s one of the special people who taught me about the importance of family.

Happy Thanksgiving to my oldest son Bill, who despite seldom playing tennis, once beat me on a cold, windy and miserable day on the North Shore, and forever proclaimed himself the “Two Harbors Family Tennis Champion.”

With admiration to my other son, Joel, who is a Father of the Year candidate every year to his young son Chase.

I still feel sad Jerry Kill had to abruptly end his career as the Golden Gophers football coach two years ago but Minnesotans should give thanks for how he revitalized the program on the field, in the classroom and in the community. We’re all better for having witnessed his character and commitment.

Count Jim Carter as one of Kill’s friends and mine, too. I love Carter’s passion for making the University of Minnesota extraordinary in every way.

How do I not root for Paul Molitor? He went through some rough times decades ago but has emerged as a genuine hero who treats others with kindness and consideration.

Maybe you know someone who’s filled with common sense and wisdom. Jim Dutcher is a treasure to me.

Without Glen Taylor, this town might not have professional basketball. He could be the world’s nicest billionaire.

CORES lunches and programs are always a hit.  I appreciate Jim Dotseth and Phil Frerk for their information and invites.

Thanks to Adam Thielen for almost always being available in the Vikings Winter Park locker room to answer questions—in good times and bad.

WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson provides timely insights about media and sports, and is a pleasure to be with.

They say you find out who your friends are when tough times hit. Al Nuness has been there for me.

Wednesdays are pizza media days at Winter Park and it’s fun times sharing memories and laughs with Charley Walters, while chewing on the “meat lovers special.”

Tre Jones

Part of the fun in covering sports is being around young athletes, and admiring the charisma and passion for life many possess. A favorite is Apple Valley High School’s Tre Jones who has a smile and presence that lights up even a dark gym.

I have known Dave Mona for a long time and I thank him for the opportunities he has extended to me including leading the Twin Cities Dunkers a few years ago.

Thank you Dave St. Peter for unfailingly responding to my emails requesting interviews about the Twins.

My best wishes to a couple of close friends who have lost loved ones this year, and battled physical challenges. Among the redeeming things about sports is that if only for a moment, what we see on ball fields and courts can lessen our burdens.

I want to remember those who have passed from this earth, including the late Frank Jirik from Met Center and the North Stars. He was a great mentor and may have invented Polish jokes. Nobody did them better.

My memories of the late Herb Brooks are enduring, too. He always was so giving and unselfish with his time.

Nobody could send chills up and down the spine talking about the Golden Gophers like the late Paul Giel. “Old No. 10” made friends wherever he went.

Who doesn’t miss Harmon Killebrew? He was the Twins greatest slugger and a hall of fame player and person.

Today’s media news world has a lot of practitioners of “get it first and let’s hope we’re right.” I try to remember the time-proven principles of accuracy, fairness and objectivity. Thankful when I do so.

In a crazy and sometimes cruel world, hope you find peace and happiness this Thanksgiving!


Vikings Teddy Talk Just ‘Idle Gossip’

November 16, 2017 - (0) comments


Mike Zimmer sent a message to Vikings fans yesterday with his announcement Case Keenum will continue to be the starting quarterback when the Vikings play the Rams Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Teddy Bridgewater fans hoped for different news but Zimmer isn’t about to change starters when his team has won five consecutive games with Keenum and is leading the NFC North with a 7-2 record.

Bridgewater hasn’t played in a meaningful game in almost two years, dating back to the January, 2016 playoff loss to the Seahawks. The devastating knee injury he suffered in late August of 2016 has kept him sidelined until November 8 of this year when he was activated to play. During the two seasons of 2014 and 2015 he flashed potential and won over fans as much with his personality as his skill set.

But fans wish for a lot of things, and often they need to be careful what they wish for. They look at Keenum as a journeyman quarterback and see Bridgewater as the flag bearer for the Vikings franchise. Eventually that might be reality but for now the Vikings aren’t going to change quarterbacks—demoting one who is on the same page with his receivers and turning to a guy trying to get acclimated again with the job and its demands.

Case Keenum (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

Former Viking Bob Lurtsema is on board with Zimmer’s decision—one the coach labeled “not difficult” yesterday. “You don’t take the most important part of the puzzle out, which obviously is the quarterback in today’s passing league,” Lurtsema told Sports Headliners.

Lurtsema looks at the offense, including the passing game, and he sees a unit playing at a high level because the players (including the linemen) are in synch with each other. “This talk about bringing Teddy Bridgewater back, that’s idle gossip,” Lurtsema said. “You know how much I love Teddy, and you’re not going to find a better kid than Teddy. But when they work (Keenum and receivers) in practice together the timing of all the receivers is spectacular. I think the whole thing there is just a matter of a group playing together.”

Keenum, who signed with the Vikings in the offseason as a free agent to be a backup, could have the best season of his five-year career with three NFL teams. “He’s smart as hell,” Lurtsema said.

The Vikings’ offense has improved from last season under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. He is in his first full season as OC after succeeding Norv Turner in November of 2016.

“He’s a wizard,” Vikings wide receiver Michael Floyd said about Shurmur. “He has a lot of things going on in his head. So far he’s doing an unbelievable job of getting guys in position to be successful. So that’s what you want to see.”

Among those benefitting from Shurmur’s offense is wide receiver Adam Thielen who is third in the NFL in receiving yards with 793. Thielen agrees Shurmur is effective in letting his players do the things they are capable of.

“I don’t think he really cares who gets the ball,” Thielen said. “He just wants this offense to be successful and he wants to help this team win games.”

Last year the Viking offense finished 28th in the 32-team NFL in both points per game (20.4) and yards (315.1). Through nine games in 2017 the Vikings are 10th in points at 24.1 and ninth in yards with 363.8.

The Rams, 7-2, are averaging a league-leading 32.9 points per game in their first year with 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay. They are ranked No. 5 and the Vikings No. 6 by SI.com in this week’s power rankings of NFL teams.

Worth Noting

Zimmer, 61, on whether he could imagine being a head coach at 30 years old: “I was trying to figure out where to eat at 30, probably.”

Floyd after being asked about Vikings Super Bowl talk among fans: “You have seven games left. A lot of things can change in seven games. We’re taking it one game at a time.”

Mike Grant has won 10 state titles as Eden Prairie’s head football coach. He told Sports Headliners to win championships three things need to happen—have talent, avoid injuries, and be lucky including how the ball bounces and the calls made by game officials.

Grant’s undefeated Eagles play Maple Grove tonight at U.S. Bank Stadium in the Class 6A State Tournament semifinals. The coaches and teams know each other, having played twice last year, and once this season when the Eagles won 28-7. “We don’t expect a lot of things different,” Grant said.

The 9-1 St. Thomas football team that plays at home Saturday against Eureka in a first round Division III playoff game has outscored its last two regular season opponents 155 to 7.

True Thompson, son of Gophers all-time leading rusher Darrell Thompson, is being recruited as a 2018 walk-on by Minnesota. True, an Armstrong High alum, is a wide receiver at Iowa Western Community College.

The Gophers’ best player next year could be sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. who played in four games this season before becoming inactive because of a hamstring injury. Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said Winfield is progressing on his recovery.

“…He’s not practicing, but he’s going through some small things at the end of practice to be able to rehab, get back into things pretty slow. But I expect him to be full (ready) by spring ball for sure,” Fleck said.

Senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson was a preseason all-Big Ten nominee and Saturday he will be with the Gophers in his home town of Chicago playing against Northwestern. His statistics, including just seven unassisted tackles and 11 assisted, aren’t impressive, but Fleck estimated Richardson has been double-teamed “about 90 percent of the time.” Fleck believes Richardson is playing selfless and better than ever.

“…Statistically you’re not seeing it because he’s got to defeat two Big Ten players every single play,” Fleck said. “But…his oar has been in the water. He practices incredibly hard. I know he’s excited to get back to Chicago to play in this game, and I know that everybody wants to do it (win) for Steven.”

It’s still a head-scratcher as to why the Twins created so much drama in waiting to extend Paul Molitor’s contract. In his three seasons as Twins manager he has twice been a finalist for the Baseball Writers Association’s American League Manager of the Year Award, and Tuesday night was named the 2017 winner.

Bartolo Colon will be nearing his 45th birthday when the Twins go to spring training next year. The right-hander, who joined the Twins during the 2017 season, is a free agent and reportedly wants to continue a MLB career that began in 1997. The Twins could probably sign him on the cheap and let him compete for one of three open spots in their five-man starting rotation.


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