P.J. Fleck lives only a few houses down the road from Richard Pitino in Edina, but like any neighbors with demanding jobs, the two Gophers coaches rarely get chances to hang out together.
Both looked forward to some bonding time Monday, as they boarded a bus for the annual Gopher Road Trip across Minnesota, a tour organizers expanded this year in part because of Pitino and Fleck’s popularity.
“I think it’s always exciting to see how young people deal with the pressures of this job,” said Pitino, the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year in men’s basketball. “He’s young; I’m young. He’s got young kids; I’ve got young kids. There’s a lot thrown on us.”
At age 34 heading into his fifth season with the Gophers, Pitino remains the youngest men’s basketball coach in the Power Five conferences — Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12.
Fleck, 36, has that same distinction among Power Five football coaches.
“[Pitino] kind of gives me the ins and outs of the neighborhood, what to look for, who to watch out for, who not to watch out for,” Fleck said. “But the biggest thing about him, what he’s been able to do is very similar to the blueprint of what we have to be able to do.”
At this time last year, Pitino was coming off an 8-23 season, the worst record in team history.
His speaking engagements didn’t generate much buzz. But the Gophers went 24-10 last season with a relatively young team that appears to have even more promise heading into this fall.
“The fans have always been extremely supportive,” Pitino said. “Even last year on the Gophers Road Trip, there were so many people that said kind things. I needed that.
“I always tell people, I don’t need you when things are good. I need you when things are bad.”
Fleck was 32 when he went 1-11 in his first season at Western Michigan. But he quickly transformed that program, going 8-5, 8-5 and 13-1 before Minnesota hired him in January.
He took over a Gophers team that went 9-4 last year under Tracy Claeys in the program’s first nine-win season since 2003.
“This is called the honeymoon stage with you and I,” Fleck told a few dozen fans who turned out for the road trip’s send-off at TCF Bank Stadium. “… I know I haven’t made a bad call yet, or a great call, or we haven’t fumbled or thrown an interception yet.
“But I do want to say this: I came here for a reason. … Our staff came here to serve and give every single one of you, to bring you what you haven’t had in over a half a century.”
The Gophers football team hasn’t won even a share of the Big Ten title since 1967, and Fleck stressed that ending that streak will take a new way of thinking.
With 13 recruits committed for the Class of 2018, the Gophers rank 16th nationally in the latest 247Sports composite rankings. Fleck said his next two recruiting classes will be the most important of his tenure.
“It doesn’t just happen overnight,” he said.
Organizers estimated that close to 300 people turned out Monday afternoon for the Gophers’ stop in Winona, dwarfing the crowd that came to the same venue for the same event two years ago.
The Gophers went from there to Rochester. In all, they will hit 14 cities this year, up from eight the past three years.
“It gives us a chance to say thank you to all of our fans,” athletic director Mark Coyle said. “Not only here in the Twin Cities, but a chance to go across the state and spend time with people and thank them for investing in our program.”