The only career trajectory P.J. Fleck has ever known has been up. From his quick ascension through the coaching ranks to his eight years as a college football head coach, split between Western Michigan and Minnesota, he’s always been the guy that keeps achieving more, including taking teams from unheralded to national prominence.
Yet 2020 has seen Fleck do something atypical: Slide back.
Under Fleck, the Gophers went from 5-7 to 7-6 to 11-2 last season. Following a 35-7 blowout loss to Iowa on Friday, the Gophers are 1-3 and one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, in record and statistics.
Fleck, though, isn’t big on looking at his overall trajectory and how this appears to be the first tumble he’s ever taken. Instead, he looks at each season as its own entity, and that has helped him see how nothing the Gophers are encountering is unfamiliar.
Much of that foundational knowledge came from his first season at Western Michigan in 2016, when the first-time head coach garnered a dreadful 1-11 record.
“Listen, I’ve been the worst coach in America, which I’m sure probably a lot of people probably feel that right now in our fans,” Fleck said. “But I’ve been that before. … I’m glad I have been. I’m glad a lot of my staff has been. We’ve all been at the bottom, and we’ve all been at the top, because you’ve seen that whole range. So everybody knows how to be able to handle that, and you take it for exactly what it is.”
The coach starts over every year, as he put it, and tries to lean on what experience and leadership exists on that incarnation of his team and develops it from there. But he knew as soon as last year’s 11-2 season ended that 2020 would be a trial by fire for young players replacing a bevy of seniors, including a handful currently playing in the NFL.
“To be able to replace that in the third full year you’re there, going into your fourth, the way we recruit with seniors, it’s probably not going to be able to happen right away,” Fleck said. “So you go back to what you know of how to be able to get it back there. Remember, this is a developmental program.”
Being a developmental program, though, requires time to develop. And that’s been glaringly absent with the coronavirus pandemic abolishing the team’s spring practices, training camp and nonconference games. That’s forced these young players to learn from a distance on their own without much practice. Injuries and COVID-19 cases have continued to deplete the roster as the year has progressed.
So then the sacrifice comes in, playing players who aren’t quite ready so they eventually become ready. But their mistakes are put on public display instead of dealt with in private practices, and the results stay inked in the record book.
Fleck takes some comfort in that this season was always going to look like an underachievement, simply because the team will play only nine games this year, 10 if there’s a bowl game. So it’s impossible to reach 11 wins again, which was the most for the program since 1904. He also believes he knows how to navigate this year — while a regression from previous seasons — because he’s done it before. It was just usually in his first season as head coach of a team instead of his fourth.
His only internal expectation for this year, with all its unique challenges, was to improve.
“And then after the end of the year, I’ll look up, and I’ll say, ‘What didn’t I do well? Where’d I miss, and then where’d I hit? Where’d our team hit? Where didn’t they hit?’ ” Fleck said. “… That’s how you handle it. You take it for exactly what it is, and you just coach.”