The Gophers football team was shut out in its final two games this season, with bowl eligibility on the line, by a combined score of 70-0. In the game before that, Minnesota put up 54 points in a win over woeful Nebraska. Before that? 20 points combined in losses to Michigan and Iowa.
This thudding end to P.J. Fleck’s 5-7 debut season took another turn after the Wisconsin loss, when quarterback Demry Croft asked for his release from the program, which the U will grant.
Combine the poor finish with the rah-rah nature of Fleck — and, oh, 50 years filled with a lot of hard times for Gophers football — and you have a restless fan base wondering what the heck is going on in Dinkytown. In the most unscientific of polls — seriously, the flat earth guy launching himself in a rocket is deploying more science than we are here, so be wary — Star Tribune voters graded Fleck’s Year 1 performance. Out of about 1,000 votes, only 7 percent gave him an A or a B. That left 26 percent with a “C” grade and a full 66 percent at either D or F.
What I imagine those folks must be thinking is something like this: Didn’t this team win nine games, including a bowl game, last year under former coach Tracy Claeys? What in the world is going on?
Here’s the thing, though: This season was destined to be mediocre at best regardless of who was coaching the team. Because for all the chatter about changing the culture — real talk, don’t get me wrong — the biggest challenge Fleck faced in his first year (Year Zero, if we let him define it) was a stunning lack of talent, particularly on offense.
For all of Mitch Leidner’s inconsistency as a quarterback, there were two things you knew about him: 1) He was a better runner than passer, but he would pass well enough often enough to win you some games. 2) Though it seemed like he might play forever — 47 career games and 41 career starts don’t lie — there was no doubt 2016 was going to be his final year of eligibility.
Though it wasn’t necessarily for a lack of trying, the previous coaching staff created a shaky (at best) succession plan after Leidner was done. This offense was going to struggle regardless of who was coaching this year, and as Chip Scoggins notes it’s not just a QB problem. This team needs receivers and offensive linemen, too.
Had he remained the coach, Claeys with his defensive acumen and the continuity from year-to-year might have been enough for the Gophers to squeeze out another win this season against a soft schedule, allowing them to go to a bowl game.
And you could argue that by virtue of a 9-4 season in 2016 — analyzing just on performance, without any off-field controversy taken into account — Claeys deserved a chance to stay.
It’s impossible to know for sure how Claeys would have fared this year. The unknown is the fuel for almost every great sports argument/discussion that is worth having. But the suspicion here is the Gophers would have won been a far cry from nine wins this year had the old regime stayed in place, given the talent we saw on display in 2017.
We do know that every other coach in recent Gophers history who took over at the start of a season actually won fewer games than Fleck did in his first year: Jim Wacker (2), Glen Mason (3), Tim Brewster (1) and Jerry Kill (3). We know that Fleck seemed to inherit a better situation than most (if not all, with Brewster being the debatable one) of those coaches.
But the offense he inherited was a mess, and the defense he inherited lost a bunch of talent in recent years.
We don’t know yet if Fleck was the right hire. But what we saw this year, in Fleck’s struggle, was that a coaching change was the right move.