There were selected members of the Twin Cities sports media that showed a reluctance to embrace Phillip John Fleck when he blew into town as the head football coach for the Gophers on Jan. 7, 2017.
The introductory news conference came with such a torrent of motivational sloganeering that it caused some imaginary paintballs to be fired in Fleck’s direction. These skeptics are all respected sports commentators on the local scene and there’s no reason to name names.
Although … you know who you are, Meat Sauce.
Thirty-three months later, Fleck is riding high with a 6-0 record, a No. 20 rating in the weekly Associated Press poll, and with a team that stands as a 28 ½-point road favorite for Saturday’s Big Ten contest at Rutgers.
More amazing is that Minnesota’s pro franchises are setting up hierarchies that make them sound like Phillip John wannabes. I even heard one of the Timberwolves say at the team’s opening media session that his goal was to “change my best’’ on a daily basis.
This gent didn’t come up with that himself. I’m very suspicious that he heard it from 33-year-old head coach Ryan Saunders, who got it from the 38-year-old Fleck, with whom he has developed a friendship.
The Twins actually preceded Fleck with organizational changes that featured new sports lingo, when baseball CEO Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine took charge in November 2016.
That tandem got off to a flying start at the introductory news conference, when Sid Hartman – still grieving the departure of his friend, the affable baseball boss Terry Ryan– challenged the alleged genius of these two whipper snappers to be put in this position of power.
Falvey gave some double-speak, before Levine followed with, “I’m as offended by this as you are, sir,’’ and then added that they had been hired and would do their best.
Thankfully, he didn’t say “change our best,’’ and amid moments of double-speak (and once triple-speak, as Levine attempted to explain why Byron Buxton wasn’t recalled in September 2018), the rhetoric has been … ah, we’ll give ‘em a tolerable.
Note: Falvey did use “collaborative’’ so often in the early months you wanted to perforate your eardrums with a pencil, but he was able to rein that in.
And then along came Rocco Baldelli as the 37-year-old manager and win, lose or rain-delayed, every day was a day to feel good about his team – and it's hard to argue with the results (101-61, AL Central title).
We got our share of assurance over the importance of “culture’’ from the front office, the manager’s office and the clubhouse. Phillip John, though – he has been the king of culture. He vowed on Jan. 7, 2017, he had arrived to change the culture, leading a charge that now has become the sales pitch across the top levels of Minnesota’s sports world.
The Wild talked about that in firing Paul Fenton as general manager and replacing him with Bill Guerin, although Billy is a bit old by culture-changing standards at 48.
I heard about this from owner Craig Leipold and his team president, Matt Majka recently: sis boom bah, the Wild is changing culture, which at the moment has to be ahead of the pace for changing goal-scoring habits.
For sure, unless Bruce Boudreau does something magical with the 2019-20 Wild, he will be 65 and down the road at season’s end and replaced by a 40-year-old with all his slogans and buzz words in a row.
Nowhere is the Fleckian turn more dramatic than with the Timberwolves. Tom Thibodeau was fired last January because he was deemed to be surly and definitely unpopular with a segment of Wolves fans.
I’m reluctant to use large segment of Wolves fans, since it’s debatable that such a segment exists.
Anyway, when Saunders was previewing the season, he offered this among his culturally attuned remarks:
“When we talked about leadership, we talked about servant leadership, and not just with KAT but with a number of players on this team. We want to be a committee of leaders.’’
There he was at the front table – Wolves head coach Ryan Saunders, with a dead-on impression of Fleck.
The only true holdout at the top of the Twin Cities sports chain from Culture World is the Vikings' Mike Zimmer, 63 and still the crusty football coach unwilling to sugarcoat all observations.
Zim has a well-balanced club this year, with offensive weapons (including the quarterback) and an outstanding defense, and he’s headed back to the playoffs -- probably with an NFC North title.
(Disclaimer: That’s based on the league office ruling the Packers are no longer allowed to play 18 men vs. 11 in their remaining games at Lambeau Field).
When Zimmer goes, count on this: He’s going to be replaced by a culturally-driven, change-your-best young coach in the Fleck mold. Come to think of it, that could be Fleck himself.
I mean, once you’ve gotten back the Axe, what’s left to conquer in college football?
And Meat Sauce: I can’t believe you were such a skeptic.