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.”
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.”
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 Henry “Hank” Langevin, 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.”
A notes column, with emphasis on the Twins who open their 2017 regular season at home on Monday against the Royals.
The Twins lost 103 games last year but have a 2017 winning record of 16-13 in spring training as the club prepares to head north. Does a team’s exhibition record mean anything?
Those are the words of former Twins catcher Tim Laudner who now works as an analyst on Fox Sports North. Laudner, who will work Twins pregame and postgame programs, told Sports Headliners spring training wins and losses are misleading because MLB teams split their rosters for same day games, schedule more home games than away and often use marginal big leaguers instead of regulars.
Before the Twins compiled a regular season record of 59 wins and 102 losses last year, the club was 19-11-2 in exhibition games. Two years ago Minnesota’s regular season record was 83-79 after being 13-16-3 in spring training.
Sports Illustrated’s March 27-April 3 issue included an extensive preview of all 30 MLB teams, and the publication predicts the Twins’ record will be 69-93. The forecast is a fourth place finish in the American League Central behind the Indians, Tigers and Royals, but ahead of the White Sox.
An anonymous scout quoted in the magazine is critical of the team’s starting pitching and warns that if injured closer Glen Perkins isn’t available, it’s a big problem for the Twins. “Well, they’re in big trouble anyway,” the scout said.
Looks like the Twins will have four new faces in their opening day lineup and batting order compared with a year ago—and one player, Miguel Sano, at a different position. It’s expected Jason Castro will be the catcher, with Jorge Polanco at shortstop, Max Kepler in right field and a yet to be determined player filling the Designated Hitter role when the Twins open the regular season. Sano is expected to play third base instead of right field.
The lineup for the opener last year was: Ervin Santana, pitcher; Kurt Suzuki, catcher; Joe Mauer, first base; Brian Dozier, second base; Eduardo Escobar, shortstop; Trevor Plouffe, third base; Eddie Rosario, left field; Byron Buxton, center fielder; Sano in right; and ByungHo Park at DH.
Many Twins players need to have better performances than last year for the club to make a major step forward, and near the top of any needs list is Mauer. He turns 34 next month and is coming off his lowest batting average in 13 years with the Twins. After hitting .261 in 2016 and .265 two years ago, the career .300 hitter is no longer assured of being No. 3 in batting order this season.
“There might be days against some left-handers that we might not see Joe in the lineup at all,” Laudner said. “Joe is getting a little long in the tooth. I am not going to say that Joe is a platoon player. Joe in the past has shown that he has done a really nice job of hitting left-handers. There’s going to be some tough decisions for (manager) Paul Molitor to make as to why he’s going to fit. Sometimes it might come down to the analytics, (and) sometimes it might come down to the gut instincts of…Molitor as to where he is going to bat in the order, or if he is going to be in the lineup at all.”
Laudner said Mauer still has “batting skills” and is capable of a much higher average this season than in the recent past. Whether he stages a comeback, Laundner said, is predicated on staying healthy. The last few years Mauer’s health chart has sometimes been as interesting as his hitting stats.
The Twins surprised yesterday by giving Park a minor league reassignment and opening up the DH role to what looks like a platoon plan with perhaps Robbie Grossman, Kennys Vargas and others. In spring training this year Park came to camp as a non-roster player but led the club in home runs with six and RBI with 13. The Twins decision makers reportedly want to have a roster of 13 pitchers, not 12, and that doomed Park for now, although he could be recalled later this spring.
Park, who will be 31 in May, had a difficult adjustment last year coming from his home in South Korea and trying to break into the big leagues with the Twins. Faced with a new culture, injuries and big league fast balls, Park hit just .191—although he did have nine home runs in his first 29 games.
Laudner predicted last year it would be a difficult adjustment. “I’ve played in Japan and that’s different than playing in the United States,” Laudner said referring to his owner international experience. …
Gary Trent Jr., the former Apple Valley star who played his 2016-2017 senior season for a school in northern California, scored seven points on 3 of 11 shooting Wednesday night in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago. Trent, who will be a freshman at Duke in the fall, played 21 minutes for the West team that defeated the East, 109-107.
The website Casualhoya.com has been speculating about candidates for the Georgetown head basketball coaching vacancy. Minnesota’s Richard Pitino was included in a poll where 81 percent of voters said they didn’t want him as the Hoyas coach, while 19 percent did. …
ESPN will be televising 21 spring college football games. No, the Gophers game on April 15 at TCF Bank Stadium isn’t on the list. …
CollegeAD.com reported Monday the Gophers athletic department will be receiving more than $1 million as part of the NCAA’s one-time $200 million distribution to Division I schools in mid-April. Distributions are being made based on the number of athletic scholarships in place during the 2013-2014 school year. Schools with the largest athletic programs reportedly receive the largest amounts. The Gophers have a 23-teams program for men and women. …
The Wild’s Eric Staal played in his 1,000th NHL game on March 19 and will be honored in a pregame ceremony next Tuesday before Minnesota’s game against the Hurricanes at Xcel Energy Center.
It’s early in the 2018 recruiting process but coach P.J. Fleck has Gophers’ football recruiting headed in a new direction. High school players from the class of 2018 can’t sign National Letters of Intent with Minnesota or other schools until next February, but they can make verbal commitments. An early look at Minnesota’s commitments list offers a contrast with what fans saw during the Jerry Kill–Tracy Claeys era from 2011-2016.
Fleck, who left Western Michigan in early January to become head coach of the Gophers, has verbal commitments from seven high school players so far—a total that exceeds what many Power Five conference programs have. A year ago on this date the Gophers didn’t have a single commitment, an indication of the aggressive recruiting by Fleck and his assistants.
In past years Minnesota pursued and often signed players who were two and three star players. Frequently the Gophers’ competition for recruits in past years came from the “have-nots” of college football—schools like Ball State, Colorado State or Louisiana Tech.
Contrast that with players Fleck has commitments from so far. Collectively they have impressed various football recruiting authorities, and Minnesota’s 2018 class has a No. 15 national composite ranking by 247Sports. If by Signing Day next February Fleck can hold anything near that No. 15 spot, it will be a big difference from Minnesota’s No. 56 composite ranking of its 2017 class.
“The expectation from his staff is to have a top 25 recruiting class in 2018 and that’s something that hasn’t happened here in a long time,” said Ryan Burns, the recruiting authority from GopherIllustrated.com.
Fleck and his assistants are chasing and in some instances gaining commitments from players who have offers from prominent football schools like Michigan State and Oklahoma. Among those who have verbally committed is Chicago defensive tackle Elijah Teague who earlier this year said he wanted to be a Gopher.
“He (Fleck) has arguably the best defensive tackle in Illinois coming here,” Burns said. “He had quite the offer list from Oklahoma, South Carolina—anywhere and everywhere he wanted to go—and it wasn’t even March yet.”
Burns said a recruiting expert who covers Ohio preps believes Gophers commit Brennan Armstrong is the best class of 2018 quarterback in the Buckeye state. The Gophers made Armstrong a recruiting priority and got to him early, according to Burns. “They got him to campus and they were able to seal the deal,” he added.
Jaylen Mayfield, a prize offensive tackle from Grand Rapids, Michigan, initially made a verbal commitment to Minnesota, but now has backed off after recently being pursued by the Michigan Wolverines. “That’s going to be an interesting battle for P.J.,” Burns said before Mayfield de-committed. “A Michigan kid, a Grand Rapids kid, (who) gets an Ann Arbor offer. Someone I don’t know that he (Fleck) is going to be able to hang on to. But he’s a very athletic kid that they need on the offensive line.”
The early recruiting success by Fleck and his assistants didn’t sneak up on Burns. “I am not surprised at all,” Burns said. “I knew that when P.J. took over at Minnesota that there was going to be a bump in the recruiting rankings. It’s what his M.O. had been at Western Michigan.
“He had the top rated recruiting class, according to Scout.com, all four years he was in the MAC (Mid-American Conference), and it showed. His first year he went 1-11. His final year he ends up going 13-1, so it’s a correlation between if you’re higher in the recruiting rankings. …”
The 36-year-old Fleck and his extroverted personality received a lot of attention at Western Michigan. National media, including Sports Illustrated, wrote about his energy and passion as he rebuilt the Broncos. Western Michigan was 13-0 last season before losing in the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin, 24-16.
At Minnesota, Fleck and his staff have many more resources than at their former home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The “sales kit” includes the Big Ten brand, a unique college town in Minneapolis, varied academic offerings at the University of Minnesota, post-graduate job opportunities in the metro area including with Fortune 500 companies, new playing and training facilities, and the chance to sign on with a program that Fleck claims is going places.
“As long as P.J. Fleck is going to be here, people are going to be interested because he is so unique in the college football scene,” Burns said. “He’s so young. He’s got a lot of things to sell with his energy, including playing time with the number of positions they’re going to have to replace here at Minnesota in the near future. …”
Fleck inherits a roster that both now and next season has depth issues. The depth problem is partially caused by missed recruiting opportunities in the past. But it is further impacted by players leaving under Fleck whose style can cause attrition.
Fleck’s intense ways and warp-speed culture, including frenzied practices, aren’t for everyone. He said the other day that in his second year at Western Michigan “close to 21 players” left his program and during spring football he had only about 40 players participating in drills. Yet, Fleck insisted that eventually he will build two-deep quality at various positions with the Gophers.
“There’s always going to be people that leave the program,” Fleck said. “There’s (also) always going to be people that love it and stay. It’s just so different (his football environment) and so new. …We gotta get our numbers up (at Minnesota) over the next few years.”
Fleck had about 150 high school juniors watching practice last Saturday. Burns said there is so much interest in the Gophers that high school players from faraway states like Georgia are paying their own expenses to check out the Minnesota football program. Burns added it’s all part of an intense recruiting plan where Fleck will target having all his 2018 recruits verbally committed prior to the opening game on August 31 against Buffalo.
Burns estimated about 75 percent of high school players who originally make a verbal commitment to a school actually keep their pledge and sign National Letters of Intent. He thinks Fleck’s percentage at Minnesota could turn out to be 90 percent. “He does a very good job of keeping his verbals,” Burns said. “Once you buy into P.J. Fleck, he is going to make sure he does everything in his power to keep you there.”