Not often does a football coach reference the Disney movie “Frozen” in delivering a state-of-the-program address, but P.J. Fleck was on a roll and the analogy, in a weird way, made sense, especially to those who have followed the Gophers football program longer than four weeks.
Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin ended the Gophers’ bid at a dream finish: A Big Ten West title, a trip to Pasadena or possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff. Even the most calloused souls can appreciate the disappointment attached to that missed opportunity.
That doesn’t mean a 10-2 season is chopped liver, especially for a program that is never in position in take winning for granted, though a segment of longtime Gophers football sufferers will label the letdown as same old, same old.
Fleck seemed to anticipate that instinctive reaction, so he finished his postgame news conference with an impassioned rebuttal.
“Let’s not start thinking, ‘Well, that’s typical,’ ” he said. “That has to be out of our system. There’s going to be cynics, there’s going to be doubters, there’s going to be critics. But the true fans, what we want them to do is to get that completely out of their minds because we are not going back to that. …
“You don’t have to worry about that with me, our staff, our recruiting, our culture, our support, our administration, our president, Mark Coyle, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. So let it go. ‘Frozen 2’ came out. I don’t know what the new words are to the new songs. But ‘Let it go’ has to be in there somehow. Let it go.”
Apologies for getting that song stuck in your head, but Fleck’s message represents an internal challenge as well, not just fans.
Gophers football has carried a fatalistic persona for too long. A well-earned persona, mind you, established through decades of heartbreak, flops and outright nonsense. Generations of fans have been raised to expect the worst possible outcome. Others simply preferred to tune out.
The program finally has energy. It has momentum. November felt different with big games, big crowds and the euphoria associated with being relevant. That’s the key word, relevant. College football matters in the Twin Cities. It has been a long time since that was true.
Fleck’s task now is to sustain it. The next step cannot be a ho-hum 7-5 season. Continue building with the goal of duplicating Wisconsin and Iowa’s consistency.
Fleck often reminded this season that his team was picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten West. Guess what? That’s not happening next season. The Gophers likely will be one of the favorites in the West. Maybe not ahead of Wisconsin, but they won’t be overlooked or ignored again.
Expectations should change. The Gophers should expect to be regular contenders, regardless of their schedule. A soft schedule helped pave a path to 10 victories this season. Future schedules won’t be so inviting. But Fleck’s program should be rooted enough to avoid seesaw finishes from year to year.
The school’s commitment to football has never been stronger in terms of resources, money, facilities, marketing and engagement. The administration is all-in in understanding that football is an engine that requires upkeep.
Fleck ranks recruiting alongside oxygen in importance, so he should continue to replenish talent with equal or better talent. Minnesota will never produce large quantities of blue-chip high school recruits, which adds extra challenges in recruiting and puts a premium on player development once they enter the program. Tanner Morgan is Exhibit A in that area.
Turning a pedestrian program into a consistent winner is a step-by-step process. This season represented a significant step. Yes, the schedule was a gift. And no, the Gophers didn’t maximize that gift completely because they went 0-2 vs. their border rivals to miss a shot at their first Rose Bowl since 1962. But I’ve followed the program intimately for nearly two decades and the energy surrounding it is undeniably different.
The next step will be equally critical. They can’t go backward. Their challenge is to create and maintain a new standard.