Sunday, September 26, 2021

Nothing New

The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, “Murphy”

In the early hours of what was for me August 30th, 2019 I boarded a KLM flight in Abu Dhabi, planning to spend a good portion of my flight watching the Gophers mopping up South Dakota State. I had made all the preparations to live-stream the game on my tablet, with one exception: I forgot that the flight didn’t have WiFi. When I reached my layover in Amsterdam I was so confident in the result I found a restroom, coffee, a stroopwafel, and a comfortable seat before checking the score. 28-21 hit me with an intensity that belied by jet-lagged brain.

I was also away during the Fresno State game and didn’t have to suffer that tight overtime victory in real-time. It wasn’t until September 14th I attended a game in person, vs. Georgia Southern. I spent the beautiful afternoon gripped by the sense of impending doom familiar to all Gopher fans, simultaneously relieved and horrified (relorrified?) to come away with the 35-32 last-drive victory. Walking back to the River Flats a friend observed I was lucky to only have had to see this once.

The rest of the 2019 season salved those wounds, but in times of quiet reflection since I sometimes slip back to how different things could have been starting 1-2 instead of 3-0.

So confident was I that Saturday’s game against Bowling Green State would be one of frustrating Tressel-ball that I started writing this nearly 2 weeks ago and picked the opening quote at that time. P.J. Fleck’s pre-season pattern has become clear: conservative, clock-grinding ball control wherein the final score doesn’t matter as long as you come away with a win and don’t show your cards. That means few double-digit beatdowns, it means media snark, and it means you’re always flying close enough to the sun that one touchdown can change everything.

Close non-conference matchups against inferior opponents are nothing new for any Gopher fan born later than 1950. Devastating losses against them are nothing new for anyone who remembers Jim Wacker and Tim Brewster. Those were materially different because the overall hopelessness was pretty clear, but if Miami (OH) showed us anything it was that the risk is always there.

Saturday the inevitable happened. The defense did their jobs, allowing 2 touchdowns and holding Bowling Green to under 200 yards. But in a game where our supposedly NFL-bound offensive line never got consistent push, Tanner Morgan was frequently pressured and threw poorly even when not, when wide receivers couldn’t get separation, when special teams reverted to their prior form, it would take inspired coaching to make sure the defense had done enough.

What we saw instead confirmed every whispered fear and written media criticism of the staff. There can be no question that the team and their coaches were not prepared to face even a MAC team projected to finish at or near the bottom of their conference. Our propensity for playing down to the level of our opponent has been one of the most consistent and frustrating features of the Fleck era.

It remains in P.J. Fleck’s power to fix. He has previously shown the willingness to make drastic player and staff decisions that change the course of the season. I firmly believe that is needed again. The co-offensive coordinator situation between Matt Simons and Mike Sanford Jr. which never made much sense to begin with, must be resolved. Based on prior performance, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that Mike Sanford Jr. holds a lot of the responsibility. The 4th and 1 in which we came out of a timeout with a run-up-the-middle play (that may well have worked without the timeout) was a fireable offense. More questions than answers remain for Rob Wenger at Special Teams.

Fleck himself may be tired of repeatedly having to accept publicly that the responsibility is 100% his. He needs to take action to show that this is more than lip service. There is a reason that high-tier programs make a habit of turning G5 non-conference games into snoozers. Games like this simply cannot happen for a coach whose stated goals include conference championships and playoff appearances. What role if any was played by USC is speculation, but if there was any smoke it’s gone now. Not worth discussing.

Fleck has done much more good than harm in building talent, culture, and interest. Late 2018 and 2019 showed that when motivated, organized, and willing to take risks he can perform. Our individual and team talent is sufficiently high to salvage a successful 2021 season, such that this eventually becomes remembered like the 2018 Illinois game as a much-needed wake-up call. I fear that the difference this time is that changing out coordinators isn’t enough: he will need to look his own game philosophy in the eye and consider whether his own approach is up to the challenge of the times.

Whether that happens or not is entirely in P.J. Fleck’s hands. Until he provides an alternative, it's nothing new.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Things Lost, Things Gained

How do you unpack general existence since the last “normal” Gopher football game at the Outback Bowl back on January 1st of what we didn’t yet know would be The Pandemic Year? I haven’t really tried yet. It’s a lot, and it’s way too much for a last-minute, impulse-driven post on a sports blog that will be seen by tens of loyal readers. Enough has been written on the events of 2020-2021 by people far more talented than me and I don’t even want to read THOSE. We’re all yearning for something that existed before. Thing is, it probably won’t be back like it was, but maybe that’s not all bad. If beating SEC teams in January 1st bowls is going to be the nEw NoRmAl, count me in. 

I am going to indulge in one paragraph of personal reflection. Last year sucked. Remember how gray and cloudy January, 2020 was? Just awful. Worst month ever. Then some other stuff happened. I felt cheated and angry at for so many things I cared about and was looking forward to being ripped away. Simultaneously I felt extremely guilty about that because I knew I should be grateful it wasn’t worse. I lost my dad, not to COVID but to cancer, and I lost precious time with him because I couldn’t risk being in the same room with him and getting him sick. I was unreasonably angry that my family couldn’t visit us in the hospital when my son was born. Work took over every aspect of life; hard year to be in healthcare. We missed out on holidays, couldn’t introduce our son to the world like we wanted. Crushing anxiety, frustration, loss of whatever faith I still had in humanity. But the pandemic didn’t take anyone from me…my family is as well as it could possibly be. We have shelter, employment, money in the bank, and a child who deserves to see the beauty in life and not focus on the pain. A lot of people, hundreds of millions, have it so much worse. 

What I gained from this was realizing that my anger and sadness were still legitimate even if they weren’t as serious as those faced by others. Feel it, accept it, but maintain perspective and don’t allow it to dominate your being. You’re not obligated to put your time and treasure into fighting bad-faith from others; it’s ok to detach here and there, to take care of yourself and come back. You have to be good for yourself to be able to be good for others. Have some grace, I guess is what I’m saying. Maybe someone can say it better than me. If it’s you, please direct your blog proposals and drafts to Frothy.Gopher@prodigy.net. He needs better help than me. 

One thing navigating this past year has done for me is focus my mind and heart on what I truly value. If anything, I have a much better grasp of who I am than before all this happened. Call it a sense of purpose, acceptance of your place in the world, whatever you want. What I know is that the detached “LOL none of this matters” approach I’ve taken for years was not only misdirected but was a defense mechanism against dealing with reality. All of this matters; it matters a lot. 

I found solace in things that used to matter to me once upon a time. A lot of things suddenly felt meaningful that hadn’t excited me for years. On the flip-side, missing out on college football hurt less than I expected, and it made me wonder if I still cared as much as I thought I did. I felt (and still do) that the cautions taken were warranted. Did this…do sports…really matter? 

Well, the final thing I gained was the solid confidence that the answer is “Yes.” Slowly but surely the sense of community it’s always given me is coming back, like we never left. Stats, prognostications, tailgate plans, somehow finding agreement with Iowa and Wisconsin fans on something (Nebraska). It feels like a song you haven’t heard in a decade but you still remember all the words, but in a way that’s beyond repetition. It sparks memories, who you were with, the happiness you had, the trouble you got into, even the smell of a college house party. It all comes flooding back and you’re home. 

Today the Minnesota Golden Gophers take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in front of fans for the first time in 19 months. It might not be the most talented team we’ve faced since TCF Bank Huntington Bank Stadium opened but it’s probably pretty close. The likelihood we’ll win is extraordinarily small. 

But it’s not nothing.

Regardless of the outcome, I’ll be ok and so will you. We’ll all be with our friends, our family, and our friends who ARE family. We’ll share in a communal experience we’ll value with even greater intensity than before. A lot of us will be puddles multiple times during the day. That’s ok too; embrace the feelings both good and bad. They’re a gift and we’re all so lucky to be able to feel them. 

And who knows? Maybe we’ll have more reason to be happy than we think. 

After all, as they say, hope springs eternal. 

Ski-U-Mah, Row the Boat, Go Gophers.