In December of 2012, an energetic and green young coach named Phillip John Fleck was hired by the University of Western Michigan (/wink)to bring new life to the Broncos football program. Eight months later, on August 30th 2013, Fleck would take the field for the first time as a head football coach.
On that day, in East Lansing, MI, the Broncos fell 26-13 to Michigan State. The following week, the Broncos lost again. This time the game was closer, 27-23, but this time the loss was to the Nicholls State Colonels, a team that had gone 1-11 the previous season, and would end up just 4-8 in 2013… in the FCS.
That evening, on a Collegiate Sports Nation message board focused on Western Michigan athletics called Bronco Stampede, a thread was started:
Subject: Fire Fleck
Someone had to start one of these. Might as well be me.
Two games into the football season, a fan was calling for the firing of the new head coach.
Sounds crazy, right?
You know the story of that first season. Western Michigan went on to finish 1-11. PJ Fleck was not fired.
What’s really crazy is that people responded to that first post and they agreed. That message board thread ended up extending for 15 months and to 1,181 posts over 119 pages.
14 months after that first post, in November of 2014, the very next season, the Broncos were in the midst of an 8-4 regular season that saw them rattle off 6 wins in a row in the heart of their MAC Conference schedule. A poster on that same message board posted a response that included this sentence:
This board will be short lived here soon if and when Fleck leaves us for the money... then you all can start a new Fire ????? thread.
There are a couple of lessons to take away from this tale.
First, it would appear that irrational, knee-jerk reactions aren’t strictly reserved for the Gopher fanbase. In a way that makes me feel very uneasy, this is comforting.
The second takeaway actually would need two more years to come to fruition, but in 2016 PJ Fleck lead the Broncos to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin.
It took PJ Fleck two games for the fanbase to call for his head.
And it took him 4 seasons to take the Broncos to the pinnacle of achievement for a Group of 5 team.
Perhaps Gopher fans aren’t quite as kneejerk as Bronco fans, since it took our group eight weeks to call for PJ Fleck’s head instead of two. But relative to rational thought, that’s still a pretty jerky knee.
Look, I don’t know if PJ Fleck is going to be successful at Minnesota in the long term. What I do know is that as a fan base, I think we could do a better job of understanding the nuances of college football.
One of those nuances is to remember that these are 18-22 year old kids who are not only playing football, but they are going to school, they are considering their futures, and they are trying to maintain a social life. They do not have unlimited time to dedicate to football playbooks, weightlifting and film rooms.
Another nuance is that acquiring talent in college football is not like the NFL. Sure, JUCO and grad transfers happen, but for the most part, developing Power 5 level talent across a roster takes several years. It takes recruiting the right kind of players, and hopefully giving them the time to develop as redshirts and underclassmen.
But there’s an unfortunate and devastating flipside to that coin: a Power 5 level roster can be torn apart in myriad and devastating ways in incredibly short order.
When players leave unexpectedly, the luxury to replace them with someone of similar talent and experience is almost never there.
The level of talent and depth of a roster then dictate nearly everything a coaching staff can do, which leads to yet another nuance: how does the coaching staff respond? Do you run your preferred scheme come hell or high water and hope the players you put on the field understand the playbook well enough and can execute it? Or, do you modify the schemes to maximize the roster that you do have in order to mitigate risk?
Put another way: do you choose to lose spectacularly, or lose nobly?
I hate losing as much as anyone. It puts a pit in my stomach to think that we are 4-4 and realize that it’s quite possible we won’t win another football game this season.
But new coaching staffs are never about the first year and that is especially true when you have a head coach who is as focused on building a culture, and building up young men, as PJ Fleck is.
To our fan base, I would implore you to be patient. Deep breaths.
I would implore you to take the long view of Gopher football. Don’t look at games and individual players and individual recruits in a vacuum. No single player, no single play, no single recruit is going to make or break this program.
Trends, depth, process… these are things that will build success, and they are the things that will build sustainable success.
It’s difficult. Losing sucks, and few fan bases know that better than us. But we need to quit eating ourselves.
At the end of the day all any of us want is to see a winner on that field. To see the Gophers go to a Rose Bowl. To see that damn trophy case full and to see buckets of bitter, salty tears falling from the bloodshot eyes of our fallen rivals.
PJ Fleck has proven once that he can build a program to its absolute heights. Let’s give him a shot to do the same here.