P.J. Fleck arrived at Minnesota painting himself as the next Murray Warmath. Approaching his third Big Ten football opener, it’s time for him to target a more reasonable goal.
It’s time for Fleck to live up to the legacy of Glen Mason.
That notion might not excite Gophers fans, but matching Mason is the least of what should be expected of someone who, all hyperbole aside, ranked among the nation’s best coaching candidates a few years ago.
Mason, too, was considered one of the best candidates in the country when he arrived at Minnesota. After years of what he described as “building,” he wound up with this ledger in 10 seasons: Winning 53% of his Gophers games, and 40% of his Big Ten games.
Jerry Kill wasn’t as celebrated as Mason or Fleck as a candidate — Joel Maturi hired him after he failed to find anyone flashier — but Kill demonstrated considerable coaching chops. Like Mason and Fleck, he talked about building for a few years, and he wound up with this ledger in four-plus seasons: 50% overall, 39% in the Big Ten.
Sense a trend? Two quality coaches won about half of their games at the University of Minnesota, and only 40% of their conference games.
Mason and Kill shared another statistic milestone: Each peaked at 5-3 in the Big Ten. Mason reached that mark twice, Kill once.
Together, they established the bar Fleck will try to clear. But first he has to reach it.
Fleck is 15-13 at Minnesota (54%) and 5-13 in the Big Ten (28%). He has dominated nonconference opponents. What we will learn beginning Saturday at Purdue is whether Fleck is ready to field a competitive team through an entire Big Ten season.
Two years ago, the Gophers started 3-0, then lost their Big Ten opener to Maryland. Last year, the Gophers started 3-0, then lost their conference opener to Maryland.
Saturday, the Gophers will play at Purdue, which is fitting. Well, it will be fitting if they win. Last year, the Gophers were 1-5 in the Big Ten when they beat Purdue 41-10 at TCF Bank Stadium, providing what could some day be viewed as the turning point of Fleck’s tenure.
Fleck has a lot going for him at the moment. He has won six of his past seven games, including victories at Wisconsin and over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Fleck’s current quarterback, Tanner Morgan, presided over those six victories.
Shannon Brooks, the most explosive of the Gophers’ many capable running backs, is returning to action this weekend.
Receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman are excellent, as is safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Bateman might be the most impressive Gophers football player since Eric Decker.
Fleck won’t face Ohio State or Michigan State this year, although he must be lamenting the absence of Jim Harbaugh’s pathetic Michigan team on his schedule. (Proof of how good Colin Kaepernick was: He got Harbaugh to within one completion of a Super Bowl victory.)
The Gophers begin the Big Ten schedule with five winnable games: at Purdue, vs. Illinois, vs. Nebraska, at Rutgers and vs. Maryland. They finish with vs. Penn State, at Iowa, at Northwestern and at home against Wisconsin.
I asked Fleck what the proper expectations for his team were, and he offered the usual coaching clichés about process and getting better every day. That’s fine. Coaches aren’t obligated to verbally paint themselves into corners.
So I’ll suggest what the proper expectations should be: Fleck should get this talented team back to where the program was the year before he took over (9-4 and with a Holiday Bowl victory). He should get it back to where Mason and Kill had it.
That’s a reasonable request of a highly coveted, highly paid college football coach.