P.J. Fleck’s motto apparently is “Row the Boast.”
When introduced as the new Gophers football coach Friday, Fleck spoke of winning a national championship at Minnesota. That only sounds crazy because it is.
Fleck has misread his audience. Gophers fans don’t want false promises. They would be satisfied with far less hype and far lower expectations.
Deep in hearts protected by layers of maroon fleece, Gophers fans would settle for hiring a coach who leaves to win a national championship elsewhere. That’s why they still love Lou Holtz.
Those most invested in Gophers football have long dreamed of discovering the next Urban Meyer — of hiring an Urban while he was still rural.
However his Minnesota tenure turns out, Fleck is that hire. He is the first slam-dunk, no-brain, open-vault hire for Gophers football since Holtz dropped by for a long weekend.
Fleck wants everyone to grab an oar.
His bosses want him to grab a paintbrush.
Fleck’s hiring doesn’t erase the ugly problems facing the football program and the university, but it would be convenient for Eric Kaler and Mark Coyle if he can slap a coat of whitewash over an ugly and ineptly handled winter.
Fleck is unique for the Gophers in that they have never before hired a head coach who is so accomplished at such a young age. Fleck is 36. He went 13-1 at Western Michigan this season.
He is an impressive young coach with a schtick that may or may not age well in a major media market. But he is not the first example of the Gophers hiring a Magic Coach to cure their ills. He’s not even the second.
Holtz had the key people associated with the program convinced that he wanted to live in Minnesota forever, even though he built a clause in his contract to allow him to leave for Notre Dame. And that’s what he did after two seasons.
Here’s what we can learn from the Holtz tenure: Don’t believe anything a football coach tells you, unless it’s written in ink and notarized. And don’t let force of personality alter facts.
Holtz is often celebrated for resurrecting Minnesota football. His record as Gophers coach: 11-12. In his final season, he went 6-5 and departed before the Gophers played in the Independence Bowl. He is one of the great coaches in college football history, but he did not transform the Gophers into a power and he left as quickly as he could.
The Gophers hired one other Magic Coach, and he never left town. Glen Mason elevated Kansas, traditionally one of the worst football programs in America, to a height of No. 6 and a final ranking of No. 9 in the country in 1995.
That coaching brilliance earned him a job offer from the University of Georgia. He accepted, then backed out. After a bad lame-duck season at Kansas, Mason took the Gophers job.
In 2003, the Gophers were 6-0, ranked 17th and leading Michigan 28-7 after three quarters at the Metrodome.
Mason was a big-time hire about to deliver on his considerable promise. That’s when he and his program hit their heads on Minnesota’s glass — or, provincially, ice — ceiling.
The Wolverines won 38-35, and while Mason would engineer big moments and solid seasons, the Gophers would never again look poised to rent space in the top 10.
Holtz and Mason represented two different kinds of Magic Coaches. They combined to go 39-58 in the Big Ten. The beloved Jerry Kill’s Big Ten record: 14-21.
Fleck is the right kind of hire. He will probably win a reasonable number of games, as did Holtz, Mason, Kill and Tracy Claeys before him.
The test of his tenure, if he stays for a while, will be cracking the Gophers’ ice ceiling, the one separating Minnesota from Big Ten and national powers. No Gophers coach has done that since Murray Warmath.
Fleck is a strong hire, but he’s not the first impressive coach to take the job and he’s not the first to pepper us with slogans. Jim Wacker and Tim Brewster might as well have been selling timeshares.
Holtz intentionally left as quickly as possible. Mason unintentionally made Minnesota his retirement job. The most reasonable hope for Fleck is that he lands somewhere in between those extremes, winning for a while before rowing his boat to a more traditional power and trying out all of his sayings on a brand-new audience.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org