Let’s face facts, if Tracy Claeys had coached the Gophers this season, there is no doubt that he would have been fired at the end of the season because the team’s tough schedule would have prevented him from winning enough games to keep his job.

While Claeys most likely would have won the first three games against Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee, the rest of the year would have been tough.

The Gophers open the Big Ten against an improved Maryland team, then face Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois, all winnable games as well.

But the Gophers face a brutal finish — with games at Iowa and Michigan, Nebraska at home, at Northwestern and Wisconsin at home.

That scheduled, coupled with inexperienced and thin lines on both sides of the ball and no established quarterback would have doomed Claeys.

Some good sources claim that even though athletic director Mark Coyle had assured Claeys at one time that he would be back in 2017, Coyle had decided that he had to change the image of the football coach and was already interviewing coaches before the Gophers bowl game. And Coyle already knew he was going to fire Claeys before the bowl game was over, and P.J. Fleck was going to be the man.

Winning the bowl game, even shorthanded, was not going to help Claeys.

And while some believe Fleck already was lined up as the coach, he said that under no circumstances was he hired before Jan. 6, when it was announced.

And as for the decision to remove Claeys, Coyle made it very clear that after everything that happened around the program last year he was willing to pay the price to change the program’s image, giving Fleck a five-year deal worth $3.5 million per season.

Wait and see approach

While most are predicting that the Gophers’ best outcome would be sneaking into a bowl game, Fleck won’t concede to losing any games this season.

Still he is taking a wait-and-see approach with what this team can accomplish.

“I know we have talent. I just don’t know how good we are on game day yet,” Fleck said. “You can talk about last year all you want, but this is a completely different football team than last year, a completely different team. Different challenges, different opportunities, different depth charts, different systems offensively, defensively and special teams, it’s all different. So we’re looking forward to seeing what type of team we have.”

There was a long lead-up to finding out who would be the Gophers’ opening night quarterback, and Fleck said the decision to start both Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft was not easy.

“It is tough, but it’s an opportunity,” Fleck said. “That’s how we look at it in our program. Everything is the glass half full. That’s how we’ve always looked at things, and that’s how we’ll always look at things.

“So for Conor it’s an opportunity to act like a fifth-year quarterback who has started for four years. And for Demry he has to act like he’s a junior that has played two years already. Those are things that we want our players to think, and they have to play that way. We don’t have the opportunity for guys to grow, to learn, to say, ‘I can play like a freshman, play like a first-year player.’ That’s not the expectation.”

Will one of the quarterbacks win the job outright?

“In a perfect world that is what you would like to see. Whether that happens or not is up to those two. But if one was playing way better than the other over multiple games then we would make a decision to stick with one. But I can’t say that will happen, yet.”

Depth key concern

While Fleck has talked a lot about building depth with his young players, he thinks for the most part his freshmen will be in a wait-and-see role when it comes to playing time early in the season.

“We have anywhere from six to eight ready to go just in case, they are ready to go,” he said. “But if they’re not going to be starters, we’re not going to just throw them in there to waste a redshirt. If we do put freshmen in the game, they’re going to play significant time on special teams or offense or defense.

“But [wide receiver] Demetrius Douglas will play, he’s going to play a lot this year. I can go on-and-on about other freshmen, but that’s kind of the way we look at it this year.”

The Gophers are 24-point favorites and shouldn’t have any problem with Buffalo, but that didn’t stop Fleck from saying he still has many concerns.

“The big thing in depth. I think our defensive line has a lot of depth issues, past our top five guys. Offensive line, we have a lot of depth issues, which is not the two you want to have depth issues at,” he said. “You want to be able to have very strong deep positions, especially in the Big Ten, at those two, which we will fix in recruiting down the road.

“The quarterback issue we just don’t know how they’re going to play in games and respond to adversity and success, yet. Those would be the three positions, and then defensive back in terms of depth. Those are the four we have issues at, I think.”

No regrets

While Fleck knows there is still plenty of room for growth with the Gophers, it’s that element that makes this such a great opportunity.

“I’m extremely excited that I took this job. I truly am. I’ve said all along that I think it’s a sleeping giant,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you wake it up in one day and it’s automatically a national powerhouse. This is going to take time to be able to wake it up, but I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

“Not only the challenge but the opportunity to bring back that national attention, not only through football but off the field, to the University of Minnesota that I think everybody in our state deserves and wants.”

Gophers fundraising announcement coming

University President Eric Kaler said this week that the Athletes Village continues to be on-time and on-budget when it comes to construction. But when it comes to fundraising, he said there are good things on the horizon with a big announcement or two coming.

“We’re pretty excited about where we are actually; we should be able to make a pretty big announcement within a week or two and another one after that,” Kaler said. “I’m really comfortable with where we are. Those are important facilities. We think about being in the Big Ten and I’ve said for a long time that if we’re going to be in the Big Ten then we’re going to compete in the Big Ten, and we need those facilities to do that.”

Will it be for big money?

“That’s the plan,” Kaler said. “We don’t have all of the ‘T’s’ crossed and the ‘I’s’ dotted but we look forward to being able to make an announcement soon.”

The most recent update on Gophers fundraising for the project was $102 million of $190 million raised.

Could it be that a sponsor is going to come up with a big check for the naming rights to Williams Arena, like the new 3M Arena at Mariucci?


Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. shartman@startribune.com