In December 2012, an energetic, 32-year-old P.J. Fleck accepted the job as Western Michigan’s football coach, instilled his “Row The Boat” culture — and promptly went 1-11.
“People asked me after Year 1 at Western Michigan, ‘Coach, you were 1-11. Row The Boat did not work. What do we got this year? Mow The Grass? Take The Trash Out? What do we got?’ ” Fleck remembered.
What they got was a seven-win turnaround, with the Broncos going 8-5 making a bowl game in 2014.
Fast forward to January 2017, and a still-energetic, 36-year-old Fleck took the Gophers job, instilled that “Row The Boat” culture — and debuted with a 5-7 season, four fewer wins than Minnesota had in 2016. One-liners about the boat capsizing soon followed.
Will there be a seven-win turnaround in Dinkytown in Fleck’s second year as there was in Kalamazoo? You might not want to bet on that, because that would mean 12 wins for the Gophers. Instead, steady improvement from a young team with raw talent is more realistic.
Fleck understandably won’t put a number on wins — really, when is the last time you’ve heard a coach declare, ‘Yep, we’re gonna be 7-5 this year’? — but he’s cautiously optimistic.
“Overall, I like the football team. I like the leadership,” Fleck said. “When you start going through practice and you know you are [inexperienced] but you can’t tell all the time, that’s a good sign.”
If there’s anyone who knows about the second year in Fleck’s program, it’s Zach Terrell. He was Western Michigan’s starting quarterback midway into that 1-11 season in 2013 through its 13-1 Cotton Bowl campaign in 2016. He sees parallels between those Broncos and these Gophers.
“Coaches were trying to figure out players, players were trying to figure out coaches,” he said of Fleck’s WMU debut. “That second year, you start to get some buy-in. You have guys who understand what the standard is and what is asked of them.”
Gophers junior linebacker Carter Coughlin saw exactly that during training camp, which ended Tuesday as the team shifted toward preparation for Thursday’s season opener against New Mexico State. Instead of thinking through situations, players could react.
“We’re so much further along than we were last year,” Coughlin said. “It’s allowing everybody to play way faster.”
Added senior linebacker Blake Cashman, “Mentally, it’s been easier. We just look like a smart team.”
The buy-in factor
The excitable Fleck is a 180-degree turn in style from his subdued predecessor, Tracy Claeys. And with that came an adjustment period from the players Fleck inherited. Not all bought in, and several, such as starting quarterback Demry Croft, transferred after last season.
“We had the same thing [at Western Michigan],” Terrell said. “A lot of guys are just not right for him. That first year is really to weed out who’s right and who’s not right for the program. That helps going into that second season. The guys who were there prior and stayed, now believe.”
Coughlin, who expressed his displeasure via Twitter when Claeys was fired, was a quick convert to Fleck and has developed into one of the Gophers’ leaders.
“If you’re not bought-in, you stick out like a sore thumb,” he said. “So, get out if you’re not bought in. That’s not Coach Fleck saying that, that’s us as leaders saying that.”
Fleck has noticed a more cohesive attitude, which he believes has raised the level of play.
“This is 10 times more competitive than we had last year,” he said. “We had guys saying, ‘Yep, I don’t really want to practice today.’ And they really didn’t practice that hard. There was nobody else behind them [on the depth chart].”
Seeking a breakthrough
In Fleck’s second year at Western Michigan, the Broncos started 2-3 and trailed Ball State by 21 points late in the second quarter of their sixth game. The coach sent a stern message.
“He came in at halftime and said, ‘When are you going to be done being average?’ ” Terrell said. The Broncos rallied for a 42-38 victory, the first of six wins in a row.
“Once you get a little taste of winning, it becomes contagious,” Terrell added. “If all you know is losing, you’re going to lose.”
Of course, Western Michigan’s turnaround came against Mid-American Conference competition. Fleck is charged with doing that against a Big Ten schedule.
“In the Big Ten, talent only gets you so far. Everybody’s got talent,” Terrell acknowledged. “They’ve got to get some experience and get it quick.”
Nowhere is that more important than at quarterback, where walk-on true freshman Zack Annexstad will start the opener. His backup is redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan, and neither has taken a collegiate snap. However, improved offensive weapons to complement Rodney Smith and Tyler Johnson, such as redshirt freshman receivers Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell, along with four-star true freshman wideout Rashod Bateman, could ease the transition.
“Oh, there’s no comparison,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said, contrasting the talent level of the 2018 and ’17 Gophers. “The growth these guys have had — it would be laughable to make a comparison.”
Though Fleck knows his team will take its lumps as it grows, he realizes this season counts, too.
“We’re building toward the future, but today is about now,” he said. “We’ve gotta be better now.’’