Mocked and Doubted on Arrival, PJ Fleck has Brought Stability, Hope and Wins to Minnesota


On January 7th 2017, PJ Fleck was introduced as the new head football coach at the University of Minnesota. On October 24th 2020, nationally ranked (#21) Minnesota Gophers will welcome the (#18) Michigan Wolverines for a primetime opening night matchup on ABC. College GameDay will also return that morning, for the second consecutive home game at TCF Bank Stadium.

Can you fathom that scenario three years ago? Heck, 20 years ago? Consecutive College GameDay appearances, five players drafted in last year’s NFL draft, 11 wins, and glistening recruiting classes… that’s the start of our new normal. As Gopher fans know all too well, it sure as hell wasn’t always like this.

AD Scandals, player arrests, and a lot of losing stood in the way of PJ Fleck’s vision. But Fleck embraced the challenge, shouting about how he’s run into fires his entire life, not away from them.

I want to reflect, ruminate and lionize the sprouting of a football program that could only dream about situations like the one coming Saturday. Before Fleck, Saturday would be about “competing with Michigan” and “making the score look closer than it is.” Now, it’s about handling the Wolverines and chasing a Big Ten West title in an eight game sprint.

Year One or “Year Zero”

Do you remember when PJ Fleck called Minnesota “a sleeping giant?” How many of us laughed at him? When Fleck introduced “Row The Boat”, how many of us rolled our eyes? Let’s be real, a lot of people were waiting for Fleck to fail. He rubbed many journalists around here the wrong way, irritated older folks with his sayings and, when that all added up to a 5-7 first season, many Minnesotans were telling Fleck to row his boat right out of town.

Year Two

Nine games into Fleck’s second year, the Gophers were 4-5. After getting humiliated by 24 points to a lowly Illinois Fighting Illini team, and giving up 55 in the process, Fleck’s seat was heating up. Defensive Coordinator, Rob Smith took the fall and was fired. He was replaced by Joe Rossi on an interim basis and then everything changed.

The Gophers turned their boat around immediately, going 3-1 the rest of the year. The regular season concluded with a shocking win in Madison, where they upended the Badgers 37-15 and reclaimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe, before capping the season off with a Quick Lane Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. Rossi had his interim label removed by the end of the season.

Year Three

The Gophers started 2019 in shaky fashion. They squeaked out a 7-point victory over the SDSU Jackrabbits (FCS or DII depending who you ask) and then took to the skies and flew west where it took a double-OT Winfield Jr + Autman-Bell miracle to grab a win vs Fresno State.

Before Big Ten play started, Georgia Southern came to TCF Bank Stadium where the Gophers won a three point head-scratcher. A win is a win but this one took a Georgia Southern fumble and a 4th and long conversion to complete.

Then, Big Ten play started and Minnesota got on a roll, taking care of Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland, before upsetting (#4) Penn State. Now that same Gopher team, who could only beat SDSU, Fresno State and Georgia Southern by an average margin of four points, was suddenly 9-0 after 5 Big Ten games? How?

Because PJ Fleck

I’ll tell you how: patience, culture and faith in the head coach. Fleck and Co. fell to the Hawkeyes and the Badgers, finishing 10-2 on the season. A bowl victory over SEC royalty, the (#12) Auburn Tigers, meant the most Gopher football victories in a season since 1904 (11).

It’s easy to look back now and see the growth every season under Fleck. From 5 wins, to 7 wins, and 11 last year PJ Fleck is making it look easy. But as Minnesota Gopher football fans know, it’s a lot more complicated than what the numbers show. Fleck endorsed a ton of challenges but kept his oar in the water and guided Minnesota to places nobody thought they could get to.

First, he walked the walk and then, he talked the talk. Fleck’s authenticity was questioned in the beginning, but has been validated since. Fleck is who he is and he’s honest about it. He’s energetic, culture driven and free spoken. And when you win here, you can say or spray whatever you want.

Now, let’s Row The Boat to a Big Ten Championship.

Stephen Strom | Minnesota Sports Fan