Yeah, so, tomorrow, huh? Pretty, pretty, pretty big day for
our favorite team, the U, the State of Minnesota, the Arctic ice cap, and
cosmic justice. I’m going to do my best to just take it all in; but getting started
at 5.30, watching GameDay, wandering bars/tailgates, hitting GopherHour and
then sitting down for 200+ minutes of ulcer-inducing drama where the payoff is
everything we’ve ever wanted is going to be a lot for my monkey brain to
“A LOT” is about the only way I can describe tomorrow. The
B1GW, the Axe, a chance at the Rose Bowl, a chance to knock off Ohio State for
a B1G championship and a shot at the College Football Playoff, another year of not
having that rancid fan base constantly chirping. It sucks that most of that
list is still in play if we execute in the red zone just a little bit better at
Iowa. Then tomorrow is just about the Axe and a better shot at the Playoff. It
sucks if we lose, because it always sucks to lose to Bucky. Beyond that though,
we win the division and have bragging rights and everything else to play for.
I made my decision to go to the University of Minnesota on
Saturday, October 9th, 1999. I was on campus that day for a formal
visit, the details of which escape me other than the fact that it was a
beautiful early fall day, and the 4-0 Gophers were playing the 3-2 Badgers at
the Metrodome. I was in a tour group of several dozen high school seniors,
almost all in maroon and gold. In those days before smart phones we got our
score updates from our tour guides at the quarter breaks.
After the victory over Penn State we experienced a week
unlike any I can remember as a Gopher fan. Unprecedented levels of local coverage and
interest (at least, unprecedented positive
coverage), significant national exposure, and 4 separate blog posts from 3
separate authors on Still Got Hope dot com. And yet, for many it didn’t take
long for the fear of a major letdown against Iowa to take the foremost place in
a lot of minds. It’s an understandable response given our past Gopher fan
experiences. Moreover, the Gophers haven’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 and
curse is well documented. I was not immune from these feelings, but my
efforts to turn over
a new leaf led me to focus on the concept that this year and program is
PJ has been working to the point of exhaustion capitalizing on the opportunity of the unexpected and remarkable 9-0 start to the season. Watching him appear on ESPN’s College Football Playoff rankings show this past Tuesday, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days as the media roadshow to promote the hell out of the program reached a fever pitch. It shouldn’t be surprising that he’d be pressing, considering what he told Adam Rittenberg in the wake of beating #4 Penn State:
"It's been so long, but that's what's so fun about hope*,” Fleck said in his stadium office about two hours after Saturday's game. "I'm a Chicago Cubs fan. Everybody always said, 'The lovable losers,' and then all of a sudden, they did it. They got the right people, they got the right GM, they got the right manager, and then they found a way to put the right team together to do it.
"It's going to happen here, and we just want to do everything we can to get our shot at it. What you saw today is the hope for the future, to say it's not just what used to be, it's what's going to be."
Thing is, if you’re measuring a program by interest, fan or general, PJ has already succeeded at changing the narrative. The 9-0 start has catapulted the Gophers into such rarified air that, short of a narrowing list of postseason accomplishments, what else does PJ need to prove to people who matter?
It's the 4th quarter. Two minutes and three seconds on the clock. Fourth-ranked Penn State has the ball on their own 40, down 31 to 26 to the 17th ranked Minnesota Gophers. The Gophers have been in control for most of the day, but Penn State is making a run to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and leave Gophers fans wanting in their bid for a Rose Bowl.
On first down, quarterback Sean Clifford drops back and finds Jahan Dotson wide open at the Gophers' 45. The defensive back guarding him, Benjamin St. Juste, loses his footing and falls over. A collective moan emanates from TCF Bank Stadium.
There is a Big Ten football program that was once a national
power. It was built on the backs of strong, corn-fed Midwestern farm boys
wearing iconic uniforms that practically became their own mascot. When football
changed they changed with it, finding speedy athletes in other parts of the
country to bring into the fold, adopting new styles, and embracing innovation.
Over thirty years they won over two-thirds of their games, boatloads of
conference championships, nearly half a dozen National Championships, some of
the biggest bowls in the game, and never finished lower than 5th in
After years of success, their long-tenured coach departed,
taking an assistant role in the athletic department. Most assumed the successor
would pick up where he left off. The decline started almost imperceptibly and
took nearly a decade to pick up steam. Frustration from administration and
alumni, tough questions from what used to be an obedient local media, increasing
surliness by coaches, and suddenly what used to be considered “fluke”
performances became something closer to the norm. After a decade or so, the
fans looked around, realized that it was more trend than phase and started to
wonder aloud what the hell happened.
If you think that sounds a lot like Minnesota football from
the 30s to the 80s, well, you’re close but not quite.
Have you ever found yourself burdened by the weight of past
events and your mistakes? Not consequences necessarily, but the feelings
associated with the memory weighing on your mind. Perpetually feeling the
pressure to avoid the pitfalls of the past and judging yourself by a
self-imposed standard that may not reflect reality, the caveman parts of your
limbic system constantly engaged in a fight-or-flight tug of war that
eventually leads to more mistakes, more failures, more regrets. Or maybe it’s
just me; an anxiety disorder, predisposition to rumination, and an interest in
history that goes beyond mere hobby will tend to do that. If this doesn’t sound
familiar to you, congratulations! That’s awesome, I invite you to still play
This is kind of weird, right? Second week of November,
undefeated, playing the 4th-best team in the country in a nationally
televised game. Win, and we’re in the top 10 with a very, very credible track
to the Rose Bowl. Lose and we’re still the prohibitive favorite to win the
West. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to use halcyon days in the present tense
– today is halcyon! – but, regardless of what happens the rest of the season
and in the years to come, right now feels pretty effing terrific.