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.