The Gophers football program and head coach P.J. Fleck deserve the victory lap they were able to take Wednesday, when they delivered the most highly regarded recruiting class around here in almost a decade, if not of all-time.
Fleck was brought in to provide energy and build a program, with recruiting at the heart of his message. He’s been everything as advertised so far.
At times like this, it’s easy to get swept up in the momentum. It’s just as important, then, to hit the pause button around signing day to remember that winning the recruiting battles leads to eventual success — not immediate success — on the field.
If you’re a Gophers football fan, your vision should be 2020 and beyond.
That’s the season when these recruits — the first group Fleck was able to spend an entire cycle pursuing at Minnesota — will be in their third year in the program. Those who stick and devleop will be redshirt sophomores or true juniors, depending on quickly they earn their way onto the field.
That would be Fleck’s fourth season, which seems to be a magic number if we look at a couple of meaningful (if imperfect) parallels.
In his previous head coaching job at Western Michigan, Fleck went 1-11 in his first season, 8-5 in both of his next two seasons and then 13-1 (with a competitive Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin) in the fourth year.
Fleck is often compared at Minnesota to Richard Pitino, another young coach who preached patience after taking over for a regime that had experienced some success but not quite enough of it.
Pitino’s Gophers had enough holdovers to just miss the NCAA tourney his first year, instead winning the NIT title. They faded his second year and bottomed out his third year before jolting forward with 24 wins and an NCAA tourney berth last season — year four.
Fleck’s Gophers were 5-7 last season. They might have been able to squeeze another win and bowl game appearance out of their talent and schedule, but ultimately the program would have been in the same spot as it is now.
Fleck’s Year 2 Gophers — and their fans — should expect more competent QB play if junior college transfer Vic Viramontes is as good as his numbers suggest. Next year’s schedule is friendly enough that a spot in a bowl game is a reasonable expectation as long as the QB play is upgraded.
We might say the same thing about 2019, Year 3, as well. The first five Big Ten games that year — at Purdue, vs. Illinois, vs. Nebraska, at Rutgers, vs. Maryland — are potentially cushy enough for Minnesota to arrive a year early, at least in the standings.
But 2020, Year 4, is where sights should be set in terms of real and meaningful expectations. The schedule is less forgiving, but by then it shouldn’t matter. If Fleck has done the job he wants to do, the Gophers — led by this year’s incoming class and other classes that follow — should be competitive against pretty much every opponent.
If we’re talking in December 2020 not just about a meaningful recruiting class but a meaningful bowl game, you will likely be able to trace its origins back to Wednesday. Now it’s just a matter of watching and waiting.