Wednesday, October 25, 2023

PJ Fleck and the Breaking of a Fan Base

I really hate Wisconsin. Like, an every-fiber-of-my being, diagnosable personality disorder level of hate. I get triggered when I see a Wisconsin license plate. I refuse to be anything more than minimally-friendly acquaintances with anyone who has ever supported that team. I won’t even accept a LinkedIn invite from a UWi grad, because fuck you. It’s pathological, really unhealthy, and mostly survived intact from what was otherwise a wholesale teardown of my thought patterns and coping mechanisms.

I’m mature enough to admit they broke me. Absolutely and totally. I simply couldn’t tolerate losing to our most-hated rival for over a decade, watching them win* the B1G, go to Rose Bowls, and get talked about as playoff contenders. Replace the running backs, quarterbacks, defensive coordinators, head coaches, walk-on linebackers from Minnesota, and our damned stadium and the results were still the same. We lose and I sink further into psychosis.

Beating them the last few seasons helped a lot. There’s a certain catharsis that comes only from beating your nemesis. The pressure and weight of constant failure felt somewhere between one’s heart and one’s stomach is gone, and that is a major quality of life enhancement.  But I’d be untruthful if I said it cured me. The onus of failure is gone, but the insecurity, inferiority, and jealousy are like some sort of black mold festering in my spirit: you can’t necessarily see it, but, damn, it’s hard to breathe and why is it so damp in here?

This is mostly where Nebraska fans are. Now, they’d never admit it; that would require some acceptance of reality and disposal of their Tom Osbourne-signed Starter jackets. But you lose five straight to Minnesota – MINNESOTA! – and something changes in you. Couple that with Scott Frost’s celebrated return ending as if MacArthur had attempted to retake the Philippines aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald during the gales of November, and you’ve got a tragically broken fan base. I take no joy in this.

I do, though, because seeing how we’ve decimated the spirit of another fan base is better than any drug on earth. They obsess over Minnesota. Gopher football tweets anything, you can count on seeing a half dozen reply guys with a skull and bones or Memorial Stadium avatars in the mentions. This summer, a bunch of them mysteriously had early knowledge of the AJ Perez piece and were publicly wishcasting Fleck’s termination. Any weird news comes out about Fleck – which, you know, isn’t not often – and they descend on the quote tweets like locusts in a corn field. And I think that’s what’s at the heart of this. It’s not so much losing to Minnesota that broke them. They can’t stand losing to Fleck.

I mean, think about it: he’s this extremely weird little man loaded with more catch phrases than Tony Robbins, wearing capri pants, and having cosmetic surgery to (allegedly) make his eyes wider. He eschews the image of traditional masculinity, doesn’t speak with a southern drawl, probably smells better than your wife, and wholly lives life on his own terms. If you grew up idolizing Tom Osbourne as the epitome of what a college FOOT-ball coach should be, Fleck is anathema. He’s a used car salesman only interested in himself, constantly looking to move up and out of Minnesota, who also probably tagged his wife next to the trophy representing a 100-plus year old college football rivalry. And this guy, this elfin apostate to all that is good and true about the most important thing in your life owns your team. Which takes us to the Iowa game a few days ago.

Fleck has most definitely not owned Iowa. As discussed on the one, and so far only episode of the SGH Podcast, Ferentz has owned Fleck. Thanks to many, many low-probability events – Tyler Johnson dropping a TD pass in 2019, Mo fumbling in 2022, numerous 80+ yard passes to TEs who were never heard from again – Fleck came into last Saturday on an 0-7 run against the Ferentz Dynasty. Iowa fans had never had to contemplate the notion of being emasculated by big talky Mr. Fancy Loafers. He was an amusing annoyance who the rugged, windswept, stoic man of the people Kirk Ferentz put into his place in an annual rite of passage to winter. And then Saturday happened.

Look, I understand why Iowa fans think they got screwed. It’s a rule that isn’t enforced consistently or very often. CDJ is a dynamic player and they want him to be celebrated for making a great play. They thought they won the game and it was all taken away from them by what they believe was an arbitrary decision from some pencil pusher behind a TV screen. Having experienced dozens of similar low-probability events as a Gopher fan, I can absolutely empathize with them; I know how it feels to get jobbed by the refs and steal defeat from the jaws of victory. That ability to empathize and really understand the depths of that despondency, to viscerally feel the pressure of the void residing in their souls since last Saturday evening, that’s what makes this so much better than nuking them from orbit and winning by 50.

The response online has been so much better than I ever could have hoped for. Due to illiteracy, cognitive dissonance, or huffing leaded gasoline, Iowa fans and their enablers have been unable to comprehend what happened, why this happened to them, and that there’s no appeal process. We’ve seen Zapruder film level breakdowns measuring the angle of CDJ’s arm relative to the orbital plane of Mercury, rules and rational thinking savants Pat McAfee and Aaron Rodgers caring about their feelings more than facts, and Twitter reply guys screeching into the wind so hard that even the most ardent Husker fan would blush. It’s truly transcendent stuff.

But hoo wee, the Iowa fan vitriol directed Fleck is coming straight from a 4chan API. Absolutely unhinged. Tearing up at the end of the game, he’s a total fraud. Hugging his players walking Floyd to the locker room, you should hear about his first wife. Guy takes a moment to video call his wife from midfield at the stadium of what had been his nemesis and you’d think he put Hitler on the Kinnick scoreboard. The way they lost was bad. The way they lost to him was more than their brains could handle.

This game will hurt Iowa fans for a while. They’ll remember the frustration in getting screwed by the refs, having a moment of unadulterated joy be removed from existence. That’ll sting for a bit. But that impotent rage they felt when Fleck celebrated on the sidelines, when he stood alone at midfield at Kinnick, when he said there was nothing controversial about that call. Buddy, that is going to eat at their souls for a generation. Congrats to Fleck for breaking his second fan base.

1 comment:

  1. Hitting rock bottom isn't a weekend retreat. It's not a goddamn seminar.