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Zulgad: Here’s what P.J. Fleck really needs to change when it comes to Gophers’ program

P.J. Fleck’s continued references to changing the culture of the Gophers football program has proven to be irksome for those who feel that Jerry Kill did all the heavy lifting in this area.

That frustration is justified given the mess that Tim Brewster left behind. While Fleck is inheriting a program that needs work, the biggest shift doesn’t involve the players.

The real change needs to be with the fan base.

In his first year as Gophers athletic director, Mark Coyle saw far too many empty seats in TCF Bank Stadium. Tracy Claeys’ only full season as Gophers’ coach produced nine wins, including a victory over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, but failed to create sufficient excitement.

On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in early November, the Gophers recorded their seventh win before an announced crowd of 42,832 in a stadium with a capacity of 50,805. The Gophers even fell short of being able to sell out against rival Iowa in early October.

Minnesota played its final Big Ten home game of the season before an announced crowd of 38,162 that appeared to be far less than that. The 29-12 victory over Northwestern came on a frosty November day — the exact type of weather that Minnesota fans love to claim they are capable of braving.

This meant that while the 2016 season might have been good for Gophers football, it wasn’t good for the business side of the program.

The brief walkout by Claeys’ players last winter, after the university handed down suspensions in the midst of a sexual assault investigation, provided an opportunity to fire the coach, but Coyle had to be thinking about making a change before that. Claeys was a good fit as Kill’s defensive coordinator but that didn’t make him a Big Ten head coach.

Enter the Energizer Bunny that is Fleck.

Coyle has to be looking at Fleck as a guy who can generate excitement with students and recent graduates who a year ago made other plans on Saturday afternoons. Coyle likely isn’t concerned about the older fans who don’t trust Fleck’s enthusiasm, given that if they have stuck around this long they aren’t going to leave now.

Kill did an excellent job of selling his down-home, aw-shucks act to students, but many of them seemed to lose interest when Kill stepped down during the 2015 season because of health issues.

In fairness to Claeys, it didn’t help that former athletic director Norwood Teague’s “scholarship seating” program caused some season-ticket holders to cancel and ultimately resulted in Coyle pulling the plug on the price increase for 2017. (The Gophers had gone from 27,885 non-student seasons tickets in 2015 to 22,706 as of last August.)

In an overserved sports town like the Twin Cities, Coyle wants to see Fleck’s enthusiasm capture the attention of a young crowd who will remain Gophers fans for years to come. That’s been a challenge for every Gophers coach, in large part because the program has struggled to sustain success for so many years.

Here’s the tricky part.

If Fleck were to come in and be too frontal about changing the Gophers fan base, he would stand to alienate the team’s current supporters and the university can’t afford to lose those people and their donations. Thus, it’s easier to talk about changing the culture within the team.

Ultimately, Fleck can talk about rowing the boat all he wants but what’s really going to matter is victories. Fleck knows this but in the short term he’s as much of a salesman as he is a football coach.

Some of that has to do with selling recruits on playing for him. Much of it has to do with capturing the interest of a potential fan base that to date has had no issue ignoring the football program at Minnesota.

  • fritzdahmus

    Lose @ Oregon State on September 9th……..and the crickets inside TCF Stadium will be making more noise then the fans. His boat will be sunk for the year.

    If Fleck really can develop passing games, and the defense continues playing well…..he has a chance for a good year. The fans will show up if that happens.

    Personally, I can’t get over what they did to Kill and Claeys….and their players and coaching staffs. Watching from home for now.

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  • Topgunn

    Claeys may have won 9 games last year, but that was with a schedule that did not include Ohio State or Michigan. The real truth is that the Gophers were just a BORING offensive team. Four years of Leidner at QB without ever seeing anything close to development is what left the stands empty. You have to win, but there’s also a little entertainment factor thrown in. Smith & Brooks are exciting tailbacks to watch, but the passing game sells tickets and in all the time Kill/Claeys were in charge watching us throw the ball was like watching someone scratch their fingernails across a chalkboard. Fleck needs to win games. But he also needs to develop some competent QB’s. That won’t be easy, because 4 years of Leidner stunted QB development at Minnesota.

  • Buddha22

    The biggest problem with attendance is the students don’t attend the games. The University of Minnesota has ruined the gameday experience for the student body. They don’t allow the students to tailgate at the stadium, they treat them like perps when they enter the stadium, and they give them the worst seats in the stadium. If you go to any other college game, the students aren’t put in the upper deck of the endzone like they are at the U. Treat the students like they are the most important fans and they will go. There are over 50,000 students at the U, so filling that stadium should be a slam dunk.

  • Topgunn

    Buddha22, they should have the kids right down by the action, as close as they can. The kids bring the energy. THEY make the vibe. At Gopher basketball, it’s the kids in the “Barnyard” that get the crowd jacked up.


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