P.J. Fleck spoke on Tuesday, which is to say he executed severe circumlocution. He was such an active volcano of emotion and intensity that everyone in the room ran right out and bought a ShamWow.
For once, what the Gophers football coach didn’t say stood out more than what he did say.
What he didn’t say was “elite.”
I know. I didn’t believe it, either.
So I listened to the transcript of his news conference. Twice. He talked about rowing the boat, culture and “data.” Confirmed: He did not say “elite.”
Thank you, P.J.
“Elite” is a vague word that has been stripped of even nebulous meaning by its inclusion in sports debates. It is indefinable and insipid and does neither Fleck nor his program any good.
Because Fleck is not a linguist, there is probably another reason for him avoiding the word in a room filled with journalists.
It would be hard to use the word “elite” frequently about a program that won nine games last season and is likely to win about a half-dozen this year.
The Tuesday news conference provided a reminder of just how difficult it will be for Fleck to be viewed favorably by the end of his Gophers coaching tenure. He’s trying to thread a needle with anchor line.
Here are the things longtime Gopher fans don’t want to see:
1. Fleck fail. (He probably won’t. He’s a quality coach, whether or not you like his shtick.)
2. Fleck succeed only as much as Glen Mason, Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys, which would mean running a solid program and advancing to mediocre bowl games. What would have been the point of firing Claeys — or Mason, for that matter — if that is all Fleck can accomplish?
3. Fleck winning big for a season or two, maybe three or four years from now, and then leaving for a traditional power.
Gophers fans will be angry if Fleck is not transformative, or if he’s so transformative that he winds up at Ohio State or Nebraska.
So on Tuesday, I asked him how he can manage expectations while overflowing with enthusiasm.
He talked so long on the subject he wound up apologizing.
Here is a highly edited version of his response:
“Nobody is going to put more expectations and more pressure on this football team than myself,” he said. “But I also know more than everybody else exactly where this program is. ... This is a new culture. ... We can talk about six head coaches in 11 years. ... When it comes down to it, this is kind of like a year zero with a new culture. ... This isn’t an extension of what we did last year.
“We’re going to do what it takes to build a solid foundation for this culture, to build it into a championship culture in the future, which hasn’t happened in 50 years. ... I’m hired to make sure that I get to a certain spot sometime. I don’t know when that is. I only know a certain way of doing it. ... I don’t know when that will happen, in terms of that championship team or culture.”
What’s interesting is that, once you get past the slogans and bluster, Fleck is putting himself on the line. He’s talking about national title contention at Minnesota. He’s not pretending he has a contender this year. He’s predicting future greatness.
In doing so, he will annoy many. He’ll offend those who believed in Claeys and were impressed with last season’s results. He’ll cause many rolled eyes from those who can’t imagine Gophers football greatness. He’ll wear out people who can’t stand sloganeering.
But when he doesn’t use a stupid word such as “elite,” and you listen to what he’s actually saying, he sounds like a driven football coach unafraid of great expectations. He is not your typical grumpy coach who doesn’t understand why he should have to answer questions about the most visible program at a public institution.
When Fleck doesn’t say “elite,” his aspirations sound less like marketing, and more like plans.