Photo via Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
With the clock hitting zero, the Minnesota Golden Gophers would come out of the smoke surrounding the 2020 Outback Bowl as victors over the Auburn Tigers, 31-24 on New Year’s Day.
This wasn’t any run-of-the-mill bowl victory for Minnesota. It gave the Golden Gophers their first Outback Bowl victory after being invited to it for the first time in program history. It gave the Golden Gophers 11 wins on the season, their most in a season since 1904, back when Minnesota beat up on Twin Cities High School 107-0 and Grinnell College 146-0.
It gave the Golden Gophers their second ranked win on the year (their first win came against Penn State on November 9th), making 2019 their first time achieving multiple AP-ranked wins on the season since 2005.
Perhaps most importantly, it gave Golden Gopher players and fans alike a taste of what head coach P.J. Fleck’s grand vision is.
Fleck brings the whole package. After serving in various assistant coaching roles from 2006 to 2012 he picked up his first head coaching gig at Western Michigan University in 2013, where his “player’s coach” persona and “row the boat” mantra really kicked off and blossomed. After a 1-11 debut in his first season leading the Broncos, he then sent them to three straight seasons with at least eight wins, with his last season culminating in a 13-win season, the best in program history. In that same three-year stretch Fleck led the Broncos to three bowl invites, including a New Year’s Six Cotton Bowl bid in that 13-win season.
From a player-driven personality that encompasses youthful energy that resonates with players, Fleck was able to combine his knowledge on offense on the field with off-the-field connectivity with players.
Then came the Golden Gophers. With his accomplishments at Western Michigan, Fleck was able to row his way into netting a Power Five head coaching job in the Big Ten. The upgrade, though, would bring its challenges. Minnesota, at the time Fleck was hired, was only averaging six wins per season dating back to 2000. In the 13 bowl games Minnesota played in that span, they only won five of them. On top of the mediocrity, Minnesota had controversy as well. The head coach before Fleck, Tracy Claeys, was fired after he supported a player boycott over administration suspending players over allegations of sexual assault.
The problems and baggage, though, didn’t stop Fleck from implementing his philosophy and rowing his brand of football into a new atmosphere.
If anything, it encouraged him.
Fleck didn’t just bring himself to Minneapolis. He brought his WMU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca as well. Additionally, a three-star recruit initially committed to Western Michigan went along for the boat ride as well in Tanner Morgan.
The recruiting front was further reinforced. Per 247Sports.com, Minnesota’s recruiting class in 2017 (the first cycle under Fleck) ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, ahead of only Indiana and Purdue. In 2018 it ranked 7th. 2019? Tenth. The upcoming 2020 class currently ranks 9th. While these are not top-notch rankings, it is a big leap in the right direction for a team consistently seen as second-rate in the Big Ten.
Fleck and his team have also taken a priority in giving back to the community. From visiting children’s hospitals to hosting food drives, Minnesota has done it, and Fleck has spearheaded it.
The success on and off the field would culminate in 2019, with Minnesota garnering Big Ten Championship consideration midway through the season. Minnesota rewarded Fleck by giving him an extension through 2026 because of it. Even still, Minnesota’s title aspirations would fall short, as they would lose two of their last three regular season games.
While the Golden Gophers fell short of attaining a New Year’s Six bid, the ship isn’t sinking. The oar hasn’t been lost.
If anything, it is full speed ahead for years to come.
With Fleck at the helm, the grand vision of putting Minnesota into the category of Big Ten elite is still attainable. Through the waves and the storm, the light can be seen. A taste of it has already been reached. A feast of it is there for the taking.
They just have to keep rowing.