Remembering back to January, 2017, when we thought we had a chance at landing PJ Fleck as our coach, becomes more and more difficult as we enter conference play in Tracy Claeys' second full season as Gophers head coach. The team is undefeated, but the pall of the sexual assault scandal and threatened bowl boycott still hangs over the team. Attendance is down, as a sizable percentage of season ticket holders opted to sit this one out. Some due to the scandal, others due to the belief that the U had once again opted for the less expensive path of mediocrity.
Your author and his cohort chose to not renew because the games just weren't fun anymore. The last home game of the 2017 season, against Northwestern, had the stale, musty feeling of a tomb. That the university made no steps to understand what fans wanted the game day experience didn't help matters; but in all earnest, attending the games wasn't a good time. Our offense had failed to progress and, while the defense remained a strong point, it's hard to get jacked about defensive football when the stadium is 30% vacant and quiet.
And so we opted out and watched the games from our local watering holes. What we've seen this season has been much the same as seasons past, only with a different cast of characters. Seth Green is the starting QB, asked mostly to play the read option, even though it's not clear whether he has the speed to excel at it. But god help us all if he goes down, because Neil McLaurin is his backup and, well, his JUCO stats weren't great. At this stage, we're all kind of wishing Connor Rhoda was still on the team. When we thought Fleck might come in, some people even made Rhoda Boat shirts. That was cute. They're oil rags now after the makers failed to offload them to needy children in the Sudan, like 'Super Bowl Champion' apparel from the team that loses the Super Bowl.
Never in my memory has there been so little excitement to the start of conference play while coming in undefeated. Maryland is a shit burrito, starting their third-string QB, so winning seems near certain. I think we're all a little uneasy about the next game at Purdue, though. They went out and hired a top-notch coach and look to have reinvented themselves. No one is really saying it out loud, but there's a definite feeling they may have passed us in the pecking order of the B1G West. Purdue, for effs sake.
Believing that things will get better from here is tough. The last five games of the season look to be killers. Recruiting closed out last year with a whimper and we've currently only got six recruits for the 2018 class. We're all praying to Cthulu that Quinn Carroll gives us the hometown reacharound and commits to us for the 2019 class, but with Bama and the universe having offered him, I've got the bottle of Drano ready. I just hope it's not Wisconsin.
Under these conditions, it's hard to even see why I'm maintaining interest in the program. I've put up with a lot of bad coaching and football product, but even in those situations, there was some reason to believe. Brew was a Chernobyl-level event for the program, but he sold us a bill of goods that we ate up. Then when he got canned, we went out and got Kill, a good-old boy whose entire existence was football. Those were fun times: the team got better and we achieved something a little more than respectability - basically the high-water mark of our program over the last 40 years.
Recall that when Kill was forced to retire, we all gave Claeys a chance. He didn't exactly seem like head football coach material, but he obviously had a mind for the game and retained all of Kill's successful staff during as the interim coach. We were excited when he canned Limey and brought in a new OC and offensive line coach. There was enormous optimism going into the 2016 season. The #TITTY shirts even made an encore appearance.
Not long after, the shine appeared to wear off. The sexual assault incident on opening night set the tone for what would be a PR nightmare for the remainder of the season. Blowing second-half leads against Penn State, Nebraska and, UGH, Wisconsin drove everyone into apoplexy. We were so close to that magical season, only to have it end in despair, an ill-conceived bowl boycott and a somewhat face-saving victory while undermanned against Washington State.
So, here we sit, feeling like the program has not moved forward, but may be on the brink of falling backward. It has the feel of the John Gutekunst era: things got bad slowly and then all of a sudden. Claeys still has his supporters and I respect their loyalty. Mine, though, has always been to the program. And once the program starts making the investments to be great, I'll start investing more than three hours, twelve weeks a year in them. My fear is that will never happen.