When P.J. Fleck was hired in early January, he began the task of overhauling the whole Gophers football operation, from the way his players practice, sit in class and interact with others.
“I am here to change the culture,” he announced at his introductory news conference.
But he also has others in mind when asking for that change: fans and followers who’ve been beaten down by a half-century without a Big Ten championship.
“The most significant challenge is changing people’s perspectives, beliefs, thoughts, the way they walk, talk, act about Minnesota Golden Gopher football,” Fleck said Tuesday, two days before Thursday’s opener against Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium. “When you haven’t won a championship since 1967, people feel like it’ll never happen.”
That 1967 title was a three-way share among Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana, and since then, the Gophers’ best Big Ten finishes were second place in the West Division after a winner-take-all loss to Wisconsin in 2014 and a quartet of third-place finishes before division play (1968, ’73, ’76 and ’86).
Compounding the situation for the Gophers is the exact reason why Fleck is here. He is the team’s third head coach in as many years, following the health-related retirement of Jerry Kill during the 2015 season and the firing of Tracy Claeys after last season. In addition, the Gophers had three head coaches, Glen Mason, Tim Brewster and interim Jeff Horton, from 2006 through 2010. In a sport in which program stability breeds success, Minnesota has had little.
“People start to doubt what’s gonna happen next,” Fleck said. “That’s what we have to change. All the reasons why [people] say, ‘We can’t win championships.’ We can win championships. We have to start thinking that way.”
Still, Fleck has warned that sustained success won’t come overnight. “A lot of people mistake my passion and energy for promise now,” he said during Monday’s weekly radio show.
Depth chart released
The Gophers released their depth chart for Thursday’s game, and there were no big surprises.
As expected, senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft were listed as co-starters at quarterback. Same goes for Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks at running back, and Nate Wozniak and Brandon Lingen at tight end.
There’s even a listing of tri-starters at punt returner: Antonio Shenault or Antoine Winfield Jr. or true freshman Demetrius Douglas, who also will start at wide receiver.
Fleck said Garrison Wright, who was on the sideline during the six open practices of training camp, is cleared to play Thursday. He is listed as the starter at right guard.
“For the most part, we’re as healthy as we can possibly be through training camp,” Fleck said.
A rare 1-0 start?
Fleck will try to buck a trend. The past six Minnesota coaches lost their debut games: Claeys (29-26 vs. Michigan in 2015), Kill (19-17 at USC in 2011), Horton (33-21 vs. Penn State in 2010), Brewster (32-31 in overtime vs. Bowling Green in 2007), Mason (17-3 at Hawaii in 1997) and Jim Wacker (39-30 vs. San Jose State in 1992).
The last Gophers coach to win his debut was John Gutekunst, who was named head coach after Lou Holtz left for Notre Dame following the 1985 season. Gutekunst’s Gophers beat Clemson 20-13 in the Independence Bowl.