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U Axe Win Not Just Another Victory

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November 28, 2021

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The Golden Gophers’ 23-13 win over No. 18 Wisconsin was the 57th game of the P.J. Fleck era and one of the most SIGNIFICANT during his five years as head coach at Minnesota.

Euphoric Golden Gophers fans dancing with delight after a home win has seldom been seen in these parts over the decades. But it’s happened twice now in three seasons, with delirious fans on the stadium field celebrating Saturday night’s repossession of the Axe—and two years ago when the Gophers upset No. 5 ranked Penn State in Minneapolis on their way to a historic 11-2 season.

A “here we go again” malaise has hung over Gopher football for decades. Whether it’s coaching tenures that didn’t work out, blown leads in big games, or losing streaks in border rivalries, Gopher football has hardly been the toast of the town for a long time. Just two weeks ago the Gophers lost a seventh consecutive game in the series with the hated Hawkeyes of Iowa. Yesterday’s win over the Badgers won’t wipe away the past but it is a shot of confidence for a skeptical public that waffles in its interest and support for the program.

Minnesota went into the Wisconsin game a touchdown underdog to the nationally ranked Badgers who with a victory could have advanced to the Big Ten championship game. By halftime the Gophers trailed 10-6, partly because of an interception turned into a Badger touchdown.

But the Gophers clearly out-played their opponent in the second half, defeating the Badgers in Minneapolis for the first time since 2003. They also claimed the Axe for the second time in four years, having beaten “Bucky” 37-15 in Madison in 2018.

“This program is all about responding, not reacting,” Fleck said Saturday night after Minnesota defeated the Badgers for only the fourth time this millennium.

Fleck was talking about more than overcoming a halftime deficit in a big rivalry game before a near sellout crowd where patrons paid more than $100 per ticket. Time allowing, he could have detailed a lot of obstacles the Gophers have faced on and off the field, this year and in the past.

Mo Ibrahim

The list starts with the loss of All-American tailback Mo Ibrahim who was injured in the opening game and won’t play again until next season. In a run-heavy offense, Ibrahim is the unit’s irreplaceable player. It doesn’t require much reflection to contend Minnesota could have flipped a couple of losses into the victory column with him playing this fall. (During the season, Ibrahim was one of five tailbacks on the roster not available).

The Gophers lost three games by a total of 17 points. With Ibrahim, or more emphasis and execution of the passing game, Minnesota might have won against Bowling Green, Illinois and Iowa.

In season ending wins over Indiana and Wisconsin, Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford opened up the offense. By doing so they helped the run game and the throwing rhythm of quarterback Tanner Morgan.

Fleck’s conservative offensive philosophy of run-run-run and taking time off the clock has been a solid approach at Minnesota. Some Saturdays the Gophers face a talent disparity against their opponents, needing to reduce possessions by the other team’s skilled playmakers, and long scoring drives by Minnesota have paid off many times during the Fleck era, especially with a game changing runner like Ibrahim. But the willingness to open up the offense with more passes from Morgan and more receivers targeted is a significant change and one that should continue into the bowl game and next season.

The win Saturday gives the Gophers an 8-4 overall record, 6-3 in Big Ten games. The perception and reality of those totals is much better than records of 7-5 and 5-4. Minnesota finished in a second place tie with the Badgers and Purdue in the West Division standings. Only nine times in the last 50 years have the Gophers finished at .500 or better in conference games.

Minnesota is no coaching paradise. It is one of the more challenging jobs in the Big Ten including because of its distance from recruiting hotbeds like California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The U has fired eight coaches since 1970—and they weren’t all inept coaches. Iowa and Wisconsin, BTW, have fired zero head coaches in the last 30 seasons.

Every Gopher head football coach in modern times has been challenged to find adequate in-state talent to make a run at even being a .500 team in the Big Ten. The better college football prospects, regardless of where they are from, want to play at a program that wins season after season, goes to big bowl games, has CFP aspirations and a track record of sending players to the NFL. That hasn’t exactly been Minnesota’s profile.

Fleck and his assistants (including highly valued defensive coordinator Joe Rossi) are on the favored side of winning and losing. Fleck’s overall record at Minnesota is 34-23. His winning percentage of .597 is the third best ever among Gopher coaches who coached in 45 games or more. Minnesota had had 19 coaches since 1900 and Fleck ranks sixth all-time in program wins.

Fleck’s Big Ten record is 21-22. Pat Fitzgerald, considered by authorities to be among the best coaches in the Big Ten and a consensus top coach nationally, is 64-68 in league games at hard-to-win Northwestern. Scott Frost, who just finished his fourth season at Nebraska and is head coach of a storied program, is 10-25 in conference games.

Fleck is also 2-0 in bowl games including a New Year’s Day Outback win over the SEC’s Auburn Tigers. The Wisconsin win could boost the chances of a quality bowl game destination for the Gophers who won’t be headed to Detroit this holiday season.

The victory over the Badgers and the overall success of the coaching staff is a return on investment for University of Minnesota leaders and outside boosters. This fall athletic director Mark Coyle and school president Joan Gabel approved a new seven-year contract for Fleck, and along with that commitment will come increased compensation for assistant coaches. The U, including the board of regents, and outside financial boosters, have made major commitments in recent years to all varsity sports with the most visible new resource being the Athletes Village.

P.J. Fleck

Clearly the football program is going in the right direction and is authentic. And whether fans like it or not, it’s also time to accept Fleck as genuine. His personality is too over the top for critics but this is who Fleck is. “Row the boat,” and all that goes with it, is not an act.

This is a coach committed to the RBT culture and his way of doing things. It’s not for all recruits, players and fans. But it works for many. “We’re all about fit here,” Fleck said Saturday.

When it comes to sharing messages, Fleck’s Gophers never know what they’re going to hear but sometimes the lesson ties to his long ago vision of being an elementary school teacher. The other day he spoke about the need for his players to be themselves and no one else, referencing the children’s book Be You! That’s also authentic Fleck.

During the five years of the Fleck era the program has made progress on and off the field. The Gophers are 22-10 in the last three seasons, while dealing with the chaos of the pandemic and social unrest in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Collectively the student-athletes have achieved a record GPA, dedicated countless hours to community service helping children and adults, and avoided external incidents that could bring embarrassment to all involved.

Every Gophers football coach has been criticized for his personality and his results. It goes with the job. But they all noticed the chorus quiets when you win.

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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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