U Hopes Fleck Not ‘Music Man’ No. 2
Lou Holtz is the best University of Minnesota football coach since the end of World War II. That statement might shock more than a few Golden Gophers historians who will object and argue such praise belongs to Bernie Bierman or Murray Warmath.
Nope. Give me Holtz, who was dubbed the “Music Man” for his clever and persuasive ways. He coached the Gophers for just two seasons, in 1984 and 1985. That was long enough to see his magic—and I mean that literally.
He was an amateur magician who occasionally performed tricks on TV including on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. To this day I am convinced that had he stayed at Minnesota, his coaching “bag of tricks” would have turned the Gophers into a Big Ten power and perhaps national champions.
I have never seen a college football coach with the skill set possessed by the wiry little man from East Liverpool, Ohio, who spoke with a lisp. Strategist, taskmaster, motivator, mentor, manager, organizer, recruiter, fundraiser, salesman, marketer and the list goes on. When Lou spoke, the whole state of Minnesota listened.
The CEO of CEOs in the coaching world, Holtz took a mostly deplorable Minnesota roster that was a combined 1-17 in Big Ten games the two seasons before his arrival and turned those players, along with newcomers, into a sound football team. In Holtz’s second year the Gophers came within seven points of upsetting No. 3 ranked Oklahoma and five points of upending No. 9 Ohio State on their way to a 4-4 conference record, an overall record of 7-5 and the program’s first bowl game since 1977.
Bierman won five national titles at Minnesota but they all came before World War II. The Grey Eagle grew older and he wasn’t the same coach after the big war that changed the world. Warmath won Minnesota’s last national title in 1960 and took the Gophers to two Rose Bowls. He was a fine coach and a personal friend but he had his warts including sluggish offenses and never consistently winning over the public.
Holtz was so popular that in less than two years the Vikings were paranoid about losing their place as the No. 1 football attraction in the state. General manager Mike Lynn brought coach Bud Grant out of retirement to counter the Holtz mania that had resulted in crowds of more than 60,000 at the Metrodome and a huge jump in season ticket sales.
But in late 1985 Holtz, a devout Catholic, told us of an enduring childhood memory about how he skipped off to grade school many mornings singing or humming the Notre Dame fight song. Holtz reportedly had a clause in his Minnesota contract that said if the Fighting Irish ever had a coaching opening he could skip off to Notre Dame. And away he went, taking with him a bunch of high school recruits who planned to be Gophers but instead followed the “Music Man” to the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame where a few years later the Irish, not the Gophers, would be national champions.
Having been burned by Holtz, older Gophers fans are biting their collective nails these days about 38-year-old P.J. Fleck moving on after this season to some place else—oh, let’s just say USC, a storied program like Notre Dame that is under achieving and dreams of hiring Urban Meyer but might have to pitch a guy who preaches “Row the Boat.”
Now I am not suggesting that as Gophers head coach Fleck deserves comparisons with Holtz, Bierman and Warmath but what he’s done at Minnesota is impressive. Dating back to last season, Fleck’s Gophers have won 11 of their last 12 games, including returning Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Dinkytown after a 15 year absence. Minnesota is 8-0 for the first time since 1941 and will play a much anticipated game on Saturday at home against Penn State. The Gophers are ranked No. 13 in the nation, while the Nittany Lions are No. 5. The last time Minnesota was ranked in the top 25 and played another ranked team was in October of 2004 when the No. 13 ranked Gophers lost to No. 14 Michigan.
I might have been the first in the media to inquire about Fleck’s commitment to Minnesota, when I brought the subject up last summer during a brief one-on-one interview. Fleck said that when he was considering leaving Western Michigan to come here with his wife Heather and young children, she emphasized the next career stop needed to be a long-term commitment. “She looked at me and says, ‘Listen, when we move there (the next job), we’re going to live there. We’re going to live there a long time…build a lot of roots.’
“It had to be a community that was high in philanthropy,” Fleck continued. “Had to be a community that was willing to serve and give. Had to be bigger than football. We feel the Twin City area and the state of Minnesota is that. … To be able to serve and give and make other people’s lives better. And that’s what Row the Boat is all about. It’s about serving and giving to other people. It’s about never giving up. It’s about providing opportunities for other people who can’t provide it for themselves.”
Fleck, his wife and players on the team have made good on their intentions to give back, getting involved in many ways with the community including children’s causes. Fleck has made it clear he and his wife love living here and that there is unfinished business with the Gophers. Yesterday he told WCCO Radio’s Chad Hartman that “I expect to be here a long time.”
Athletic director Mark Coyle told WCCO Radio’s Dave Lee this morning (Tuesday) that he and the coach are having conversations about a new contract but there is no date yet for an announcement about details. Even if the Gophers fall into a tailspin, Fleck will receive a reward for at least a good season and the renewed interest in the program. He makes about $3.6 million, a mediocre amount compared to his Big Ten peers. A great finish to the season will increase Fleck’s leverage in contract negotiations, and in such a scenario Coyle might need to offer $5 million for next year and a 10-year contract (his present deal goes through 2023).
The U Athletic Department has been cutting budgets of late so where does the money come from if Fleck’s compensation is boosted by $1.5 million? There perhaps are a few scenarios including new school president Joan Gabel approving a loan from central administration that would pay for other department costs and free up money for Fleck. Outside money sources could be another alternative. A person with money and connections told me a few weeks ago he believes if the circumstances are right, funding can come from individuals or private businesses. Coyle might also project new monies from ticket sales, sponsorships and other revenue streams that will increase enough with football’s new popularity to justify big money for Fleck.
Money really needs to go beyond the head coach. Fleck will certainly ask for assurances that his outstanding staff will be rewarded, too. Retaining Fleck but seeing an exodus of top assistants is not a win for Coyle, the program and Gophers fans.
Fleck has to decide if after three years the U and this state is where he wants to be for the foreseeable future. Yeah, there are jobs out there with more resources regarding money, access to top recruits and public support. Those jobs, like at USC, also bring more pressure with high annual expectations including national championships.
Fleck said on WCCO Radio Sunday that Minnesota is a “big time” job. Holtz referred to it as one of the better jobs in the country when he was in Minneapolis. Both Fleck and Holtz are learned optimists. They aren’t going to tell the world about the negatives here including the cold weather and a recruiting base that can’t compare with California, Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and other more fertile football states.
If you want to rant, throw in the minimal fan support—although what else to expect in a pro sports town where for decades the Gophers have mostly disappointed? Student attendance? Don’t even get me started.
But let’s be more positive and balanced about a school that in the last several years has increased its commitment to football with new facilities including a stadium, and a practice and training palace. The U is also the only Division I football school in the state and there is high potential to make the Gophers a big deal here with the public like long ago. The caliber of high school football recruits is underrated, with many young players just needing coaches to recognize their potential and the time they need for development. The metro area and state are known for quality of life including the schools, neighborhoods, health care, and entertainment and recreational options. Trust me, most “college football factories” are not located in places that begin to compare with Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota for quality of living.
So in a few weeks it’s up to Coyle to see how far he can go with his resources and how committed Fleck is to stay and keep rowing. Coyle is a sharp operator. I will bet my last buck he’s got a locked desk drawer with the names of top coaches that interest him if Fleck moves on. I am confident, too, he will make an aggressive offer to Fleck. He had the vision to hire Fleck, knowing he was getting a coach with the kind of varied skill-set needed to win at Minnesota including the personality and intelligence to connect with 17-year-old recruits and assemble a quality staff.
Fleck has to decide whether he wants to waltz off to another job humming a new fight song or stay at Minnesota and do the job Holtz never finished—build a legacy as the coach who turned around a program that has struggled and failed for decades, and hasn’t connected with its tradition-rich past since the 1960s.