TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — Promises, Progress And Penn State

As an instructor at Brown College several years ago, I taught a course in Broadcast Sales. I recall there were two cardinal rules, supposedly instrumental for success:

1. When working with a client, be sure to underpromise, but overdeliver.

2. A-B-C stands for Always Be Closing.

University of Minnesota football Coach P. J. Fleck is now in his third season with the Gophers. From the time he arrived, the fast-talking Fleck has had more than his share of salesmanship in his system. But while that second rule clearly applies to this expert recruiter with boundless energy, it’s the first one he’s ignored from Day One.

Maybe that’s why skeptics still aren’t sold.

There is simply nothing understated about Philip John Fleck. At his first press conference in early 2017, he boldly told boosters he was coming to town to win Big Ten championships and go to Rose Bowls. No underpromising here. While that may have been music to the ears of some long-suffering Gopher fans, many others had more than enough ammunition for doubt.

Just a decade before, Tim Brewster had made similar promises, but his “Gopher Nation” boasts resulted in three seasons of futility that put an already middling Minnesota even further behind. Not to mention, this once-proud program hadn’t shown much measurable success in more than 50 years. If it could go wrong, it usually did for the Maroon and Gold. The excuses were already built-in for previous coaches, as well: Nobody can win in a metropolitan area with so many other distractions. What kid wants to play up here in the cold? The administration doesn’t make football a priority.

Less than three years later, Fleck’s “Row the Boat” schtick might still seem corny. His mile-a-minute speeches about his coaching philosophy and the sprints onto the field in front of his team can appear canned and calculated. Even those who’ve gradually been won over by the team’s growing success, now fear that his stay at Minnesota will be a short one.

None of that matters. What has become abundantly clear is that his players and those close to him have bought in big-time and the results are staggering.

For the first time since 1941, the Gophers have started a season at 8-0. That’s even a few years before 99-year old legendary sportswriter Sid Hartman wrote his first byline. In less than two weeks, No. 13 Minnesota will host No. 5 Penn State as part of a nationally televised doubleheader. Top-rated LSU faces No. 2 Alabama later the Nov. 9 afternoon, making it historic in that four unbeatens have never matched up this late in the season, on the same day.

Yes, the Gophers have been blessed with a favorable schedule this season, avoiding the usual Big Ten powers like Ohio State and Michigan. Their nonconference opponents were South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. Not exactly a “murderer’s row.” Plus, the final four games include three ranked opponents in PSU, Iowa and Wisconsin. Those facts alone are fodder for the nonbelievers to conclude the predictable collapse is fast approaching.

But if you’ve followed this team closely, their gathering momentum is unmistakeable. Fortunate to sneak by SDSU and Georgia Southern with last-minute heroics and needing two overtimes to defeat Fresno on the road didn’t impress the preseason prognosticators who had Minnesota finishing as low as fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West. Yet, check out their more recent margins of victory:

  • 1. Illinois, -23.
  • 2. Nebraska, -27.
  • 3. Rutgers, -35.
  • 4. Maryland, -42.

These point spreads aren’t just happening solely because Minnesota is playing cupcakes.

Even in their most successful seasons in recent history, Gopher followers always worried about a lack of balance. Glen Mason’s 2003 Gophers went 10-3, primarily because of a powerful running attack behind future NFLers Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber. But they lacked the defense to hold off Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa. Tracy Claeys engineered a 9-4 mark in 2016 with solid defense but got spotty QB play from Mitch Leidner.

This Minnesota team is a reflection of Fleck’s ability to find playmakers in several key areas. They are deep at running back, with redshirt seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks both now healthy, to go along with sophomores Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams.

Their receiving corps features three potential pro prospects in senior Tyler Johnson,  sophomore redshirt Chris Autman-Bell and sophomore Rashod Bateman. All three have made big plays this season and have gradually developed a great rapport with steady sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan. In addition, the team employs 6-foot-4 Seth Green in versatile roles near the goal line.

Their offensive line is huge and nasty, led by 400-pound sophomore Daniel Faalele. It took awhile, but now they are bulldozing opponents with regularity.

Defensively, their pass rush is building. Senior linebacker Kamal Martin leads the team in tackles and junior defensive back Antoine Winfield has skills similar to his former Viking father. Turnovers are occurring often.

Now the stage is set for some more surprises. Fleck and his staff have a dozen days to convince the community this team is finally ready for the big boys. Sellouts at TCF Bank Stadium have been rare, but expect one for Penn State. Fleck has already stirred up the thought of ESPN’s GameDay crew making a visit, if not now maybe late in November for the Wisconsin game.

P. J. Fleck fancies himself as a confident closer. His recruiting has already opened doors nobody in Minnesota thought possible. After taking Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl in 2017 and now leading Minnesota to uncharted territory in 2019, he’s proven he can coach, too.

In the next few weeks, we’ll learn if those confident claims about Big Ten crowns and Rose Bowl appearances aren’t so outrageous after all. For my money, Fleck has already delivered more than most of us expected. But don’t be surprised if this Gopher boat keeps rowing to unseen destinations.

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