Hard to believe that summer is starting to fade already. Town teams are in the playoffs. The Twins are lagging a bit. And the corn is tasseling.
That means football season is just around the corner. Minnesotans’ love affair with the sport has long been curious. The Vikings haven’t
been to a Super Bowl in 40 years and the Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten title in 50. Even though we have plenty of ducks to hunt, children to educate and Oktoberfests to enjoy before the snow flies, Minnesotans remain steadfast in the attention they give these two teams.
The Vikings, of course, have a special season in store for the Northland. Thanks to every Minnesotan — including infants, widows and orphans — throwing a hundred dollar bill into the pot, their new stadium will bring the Super Bowl here. That’s right. And for only an additional $5,000, a few of us will be able to join 50,000 millionaires at the “people’s stadium” for the big game.
Strangely, many Minnesotans have talked about the possibility of the Vikings being the first truly home team in Super Bowl history. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but maybe our public schools could do a better job of teaching Minnesota students how to calculate odds. After 56 consecutive years of season-ending frustration, Vikings’ fans should know that any sport in which 20 percent of your starters get injured during the year causes problems for predictors.
Last year, the state fell into a purple funk not so much when Prince died, but when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater blew out his knee. When backup Sam Bradford led the team to a 5-0 start, it became obvious to many that this was “our year.” It turned out to be “our kind of year” instead. The Vikes limped home, 8-8.
Now Adrian Peterson, who Vikings’ fans all know was the greatest running back in the history of human beings — when he wasn’t injured, fumbling or hitting kids with a switch — has left. So has Cordarrelle Patterson, who was the most dangerous triple threat in the league when he could remember the plays. And one of the team’s greatest linebackers, Chad Greenway, retired.
Not to worry, the Vikings’ public relations team has assured us that this is going to be “our year” — kind of.
And that brings us to P.J. Fleck, the new Gopher head coach. When he first arrived in Minneapolis last January, he said all the usual things like, “It’s a big challenge,” and “We have a lot of work to do,” as if the Gopher football program was in disarray.
It wasn’t. The team had just finished 9-4, including shutting down Washington State, coached by one of the foremost offensive football minds in the nation, Mike Leach in the Holiday Bowl. The two glummest faces in the stadium that night were U of M President Eric Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle.
The reason? They wanted to fire Tracy Claeys, the Gopher head coach, and were looking for a good reason to do so. They couldn’t find any that night, but they fired Claeys anyway.
Claeys’ biggest sin was that he couldn’t sell enough tickets. Secondarily, he stuck up for his players when they threatened to boycott that bowl game. The players were upset that 10 players were suspended, when “only” five or six of them had engaged in sex with one inebriated woman at a party. None of them was charged with a crime. Eventually, four of them were expelled, one suspended, and the remainder reinstated.
Claeys became head coach only after Jerry Kill had resigned in the middle of the previous season because of health issues. Kill had brought back the one thing lacking from the Gopher program — hope. Kill and Claeys could actually teach. Suddenly, so-so recruits ended up being drafted by the NFL.
Regardless, here comes Fleck, who got the job after taking Western Michigan last winter to the Cotton Bowl, a place the Gophers have never been. The initial take on Fleck is that he is a flim-flam man. Jaded fans — and who wouldn’t be given the Viking-Gopher history of the past half century — are justified to view his approach with some skepticism.
Fleck would have us “row the boat,” which is a bit tone deaf. In this land of slow-moving Scandinavians, football fans know that we need a few jet skis to have any hope. Still, Fleck was a two-time team captain at Northern Illinois University, a sign that he can lead. He already has something like 18 promises from high school seniors to come here “next” year, a sign that he can recruit.
The question that remains is whether he and his staff can teach. Fleck says his goal is to develop his players academically, athletically, socially and spiritually. Obviously, those last two qualities were what have been lacking in the entire scandal-plagued athletic department for some time.
But the reality is this. Last year, the Gophers were 9-4. Anything less from Fleck from the get-go will be a step back. At this point, for Gopher fans, it looks like “our kind of year,” but Fleck deserves a chance to prove he can walk the talk.
Tom West can be reached by email at [email protected]