If you’re a college football fan that lives in Minnesota you’ve probably spent a fair amount of your time looking enviously at our neighbors and Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Iowa, wondering why can’t we have nice things like them?
Year after year the Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes contend for conference championships to add to their collection. At the end of a successful season, large contingents of Badger and Hawkeye fans escape the Midwestern winter for warm weather places like San Antonio, Miami, and in really special years, Pasadena.
After decades of losing seasons and lesser bowls games, P.J. Fleck and the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team finally got a taste of the good life after beating Auburn 31-24 in the Outback Bowl. Just like Iowa and Wisconsin, the revitalization of a football program began with coaches who turned around programs in times of doubt.
It began in Iowa in 1979 where an unknown coach by the name of Hayden Fry, from North Texas State University, took the head coaching position at the University of Iowa. Upon his arrival, Fry promised Hawkeye fans that the team would go to a bowl game within the next four years or else he’d step down as the head coach. Fry delivered by taking the team to three bowl games, and much of the state of Iowa to the Rose Bowl in 1982.
The administration at Iowa realized what they had in Fry, and that made him happy. The coach transformed the team from Big Ten doormat, to conference powerhouse that lives by playing smashmouth football and has dominated teams with its two-tight end set.
When Fry retired in 1998, he handed over the program to his former offensive line coach, Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz has largely kept the Hawkeyes near the top of the Big Ten standings, while becoming Iowa’s all-time leader in wins.
In 1990 Barry Alvarez was named head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, inheriting a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 1984. Before his arrival they had been to only six bowls in school history.
Alvarez only won eleven games in his first three seasons at Madison, but in 1993 the Badgers went 10–1–1, and made their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1963 when they beat UCLA 21-16. Alvarez stepped down as head coach after the 2005 season and the Badger football program has consistently finished at or near the top of the Big Ten ever since. Barry Alvarez is now the Athletic Director at Wisconsin and the Badgers have won multiple Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowls.
For 10 consecutive years the Gopher Football team struggled to remain above .500.
I think we can all agree by now that even if you find Fleck’s propensity for finding the camera, or springing up and down the sideline mildly distasteful, it is more than mitigated by his proven ability to attract and retain top athletes. The 38-year-old has proven his ability to run a clean program, has players participate in community projects and emphasizes success in the classroom.
What P.J. Fleck has done is about more than just wins and losses. Here is a guy who clearly understands messaging, the media and most importantly young football players. He has transformed the culture of a torn apart football program and has put the entire university in the position of appearing much more attractive to athletes and prospective students. The “experience” of attending college is still a selling point, and nothing rallies the community more than Saturday’s spent with the school’s football program.
Are we all ready to admit that we’re not only on-board, but that we’re ready to row the boat? The extension that P.J. Fleck signed in November has a $10 million dollar buyout in 2020. That’s a poison pill that is going to deter most, if not all college and pro suitors. However, the buyout drops to $4.5 million in 2021, and $3 million the following year. Numbers that are almost incomprehensible to you and me, but not to those who know how much it costs when your program isn’t successful.
So get in the boat, grab an oar, and starting rowing with P.J. Fleck. You need only to look across the state borders to see how investing in a consistent coach and system can work. It would be great to reminiscence back 30-40 years from now like Iowa and Wisconsin fans, and say that we were able to recognize a good thing when we had it.