Gophers

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck leads the Minnesota Golden Gophers onto the field before a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Nov. 30, 2019. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Golden Gophers lost two of their last three games, including getting axed Saturday by border rival Wisconsin, 38-17. But their regular season ended with a 10-2 record and a share of the Big Ten West Division title with the Badgers. Prior to the season Minnesota was a popular media pick to finish sixth among the division’s seven teams.

It was the kind of season more than 100 FBS programs wish they had experienced. And most Gophers players and coaches from the last 50 years didn’t even come close to the highs achieved by the 2019 team that was coming off a 3-6 Big Ten record last fall.

Minnesota won a school record seven conference games. The Gophers were 7-2 in the Big Ten, with the other league loss coming a couple of weeks ago to another hated border rival, Iowa. The Saturday prior to the Iowa loss, the Gophers had upset No. 5 ranked Penn State in Minneapolis. The victory was the most significant in the 10-year history of TCF Bank Stadium, and vaulted Minnesota into a top national 10 ranking, and into the conversation of qualifying for the College Football Playoffs.

That’s a lofty place for a program that hasn’t had one of its teams finish a season in the national top 10 since 1962. Minnesota has dropped from that grouping this week, but the 2019 Gophers team is the first with 10 wins since 1905. That team from long ago had a 10-1 record.

What head coach P.J. Fleck, his assistants and players did this fall was to revive a dormant program and make the Gopher brand respected here and nationally. The last two home games of the season sold out, with a beyond capacity crowd last Saturday of 53,756 turning out on a snowy afternoon. ESPN College GameDay came to town and Gophers fans packed the Northrop Mall Saturday morning despite the wintry weather.

The Badgers spoiled the fun later in the day, showing better line play on both offense and defense. The Badger coaches made successful adjustments including sustained blitzing of Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and having Wisconsin defensive backs push the boundaries of pass interference. On offense, the Badgers found the Gophers packing the line of scrimmage to stop Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor from dashing through the snow unrestricted, but dialed up misdirection plays and mismatches that confused Minnesota.

The Badgers travel party left Minneapolis with Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a ticket to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis next Saturday to play the nation’s best team, Ohio State. That will be the Badgers’ sixth conference title appearance in the nine year history of the game.

Overlooking the program’s success is the man who started a remarkable change in Madison in 1990, Barry Alvarez. Now the Wisconsin athletics director, Alvarez’s first assignment in Madison was as head coach, taking over a laughingstock program that had minimal talent and fan support. The cocky Alvarez, though, had a plan to change the culture of Wisconsin football and by Year 4 it was evident to the college football world he was a winner.

The 1993 Badgers won the Big Ten title and earned their way to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1963. Among those witnessing the Badger miracle was athletic department administrator Joel Maturi, who would take over as Minnesota’s athletic director in 2002.

Maturi told Sports Headliners he sees similarities between Fleck and Alvarez, who during his 16-year head coaching career won three Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls for the Badgers. “I’ve said that more than once. There is no question, and I was there when that happened,” Maturi said.

The Badgers didn’t take off under Alvarez until the fourth year. Fleck came up with a breakthrough year in his third season at Minnesota. “But they both had a plan,” Maturi said. “They both stuck with the plan. It was sold internally immediately. The kids bought into it, and then eventually the fans bought into it, and that’s what happened at Wisconsin and that’s what happened here at Minnesota.”

Alvarez created a new culture in Madison, and Fleck used the “C” word from day one in Minneapolis. His enthusiasm was at first over the top for a lot of Gophers followers but his “Row the Boat” philosophy caught on inside the program and eventually in the community.

“I don’t think he cared what everybody else thought about it,” Maturi said. “I think he said that very openly and publicly. I think that rubbed some people the wrong way. But winning has… changed that. It’s…(gone) from the team rowing the boat to everybody rowing the boat.”

Fleck inherited a program that was in a better place than Alvarez did. The Gophers won nine games in 2016. That season and in 2014 Minnesota won five conference games. But Fleck started chasing and getting higher ranked recruits like wide receiver Rashod Bateman, and he fixed what seemed like a forever struggle at quarterback, with Tanner Morgan becoming his year one of the most efficient passers in the country. Dating back to last year, Minnesota has won 13 of its last 16 games.

“You gotta give the guy credit,” Maturi said. “He’s done one heck of a job. I think what I am excited about is I don’t think it’s a one time thing. I am excited…for the future of Gopher football.”

The Gophers benefitted this year from a favorable schedule, with only four opponents having above .500 records. But Fleck, his staff and players made the most of their opportunities, including winning close games and upsetting Penn State. They handled success as the season developed, with their only losses coming in games where they were underdogs. Several days from now, they will receive a quality bowl invitation and a chance to build momentum and fan interest for 2020.

In a heartbeat, Gophers fans would take a career path from Fleck like that of Alvarez.

With decades of experience as a sports reporter and columnist covering professional and college sports, Twin Cities-based sports columnist David Shama not only shares his perspectives, but he also quotes many of Minnesota’s biggest newsmakers among players, coaches and owners.

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