After a shocking 0-2 start to the 2020 season, for some faction of the Minnesota Gopher football fan base it appears we’ve already reached “If you have even the slightest doubts about PJ Fleck and the state of the program you’re a traitor and fair weather fan.” Cool cool cool cool cool. There are both political and religious connections to be made here to fanatical and blind following of a leader but with everything else going on this crazy ass year, let’s not go down that road today, shall we?
For the record, I am not out on PJ Fleck and I am not here to call for his head. However, I do have a few questions and comments and perhaps concerns about the state of the program and, well, this seemed as good a place as any to express them (sorry Frothy).
Watching a shockingly bad defense and a not-so-shockingly bad special teams these first two games I am reminded of how difficult it is to be a good football coach at the P5 level, and how especially difficult it is to pull off at Minnesota. A big part of the sheer terror for some of admitting everything isn’t as, um, “rosy” for Fleck and this program as we believed even just two weeks ago is exactly because of how hard it is to win at Minnesota. Since the glory years of the 60’s we’ve seen many different coaches with many different ideas try and fail to win consistently here. It hasn’t happened prior to PJ Fleck because he or the other coaches are bad, it’s just a reminder this is one of the toughest Power 5 jobs in the league.
Fleck’s background and mantra and strengths as a head coach are as a CEO and leader- he’s not considered an X’s and O’s guy on either side of the ball, and that’s ok. We’ve seen many examples of this type of coach being successful all over college football, with Dabo at Clemson being the most extreme positive example. But for that CEO coach to be successful he needs to be able to consistently recognize and bring in coaching talent onto his staff (especially at the offensive and defensive coordinators) and it also helps if he’s really good at recruiting and developing.
But the other really key thing that often gets overlooked for ANY head coach to have sustained success is they need to be adaptable. Time and again we see the hot shot head coach in college or the NFL who worked his way up through the ranks as an offensive or defensive guru and they have success at first or maybe even for awhile. But then the game shifts and they cannot or will not shift with it (Hi Chip Kelly! Hi Mike Zimmer!), OR whatever worked for them at lower levels just isn’t going to work as well at the Power 5 level.
A perfect example of this is actually the guy who came before PJ- well fine the guy who came before the guy who came before PJ- Jerry “Have I told you lately how much I hate PJ Fleck?” Kill. Country Jer was the epitome of the work your way up the ladder CEO coach whose track record said he should have succeeded not just at the P5 level, but he should have succeeded here. And health problems aside, for a time he did. But by year 4 it became apparent he was a little TOO loyal to his long-time assistants and that the real key to his success was Tracey Claeys and the defense. On offense Matt Limegrover was in WAY over his head as an OC (and perhaps even as a line coach) and he had no one on staff who could develop anything besides running backs (I give them no credit for that one generational TE- Hi Maxx!).
While he clearly wasn’t and isn’t cut out to be a head coach, Claeys and DB coach (and eventually DC) Jay Sawvel proved incredible and borderline miraculous at turning “MAC-level” defensive recruits into good players and even NFL draft picks at Minnesota. At least until they moved onto their next jobs at Wazzu and Wake and then suddenly they couldn’t. Which again speaks to how freaking hard and frankly weird coaching college football is. Everything a coach does works until it doesn’t and then we find out if they’re good enough to figure out how to make it work again.
Two games into Fleck’s fourth season, that’s where we suddenly find ourselves. Whatever worked for him last year in an awesome and wondrous 11 win season is so far not working at all this season. If you want to pick nits about the offense feel free, but I’m not here to do that today. And yes, I watched the 4th quarter prevent offense against Maryland that helped the Gophs eventually lose the game, but I believe that’s more about the HC’s philosophy than the OC’s at this point. Remember all those vanilla offenses we’ve seen in the non-con under Fleck with Kirk Ciarrocca? I think that’s more PJ than his OC, but I’m willing to wait and see on that one.
I’m also not going to talk about special teams because what is there to talk about? They were atrocious last year under Rob Wenger and they’re atrocious again this year under Rob Wenger. I’m going to go out on a very short and sturdy limb and say they will be atrocious as long as Wenger is the special teams coach, so until Peej realizes this and finds a new ST coach, I don’t know why we’d expect anything else.
But the defense? That is one of my two big questions right now for PJ Fleck- WTF is happening on defense? Or perhaps more accurately NOT happening on defense right now? DC Joe Rossi seemed like a revelation two seasons ago when he replaced Robb Smith near the end of the 2018 season. The D suddenly looked competent- including a win over Wisconsin!!!- and then they were mostly awesome last year. But thus far in two games it’s like Robb Smith has kidnapped Rossi and secretly replaced him because it looks exactly like the Robb Smith defenses we saw previously. Sure, we lost Winfield some key and very good players like Antoine Winfield Jr, Kamal Martn, Thomas Barber, and Carter Coughlin, so I was expecting a few bumps out of the gate. But these are not bumps in the road, this is the road spewing open a gateway to hell. This just looks like complete and total incompetence in all facets and I do not understand how we got here considering how Rossi had coached previously.
Fleck as CEO coach is going to be more dependent on how good his coordinator hires are, and we’re seeing that now- it’s too early to say on Mike Sanford, I don’t know what the hell is going on with Rossi but I’m worried, and it’s WAY past time to say on Wenger.
The other issue is one I didn’t think we’d need to be worried about but this one falls squarely on PJ- depth. He has without question improved Minnesota’s recruiting since he got here- the Gophs are consistently bringing in better recruits with not just better star ratings, but to me the mark that we’re getting better players is that their offer sheets consistently include other P5 schools. That’s a very good thing. That said, as we learned with Tim Brewster, recruiting rankings don’t mean anything if you can’t develop that talent. I’m not saying Fleck and his staff definitively cannot develop talent, but I am at least wondering whether we have an issue there, and if it’s more to do with his coordinators or position coaches or what. Kill and Claeys may have gotten “MAC-level” recruits but on defense at least it didn’t matter when Claeys kept turning them into good players and a good defense. Fleck has had three full recruiting classes now and we’re not seeing much in results thus far on D now that the Empire Class that Kill and Claeys recruited are gone. Some of that- a lot of that?- could be just scheme and maybe the talent is much better than what the results have shown but hoo boy when the results are THIS bad it has to leave you wondering at least a little.
On offense, the skill positions look great and that’s really all Fleck kids at this point, but O-line depth is rearing its ugly head yet again, a consistent and frustrating theme for every staff since Glen Mason got fired. For the first time since Mason we had 6 B1G quality O-linemen last year, which was great because we never had to really go past those 6. But in two games this season the right side of the O-line has been missing and it’s been a real problem as we appear to be left with just four good linemen and nothing else.
Why, and how do we fix it? That’s what PJ Fleck is now facing this season on defense, along the O-line and really at depth everywhere on the roster. In hindsight maybe B1G West champs were too high of expectations in a season with no spring or summer practices during a pandemic and we clearly underestimated the impact of losing some key contributors, but it still should be better than this. I still love PJ Fleck as the head coach of this team- I promise I’m not a traitor or a bandwagon fan- but the honeymoon is over. The mark of a good coach is not just having initial success, but when things stop working, can he figure out how to fix it? We’ll find out soon enough how good and adaptable Coach Fleck is with how well he rows the boat through some very tough waters the rest of the season.