Culture is a huge factor in College Football. It can make a difference on having a losing season, a mediocre season, and lastly but most important, a winning season.
When Fleck was hired by the Gophers in 2017, he had a pretty big gap to fill. The same gap that was seemingly getting bigger and bigger every season. Trouble was progressively following Minnesota every year, and their program was starting to go downhill. First starting with former head coach Jerry Kill’s ongoing health issues, forcing him to temporarily retire halfway through the 2015 season. Kill’s retirement from Minnesota opened the door for previous defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. Who had served as interim head coach in the second half of the 2013 season. Due to Coach Kill suffering a seizure in the middle of the season.
But Minnesota’s hardships didn’t quite stop there. After about a year and a half as acting full-time head coach. Claeys was fired for his response in the form of a tweet, surrounding a scandal related to 10 Gopher players, and their roles in a alleged sexual assault case.
Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world! 〽️🏈
— Tracy Claeys (@t_claeys) December 16, 2016
Just three days after the Claeys firing, Minnesota brought in Fleck on a five-year deal, worth $18 million dollars. And Fleck later signed a one-year extension, which would keep him in Minnesota through the 2022 season.
Not only did Fleck just bring himself as the new head coach to Minnesota, he also brought a whole new language, and mantra of slogans with him. One slogan that resonates well with Gopher fans, is Row the Boat. And that is exactly what Fleck has done entering his sixth season in the Gopher State.
In the past five years, the Gophers have had three winning seasons. Combining for a total record of 35-22, and sitting just under .500 in Big Ten play with a record of 21-22.
But some of the losses Minnesota has endured can be justified. Like the COVID shortened 2020 season, which only consisted of seven games. And prime offensive weapon, and star running back Mohamed Ibrahim Jr. suffering a season-ending leg injury, in week one of last year’s campaign.
But that’s not all. The boat really started to get rowing in 2019, when the Gophers ended the year with a 11-2 record, including a monumental win against #4 ranked Penn State. The infamous upset over the Nittany Lions marked Minnesota’s first win over a Top 5 team in 20 years. It also was the first time the Gophers started a season 9-0, since 1904.
Despite having their best season in 115 years, the Gophers failed to make the Big Ten Championship, and fell just short to Wisconsin in the final week of the regular season. But Minnesota ended the season on a high note, with a 31-24 win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
The Future and What Lies Ahead
Coming off another big 9-4 season, Minnesota looks to enter back into the AP Poll, and pursue a Big Ten Title. The Gophers will get star running back Mohamed Ibrahim Jr. back from injury. To help bolster a very high potential offense. Although there are a lot of holes to fill in the depth chart, due to some starters graduating and going to the NFL. Minnesota still has plenty of bright spots in the lineup, and still have decent depth on both sides of the ball . They will face some challenges this year, including away games at Michigan State, Penn State, and lastly Wisconsin. But they also face some good opportunities at home, such as hosting Iowa, and then Purdue for their homecoming game.
Fleck has totally changed the landscape of College Football in Minnesota, and has created a culture that some can argue is top-notch. Every year with more and more recruits wanting to come visit, and even commit and enroll at the University of Minnesota to play football. Proves that PJ Fleck has truly changed the football program here in Minnesota, and made the Gophers relevant again. The U of M has also produced 17 NFL Players during Fleck’s tenure. PJ and the Gophers will look to get the boat rowing on September 1st, when the Gophers host New Mexico State to kickoff the 2022 season, at Huntington Bank Stadium.
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