Excitement, meet reality. Expectations, say hello to patience.
That’s what the Gophers fan base is experiencing under first-year football coach P.J. Fleck.
After showing promise with three nonconference victories, the Gophers have started Big Ten play with two tight losses, and the meat of the conference schedule remains, starting with Saturday night’s game against No. 21 Michigan State.
Since taking the Gophers job after leading upstart Western Michigan to a 13-0 regular season and Cotton Bowl berth last season, Fleck has offered his vision for championship-level success at Minnesota. But it’s becoming clear that success will require a longer term than overnight.
Saturday’s game offers the Gophers a fork in the road: They can earn a signature victory in Fleck’s first year or see their conference skid stretch to three games. If the latter happens, it’s another sign that the installation of Fleck’s program — from offensive and defensive identity, and especially his culture — will require time and patience. That’s common in a coach’s first year at a school.
“I call it Year Zero, and that doesn’t mean you can’t win in Year Zero,” Fleck said. “It’s just Year Zero, and you’re ready for all the things that come with it. We haven’t won a [Big Ten] championship in 50 years. This isn’t an extension of anything else. This is brand-new, everything is different. … I got hired for a cultural build, so there’s a process of that happening.”
Buy-in takes time
If anyone knows about a first year under Fleck, it’s Zach Terrell. He was Fleck’s quarterback at Western Michigan the past four seasons, and he saw the lows of Fleck’s 1-11 debut to the highs of the Cotton Bowl. He also experienced the transition from an old-school coach in Bill Cubit to the new-age Fleck, who was 32 when he took the reins in Kalamazoo.
“The best thing to describe that first season is that it was a process. Rome wasn’t built in a day or overnight,” Terrell said.
“It’s the same kind of things at Minnesota that they’re going through,” he added. “There will be growing pains, there will be resistance, but over time people begin to realize that the culture that he’s bringing in is more than just a game. When you get buy-in from the whole team, community and everybody alike, that’s when you start to see the program excel.”
The long view is hard for some to see this week after two frustrating losses for the Gophers. Compounding the situation are injuries and suspensions, especially in the secondary, where the team was without its two starting safeties and lost a starting cornerback in last week’s loss to Purdue.
“The way they’ve responded the last two games, I feel like we’re getting a lot of buy-in,” Fleck said. “Are there still some people who haven’t bought in here? Absolutely. Absolutely! I’d be crazy to think there are not people who don’t believe in this.”
Sophomore defensive end Carter Coughlin stresses patience but sees good things ahead for the Gophers.
“People don’t understand how hard change can really be,” Coughlin said. “Without question, the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of is this culture. It’s teaching us how to be young men, but it’s really, really hard. So the faster that we can pick it up and continue to have our oars in the water, we’re gonna be able to start winning some games.’’
Doing it his way
Fleck hasn’t been afraid to suspend prominent players for disciplinary reasons, saying he won’t compromise the team’s culture for a win. Demry Croft, the co-starter at quarterback for the first two games, sat out a pair of games, as did starting safety Duke McGhee in the losses to Maryland and Purdue.
“Everybody has different standards. That’s always the hardest in my first year of staring a new culture because you’re constantly proving that you’re real to everybody else and the players are constantly proving you can trust them,” Fleck said. “… And if there’s an old expectation or some type of new expectation that doesn’t meet, then they’ve got to learn the easy way by somebody else making the mistake or the hard way by them making the mistake.”
Terrell said Fleck’s consistent expectations were key at Western Michigan. “Coach Fleck really has only one rule, and that’s do the right thing,” he said.
Fleck points to the Gophers’ lack of continuity in the coaching staff as a challenge for the players. Jerry Kill retired for health reasons during the 2015 season, and Tracy Claeys succeeded Kill and coached through 2016 before being replaced by Fleck.
“You’ve got three head coaches in three years, a lot of messages, a lot of messaging, a lot of people who have come and gone,” Fleck said. “And you also had a lot of, ‘Well, I’ve heard that before. Why is this happening? Why do I have to listen?’ ”
Terrell acknowledged that not everybody was on board from the get-go at Western Michigan in 2013. There were transfers, and it took time for Fleck to win over most players.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you it didn’t [take time]. It did, because you saw that 1-11 season,” Terrell said. “I definitely think we were a team divided, because we had so many guys who spent four years with Coach Cubit. … Over time, we began to realize, ‘This could really work.’ That’s when you could see the results show themselves.”
Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio watched Fleck develop his philosophies at nearby Western Michigan and came away impressed.
“He’s going to build his program, and that’s something he did at Western very well,” Dantonio said. “He’s going to believe in his players and get them playing hard. He’s not going to change and keep changing. He’s going to have a system and believe in that system.”
When is the breakthrough?
At Western Michigan, the positive results didn’t come in 2013, when the Broncos closed the season with three losses following their lone victory. The breakthrough, Terrell said, was in 2014, when the Broncos trailed Ball State on the road by 17 points at halftime before rallying to win 42-38.
“Coach Fleck came in at halftime and said, ‘When are you guys going to be tired of being average?’ and then walked out,” Terrell said. “He normally has a lot more to say than that.”
Terrell doesn’t expect that the Gophers will need to follow Western Michigan’s second-year script for a breakthrough. After all, they were tied with Maryland with less than four minutes to play and led Purdue with 2:26 left.
“From what I’ve heard and what I’ve been watching from a distance at Minnesota,” he said, “I really don’t think it’ll be that long for them, because they have so much more talent than we did that first year.”
That’s optimism from someone who’s been there and done that under Fleck. Whether the realism of the Big Ten schedule will allow that to happen quickly, only time — and patience — will tell.