John Shipley: It’s almost December, time to defend Gophers’ P.J. Fleck — again

It’s been less than a calendar year since Minnesota’s football team wrapped up its second straight victory over Wisconsin, plus a fourth bowl victory in five years. The Gophers also are a week away from accepting a bowl invitation they don’t deserve.

So, naturally, it’s time, again, to explain the college football landscape to any Gophers fans who haven’t been paying close attention since, say, Glen Mason won 10 games at Kansas in a conference called the Big 8.

You might not like P.J. Fleck’s schtick, or believe it’s real. You might find it impossible to defend all of his in-game decision-making, or his radio plea for the regular folks to start buying NIL-sponsored apparel. But in terms of program building, the man is doing his job.

Some of us are old enough to remember way back to 2019, when Fleck’s team finished 11-2 and ranked 10th in the final Associated Press poll — 10th! — after beating ninth-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl. For a program like Minnesota’s, in what was then a 12-team Big Ten Conference, this is overachieving.

Even if the Gophers go to the Quick Lane Bowl, as presaged by Jerry Palm, and beat Northern Illinois on Dec. 26, this will not go down as a great, or even particularly good, season for the maroon and gold. But if you’re of the mind that Fleck should be fired for it, after back-to-back nine-win seasons and bowl victories over ACC and Big 12 teams, you’re living in Fantasy Land. Or at least 1967, when there were 10 bowl games — including one called the Junior Rose Bowl — and the Gophers last won a piece of the Big Ten.

It’s worth noting here that while Minnesota (5-7) hasn’t won the requisite six games to become bowl eligible this season, they will be a place-holder because — wait for it — Fleck’s players are graduating, 94 percent of them after the 2022 season. And it’s not because they’re all sticking around for that sweet, sweet NIL money.

This is pretty simple, really. Fleck’s players are graduating, staying out of trouble, conspicuously out in the community and winning games. And if they still haven’t been back to the Rose Bowl since 1962, they have been a generally good team — and once a really good team — since Fleck succeeded Jerry Kill in 2017, averaging 7.6 victories in six full seasons under the current coach (yes, we’re not counting the ridiculous COVID season of 2020).

This season hasn’t been a good one. Certainly, most expected more. Fleck this week called it a “readjustment,” which isn’t quite accurate. The Gophers’ seven losses, particularly a beatdown at Purdue, have shown Fleck there needs to be an adjustment, but it hasn’t been made yet.

This is expected, and apologies for bursting your bubble if you still don’t get this, from a mid-level, Power 5 football conference team. Programs like Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue work hard — harder than Ohio State and Michigan — for relevance and often break through with big seasons. Then they go fallow for a few seasons.

College football is a different beast than it was 30 years ago, when Wisconsin and Iowa pulled dormant Big Ten programs into, more or less, full-time relevance. Back then there were nine Big Ten teams to leap, and 105 scholarships to dole out. Now it’s 85 scholarships and, starting next season, 14 teams — and then 16 when No. 3 Washington (12-0) and No. 6 Oregon (11-1) decamp from the Pac-12 to become part of the Mother of all College Football Conferences.

Even second-tier programs like Iowa and — as we’re seeing now — Wisconsin occasionally go dark. You have to learn to cherish the big seasons and accept the bad ones, now more than ever.

Is Fleck perfect? No. Is he making too much money? Yeah, they all are. But this is the playing field, and the Gophers are doing all right. Frankly, the odds are growing longer for programs like Minnesota’s. Under Kevin Warren’s brief watch, the Big Ten added USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. They didn’t do it for Illinois or Indiana football, they did it so they can afford to support dozens of sports, most of which don’t make money, and a lot of administrative salaries.

It’s gonna get harder for the Gophers, but if you believe starting over with a new coach is the right move, you just haven’t been paying attention.

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