TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — The Pain Of Being A Gopher

It’s listed on my Facebook and Twitter pages. “Long-suffering Gopher fan.  Hopeless Gopher fan…” I admit to owning worn-out maroon slippers with the gold Minnesota logo. They’re so old, the stitching has come loose. Minnesota merchandise is everywhere. My fading gold T-shirt. The heavy Gopher jacket for cold weather games. The lighter, maroon version for early fall. Even the snazzy head gear that makes me look like I’m auditioning for a role in “Fargo.”

I was 12 years old when my father took me to my first athletic event at the U-of-M. Cazzie Russell’s Michigan team was in town for a basketball showdown with the men in maroon and gold. Mel Northway was the star center for Minnesota. I remember walking into that then aging facility known as Williams Arena and falling in love with the place. The raised floor, the barn shaped architecture, the intimacy of the fans with their team.

The Gophers would lose that 1965 heartbreaker and eventually finish in second place that season, trailing only those hated Wolverines in the final standings.

Little did I know that 52 years later, now ancient Williams Arena would remain standing. I would still be around to hobble my way to Minnesota sporting venues, both old and new. And the rollercoaster ride of rooting for the Rodents would remain a reluctant religion.

In between, I would develop a passion for sports, enroll at the school, live on campus and earn a degree. My daughter would eventually do the same. I’d attend countless football, basketball and hockey games, stubbornly supporting my school even when I moved out of state.

While delivering TV sportscasts in Fargo in the 1980s, I’d muster a smile while announcing a big win for North Dakota’s skating Sioux over Minnesota, all the while hiding my sorrow with a silent fist pound under the table. Or I’d wince when North Dakota State was rolling to national prominence as my gridiron Golden Gophers were dropping a nail biter to Nebraska, 84-13.

So here we are in 2017. My alma mater is still an institution worthy of evoking plenty of pride. World-class cancer research.  Alums include a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a U.S. vice president and even a Super Bowl-winning coach. Even in spite of my grumblings, the university has managed athletic success on many levels throughout the years. But let’s face it. College football is the biggest revenue-producing sport at major universities. While its significance is always subject to debate, particularly when we attempt to determine a priority list for the state’s largest land-grant institution, no one can question its potential for bringing in beaucoup bucks. Sadly, when it comes to Minnesota, we’re infamous for 50 years of football failings.

Maybe it’s better not to belabor the history. It’s simply too painful. So, I’ll keep it brief. Since that day I fell in love with Gopher sports in 1965, Minnesota has fielded 52 football squads. They’ve won exactly one conference title. And that was 50 years ago and shared with two other schools. They’ve switched head coaches 11 times. Not to mention, there have been endless embarrassments, both on the field and off.

So excuse me for being a bit skeptical about the big news that broke Friday. A diminutive fellow named P.J. Fleck is the latest to pronounce himself as savior for a program that is always in dire need of one.

Fleck claims to “eat difficult conversations for breakfast.” He will have more than a few in Dinkytown. He says he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, but “a crack.” He’ll need the best chiropractor in town. Fleck also promises to “change the culture.” On my old campus, change is a constant.

My early impressions of the new coach have been mostly favorable. It’s just that, for a number of reasons, good news for Gopher fans is almost always followed by something much more ominous.  Let’s call it the “Yeah, but …” factor.

1. The first note of optimism is that P.J. Fleck is definitely not Tim Brewster.  Oh, he may talk a lot like the man who made similar big promises 10 years ago, only to fail miserably. Both can sound like carnival barkers and love to employ catch phrases like “Gopher Nation” or “Ski-U-Mah.” Both spoke of Rose Bowl appearances and Big Ten titles in their initial press conferences. However, it’s Fleck with the much more impressive resume and a history of strong success in recruiting.  He took his Western Michigan team to a 13-1 mark in just his fourth season. It brought a Cotton Bowl bid and a respectable showing against powerful Wisconsin. Already, eight recruits have reversed their commitments to WMU and are coming to Minnesota. His reputation as a tireless recruiter offers a sharp contrast to Minnesota’s last-place Big Ten ranking last year under the departed Tracy Claeys.

Yeah, but … it’s already a costly hire. Fleck was lured to Minnesota out of necessity because the previous coach was fired … in spite of a 9-4 record and a bowl win over Washington State. That might seem unfair until you recognize the mess that Claeys helped create. Minnesota will pay a 36-year old coach from the Mid-American Conference a whopping $18 million over five years. They must also pay Claeys another $500,000 in a buyout to repair a major fallout from a 10-player suspension involving an alleged sexual assault. Attendance is way down, and Claeys’ reputation went the same direction after an ill-advised tweet temporarily supported a bowl boycott in the midst of the scandal.

Fleck’s sudden departure from Western Michigan also has folks in Kalamazoo questioning loyalty, with his “Row the Boat” mantra now ringing a bit hollow there. Yes, that’s the business of big-time college football.  But’s who to say how long Fleck stays at Minnesota, if another high-profile program dangles more big money in a few years? Old-timers like me still remember Lou Holtz’s sudden departure for Notre Dame.

2. New Athletics Director Mark Coyle is getting good reviews for quickly landing a hot, young coach. He’s also been lauded for his attempt to bring a change in culture that was sorely needed. Anyone who read the 80-page report on the involvement of up to 12 Gopher players in the alleged sexual assault Sept. 2 had to come away sickened by the details and the obvious attempt at a coverup. If it means Minnesota can help bring greater national exposure to the serious issue of unreported sexual assault, I’m definitely in his corner.

Yeah, but … Coyle dismissed Claeys, largely because of his shortcomings in communication and leadership, yet was hardly transparent himself in keeping the players informed about why their teammates were being suspended and the future of the program. It’s no wonder there were hard feelings and confusion before the boycott was abandoned.

3. Fleck contends he knew immediately that he and Coyle had the same vision. Both are young, energetic and driven. There is no doubt they will  boost attendance and connect better with the younger demographic that has been missing for years at Minnesota. Both said they saw Minnesota as their “dream job.”

Yeah, but … Coyle has another similarity to Fleck.  He, too, left another school quickly when big money was on the table, departing Syracuse just 311 days after promising to change that program. How long will his “dream” here last?

4. Claeys had his faults, but he and his predecessor, Jerry Kill, did establish a priority of making sure their players went to class, got reasonably good grades and eventually graduated. Now Coyle and Fleck are promising to continue that trend, while further adding expectations of more victories and Boy Scout-like behavior. Those are lofty and admirable goals.

Yeah, but … who are we kidding with that trifecta?  A big reason why there’s been such a demand to “change the culture” is a result of mistakes made by the same president and administration putting the screws to Claeys. Eric Kaler might want to look in the mirror after he and his search firm selected Norwood Teague to be the A.D. in 2012. Teague would resign in disgrace, three years later, after charges of groping women and sending inappropriate text messages. And you want 18 year olds to behave better, make the dean’s list and win bowl games?

As I look back on my early days of Gopher fandom, the future then seemed, oh, so bright. It seems hard to believe now, but the program was just a few years removed from a national championship. There had been 17 Big Ten crowns during the glory years in the first part of the 20th century. But timing is everything.

In spite of a drought that’s now encompassed all of my adult life, hope springs eternal. There’s something about unfulfilled dreams that keep gray-haired Gopher fans like me coming back. Maybe P.J. Fleck truly will be the guy who helps us book a flight to Pasadena one day. Maybe he’ll pack TCF Bank Stadium. We’ll bring back the Axe, Little Brown Jug and Floyd of Rosedale. His youth and enthusiasm will connect with new fans to join us old-timers in golden glory.  Before we die.

Yeah, but …

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