The Gophers’ historic turnaround was cemented this past week when they finished the 2019 season ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press football poll, their highest ranking since 1962.
When the history of Gophers football is written, you will not be able pass up the fact that only three years ago, this program was in its worst straits ever when P.J. Fleck took over as coach.
The Gophers had fired coach Tracy Claeys on Jan. 3, 2017, even though he had just won a bowl game, beating Washington State 17-12 in the Holiday Bowl.
The headline in the Star Tribune Sports section that day read “Firing and Firestorm,” and it told the whole story.
Claeys had been let go following the suspension of 10 players — Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, Seth Green, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson, Kobe McCrary, Antonio Shenault, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr. — but the remaining players on the roster had revolted over that decision.
They held a players-only news conference, and several key members of the team were getting ready to leave the club because they were so upset about how the school had handled the suspensions and firing.
Eventually, several players would be reinstated and have their suspensions lifted, but Winfield was so upset by the suspension, as was his father, that he was minutes away from leaving the program.
The Gophers were a national story for all the wrong reasons.
In several ways, it’s easy to say it was one of the lowest points for any major college football program.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle had just been hired, and he told the Star Tribune at the time that he felt like he had no choice when it came to the Claeys decision.
“When I was hired six months ago, I committed to everyone that we would have a program that competed at the highest level academically, athletically and socially,” Coyle said. “With that as my foundation, I thought it was in the best long-term interest of our football program to make this change now.”
But even though the program made that decision, all signs were that it was going to set the football team back in terms of being able to recruit players and keep the team together.
Fleck brings optimism
It was only three days later that Fleck was hired, and a lot of people thought it was all hot air when he started his news conference by saying he had a vision of winning a national championship with the Gophers.
But Fleck had proved himself to be a winner. He had just taken Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and a Cotton Bowl appearance four days before he was hired.
Fleck’s hiring wasn’t just about winning; the program was in huge trouble not only with legal issues but also with players wanting to leave because they felt their coach and teammates had been mistreated.
At his news conference, Fleck said: “I look at this as a culture change. In the first year, we have to dig in and find what parts of our culture we need to change.”
Fleck also noted that in his first day on the job he met with 25 players and had a large number of players join the meeting via a video conference.
But Fleck also said he was ready to really commit to this program. “People ask me all the time, why Minnesota?” he said. “Because we share a vision of winning a national championship. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten West. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten and having Rose Bowls. And I’m not afraid to say that because that’s the way I live my life.”
Still, if anyone says they believed Fleck could generate this kind of turnaround in only three years, they are crazy or lying.
Fleck got to work immediately on recruiting, and it has shown. The 2017 recruiting class ranked 59th in the country, the 2018 class ranked 38th, the 2019 class ranked 45th and this year’s class ranks 35th.
He also got a big commitment on his first day as Gophers coach three years ago, bringing in quarterback Tanner Morgan, who had committed to him at Western Michigan.
Three years later, the Gophers won 11 games for the first time since 1904. They beat Penn State at home in their biggest game at TCF Bank Stadium. They went to the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day and beat Auburn, consistently one of the best programs in the nation.
And the fact is that when the dust settles they will be favored, along with Wisconsin, to win the Big Ten West in 2020. Playing in Pasadena will remain a goal, but this season the Rose Bowl is one of two College Football Playoff semifinals along with the Sugar Bowl.
That this program can say that after coming from where it was three years ago is simply unbelievable.
• Brian Gutekunst, the son of former Gophers football coach John Gutekunst, is in his second season as general manager of the Packers, who will try to reach the Super Bowl on Sunday. He has been with the club in various roles since 1998.
• Former Gophers linebacker Damien Wilson will start for the Chiefs on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. He had eight tackles in Kansas City’s 51-31 victory over the Texans last week. He was second on the team in tackles this season with 81.
• Las Vegas currently has Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan tied for the fourth-best odds to win the Heisman Trophy next season. The Gophers’ odds to win the 2020 national championship are 100-1. They trail Ohio State (9-2), Michigan (33-1), Penn State (33-1) and Wisconsin (50-1) in the Big Ten.
• While the Vikings face a lot of decisions in free agency, ESPN had only two Vikings players ranked in their top 50 NFL free agents: safety Anthony Harris (No. 31) and cornerback Trae Waynes (No. 39).
• ESPN baseball reporter Buster Olney wrote that the Twins are No. 9 in his power rankings: “The rotation has a lot of uncertainty, but the Twins are going to hit and they should have a high-end bullpen. In the American League Central, that might be enough.”
• Miguel Sano’s new contract will pay him $30 million over three years, but just $7 million in 2020, putting him below Jake Odorizzi ($17.8 million), Nelson Cruz ($12 million), Marwin Gonzalez ($9 million) and Eddie Rosario ($7.5 million) for this season.
• Twins President Dave St. Peter said one of their minor league clubs might play this season with a robotic strike zone aiding umpires: “I would be surprised if we don’t see it in the Florida State League [with the newly named Fort Myers Mighty Mussels]. Our players will get a look at it, our coaches and managers will get a look at it.”