Remember the 2016 season? Western Michigan University was the darling on the NCAA and on the Broncos were on the way to a regular undefeated season. The Broncos actually had more Big Ten wins than some Big Ten teams. Sure, the Rose Bowl was won by Wisconsin but outside of Jim Harbaugh, there was only one larger than life coach that everyone was talking about: PJ Fleck.
Hearing Fleck scream “Row the boat!” became commonplace throughout sports media as pundits began speculating that the head coach wasn’t long for Western Michigan. The talking heads turned out to be right although few people expected Minnesota to snatch him up after dismissing Tracy Claeys in a rather ugly situation.
PJ Fleck was the hottest coaching prospect, even paying to bring his catchphrase to the Golden Gophers. There’s even an ESPN mini-series dedicated to PJ Fleck’s first season because everyone knew he was going to be the next big thing. He’s got to be doing great, right?
Well, about that…
Minnesota is currently 3-3 and winless in their conference. It’s not going to get any easier from here on out either. After Illinois, PJ Fleck has to face in order Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. None of those teams are what you’d call a cakewalk. Best case scenario, PJ Fleck finishes his first season in the Big Ten at 6-6 which is not really what anyone was expecting.
So what gives? Minnesota went 8-4 last regular season and very easily could’ve been 9-3 after an overtime loss to eventual Big Ten Champion, Penn State. It shouldn’t be the run game as Minnesota returned Rodney Smith who had six 100 yard games in 2016. A couple of experienced receivers returned in Tyler Johnson and Nate Wozniak so there’s that.
What is Minnesota missing that Western Michigan had?
Well for one, a four-year starter in Zach Terrell. Even if Terrell isn’t playing in the NFL this season, there’s something to be said for having a guy who spent his entire career in the same system. He knows what works, what doesn’t, and how to run the show.
Oh, and Western had an NFL first-round draft pick in Corey Davis. You know, the guy who set the FBS single-season record for receiving yards.There is not anyone like Davis at Minnesota and that’s not being mean. There’s not a lot of guys like Davis and Minnesota just doesn’t have one. Last year’s top receiver was Drew Wolitarsky who didn’t even top 900 yards.
We’re about to find out if PJ Fleck is going to be worth what Minnesota paid for him. Despite having one of the hotter names in coaching, the 2017 recruiting class for the Golden Gophers is actually worse than 2016’s. In case you don’t want to click the links, it’s by 11 spots which isn’t exactly insignificant.
Typically it takes a couple seasons for a coach to get his guys in and get his system fully in place so it’s a bit early to start judging PJ Fleck. But there needs to be an improvement. There’s clearly talent on the team but can Fleck bring it out of his players? Or will he be the next Gene Chizik who rides one player to a National Championship and then completely falls off? Chizik hasn’t been a head coach since 2012 which isn’t to say that’s the fate that awaits PJ Fleck but where will he go if he fails at Minnesota.
There’s a joke about boats and paddles that I refuse to make.