P.J. Fleck will hold his first official practice as Gophers football coach Tuesday, so this is a perfect time to dispel a half-baked theory that some continue to suggest has merit.
Fleck is not Tim Brewster 2.0.
Brewster had never been a head coach or coordinator at the college level when hired by the Gophers. Fleck coached Western Michigan to a 13-1 record and trip to the Cotton Bowl.
See the difference?
Yes, they both brought energy, a loud voice, a love of recruiting and a promise of better days. But in terms of readiness for the gig, any comparison lacks common sense.
The question is not whether Fleck can coach. Anyone who takes a Division I program from 1-11 to 13-1 in a span of four years has coaching chops.
The real question is whether Fleck can succeed at Minnesota. That we won’t know for some time.
How long? That’s where Fleck’s supernova arrival becomes tricky.
Any new coach deserves time and patience in putting his stamp on his program. Players must learn new schemes, new techniques, new philosophies, new everything. Recruiting priorities shift.
The emotion of coaching changes often creates belief that everything will be instantly better. Nothing in sports drives a fan’s best-case imagination quite like recruiting, free agency or coaching changes. In reality, growing pains almost are inevitable.
Fleck’s tenure will be no different. He inherited a nine-win team so the program isn’t broken to the extent of what Jerry Kill walked in and found. Many programs would love to have a running back duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.
Fleck, however, has a lot of work on his hands. He doesn’t know his quarterback yet. He didn’t have enough healthy offensive linemen to hold a legitimate spring practice. His defensive line is so thin in depth that coaches asked linebacker Carter Coughlin to move to rush end.
Fleck acknowledged last week that he’s still in a “honeymoon stage.” That figures to last until his first bad loss.
The Gophers fan base is remarkably patient but also blessed with a healthy dose of skepticism. They have been burned before, so many of them approach any new sales pitch with caution.
Not the diehards. Those folks will crawl over broken glass just to high-five Goldy. Fleck wants to reach a broader audience. Attract new fans, or win back those who stopped buying season tickets out of frustration.
“When you haven’t won a championship in 50 years, that can take a toll on a program,” Fleck said. “That can take a toll on a fan base. That can take a toll on how you believe.”
His personality and waterfall of Fleck-isms have sparked unfamiliar outside interest. A four-part series titled “Being P.J. Fleck” makes its debut on ESPNU on Wednesday. That kind of publicity is invaluable for a program that’s largely been a face in the crowd on a national level.
A new spotlight also brings added scrutiny.
“People are really excited and they think my energy equals promise,” Fleck said.
Yes, that’s the perception, fair or not. Some will hear “elite” and expect elite results immediately.
“I promise you it will be way different than it’s ever been eventually,” he said.
He emphasized that last word. Eventually.
Fleck said he shared his blueprint with university President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle during his interview. He intends to lean heavily on his 2018 and ’19 recruiting classes with the hope and expectation of a big payoff.
Will fans remain patient with the process, with his timeline? Or will Fleck’s energy, visibility and catchphrases create a visceral reaction if/when struggles occur? Deeply rooted pessimism won’t be easy to chip away.
“My job is changing that perspective, that perception, the thoughts and ideas of people,” Fleck said. “You only do that over a long period of time. You don’t do that right away.”
Fleck deserves time to implement his plan, just like any new coach. At the same time, more people are paying attention to Gophers football now because of Fleck. Those might be competing interests, but that’s the price of selling grand plans in a world of instant gratification.