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