All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho”
Minnesota will have a new offensive coordinator. It took some disappointment to get there, but perhaps we should be thankful for it rather than frustrated by the missed opportunities. There will be plenty of time to ruminate on those in the future, but my recommendation for you dear reader is not to waste your time fantasizing about what might have been. Because after a season of wondering whether P.J. Fleck had what it took to look in the mirror and make some tough choices, this weekend we were treated to the answer: yes.
The seriousness of this is driven home by the fact that Fleck did not take the opportunity offered by a thorough defeat of Wisconsin to avoid making a long overdue change at the offensive coordinator position. With Monday’s announcement that Mike Sanford Jr. will not be returning in that role, Fleck showed that not even re-possessing Minnesota’s most coveted rivalry trophy can blind him to the offensive issues that put us in such bad situations this season.
You should be very encouraged. The offensive gameplans against Indiana and Wisconsin showed sparks of innovation that were absent in the previous 10 games. The standard poor performance at the end of the 1st half was still there, but the rest of the performance was more than enough to overcome it. Excellent blocking by Ky Thomas and Derik LeCaptain. Effective play fakes and pitch plays away from the numbers. A touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell with routes so good that the Wisconsin secondary literally Keystone-Copped themselves out of the play. Brevyn Spann-Ford.
That this was achieved with Mike Sanford Jr. could easily have been used to justify keeping Sanford around. I fully expected that outcome, and I had come to terms with that as I left the stadium Saturday. That Fleck stuck to his guns and decided to make the move anyway shows not only that he saw the larger issues, but that he wasn’t ok with the results in the back-half of the season and felt the same disappointment as all of us.
Good on him, and lucky for us. I’ve shared my frustration openly on this topic all year. The responsibility Fleck took publicly as head coach was backed up by action, with the result that a respectable 8-4 season was salvaged and Minnesota reclaimed The Axe in Minneapolis for the first time since 2003 when I was still in college. It had the added benefits of costing Wisconsin the Big Tefn West title and simultaneously giving Fleck his 3rd Top 25 in of his tenure while knocking Wisconsin out of those same polls. For whatever failures he’s had against Iowa (many), as Ben Dawson pointed out Saturday he has now notched as many wins over Wisconsin as Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys, Tim Brewster, and Glen Mason combined. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but he’s taking the steps he said he was willing to take. That’s all I can ask for.
It feels great to be touched by optimism again, and here’s my recommendation to you: enjoy the post-season and don’t dwell too much on what could have been. Enjoy a Big Ten Championship game that doesn’t feature Wisconsin or Ohio State, and know we had a part in making that happen. Enjoy the bowl game, whatever it is. Enjoy knowing that Wisconsin is playing in a lower bowl game than they expected. Enjoy watching the coaching carousel knowing we probably won’t have to be part of it. Enjoy the knowledge we will get a fresh start on offense; if it's anything like what Joe Rossi did to the defense, it's going to be fun.
Like 2018, an embarrassment to Illinois stripped us of a mismatched coordinator, and our season was redeemed against Wisconsin. If you need to reflect on anything, reflect that what we define as a “disappointment” is no longer 4-8 or 6-6, but 8-4. Folks, that’s called progress, and if it's a failure, at least we fail better.
Row the boat, Ski-U-Mah, Go Gophers.