Sid Hartman
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As the Gophers get ready to open the 2018 season on Thursday against New Mexico State at TCF Bank Stadium, they will have gone 51 years, back to 1967 when they tied Indiana, since their last Big Ten championship in football.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin has either won the Big Ten championship or reached the Big Ten title game nine times since 1967 and Iowa has done it four times.

The truth of the matter is the last time the Gophers had any power in football was in 1960, when they won a national championship, and in 1961, when they beat UCLA 21-3 in the Rose Bowl.

The big reason those teams were powerful was because at that time the school started recruiting around the nation and bringing in standout black players such as Bill Munsey and Sandy Stephens of Uniontown, Pa.; Bobby Bell of Shelby, N.C.; and Judge Dickson of Clairton, Pa.

The lack of recent Gophers football success may be the worst in the Big Ten except for Indiana, which hasn’t won a title since that tie with the Gophers in ’67. Schools like Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers haven’t won a title but have only been in the conference a few seasons.

When P.J. Fleck was asked if he was aware of this history when he took the job, he said that all he is concerned about is looking forward.

“What we haven’t done for 51 years, that has to stop affecting our future,” Fleck said. “Just because it is our past doesn’t mean it has to be our future.”

Still, it isn’t just a lack of Big Ten titles; the program has been middle of the road for most seasons since 1967.

The best finish would be either 2003 under Glen Mason, when the Gophers finished tied for fourth at 9-3 and won the Sun Bowl, or 2013, when they tied for second in the Big Ten West at 8-4 under Jerry Kill, won at Michigan and at Iowa and then lost in the Citrus Bowl.

Fleck said that these kinds of challenges are exactly what he craves in a coaching job.

“That is what we do. I love to run into the fire, not away,” Fleck said. “Not only was there a championship drought for 51 years, but there was a lot of other issues going on here, and we decided that this was the opportunity for us.”

Fleck said it was no different at Western Michigan when he became the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012.

“I’ve always wanted to bring our staff to places that we feel like we can give them a championship down the road, that maybe they haven’t had for so long. Give people things that they’ve dreamed of that they haven’t had for a long time,” Fleck said. “It takes a while, but that’s why we took the job. I made that very clear to [athletic director] Mark Coyle.”

The U was the right fit

There’s no doubt that Fleck was in high demand as one of the brightest young coaches in college football when he came to the Gophers.

He said that he had other opportunities, but this was the right spot.

“Just like a recruit finds the right fit for them to go to school, we had to find the right fit that fit Heather [Fleck, P.J.’s wife] and I and our culture and our staff and what we do and how we do it,” he said. “Minnesota was perfect for us.”

Last year was an up-and-down season for the Gophers, but Fleck’s five victories were the most for a first-year head coach in program history and he believes things are moving in the right direction.

“We’re one of the youngest teams in America, and we need these young players to play really well and there’s a lot of them on that field and they need to grow up,” Fleck said. “The great thing about young players is they don’t stay young very long.”

Challenges to opportunities

There has long been a belief that you simply cannot win at the U, with competition from pro sports and a history of losing. Fleck doesn’t buy that.

“We have our own challenges but we have our own opportunities. This is a very, very special place with incredible opportunities for our young people,” he said. “It has so much to offer. The ‘why we can’ts’ need to be looked at as ‘why we can.’ That’s what we need to start focusing on.

“We are aware of all of the things that are challenging, and we replace those with optimism.”

Fleck drew a parallel with the Wisconsin Badgers, who start ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll.

“I know they’re our rival, but they’ve won the West now I don’t know how many years,” he said. “Thirty years ago Barry Alvarez brought in this culture and he says they stopped making excuses. Well, the University of Minnesota has to stop making excuses. We say that to our team. We are going to stop making excuses.”

While Fleck may not be making excuses, he also refuses to give a timetable for success.

“I know this: When we are ready to win one, we’ll win one,” he said. “When we have the right team to win one, we’ll win one. Nobody is going to want to hear that, they have waited long enough, but we haven’t done it. We know how we can do it, and we will do it.”

JOTTINGS

• It isn’t surprising that Pro Football Focus ranked Kyle Rudolph as the fourth-best red zone tight end this week, but what was surprising was seeing his Vikings teammate David Morgan ranked second. The publication noted that Morgan was the NFL’s second-best run blocker inside the 20-yard line.

• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on how he views Marcus Sherels, who is in his eighth NFL season: “Marcus doesn’t say much, he’s just a kid that goes out there and works real hard every day and plays with really good technique most of the time. You can rely on him.”

• Vikings Executive Vice President Lester Bagley said the team still believes it has a great shot at playing host to the 2021 NFL draft at its Eagan headquarters.

• Former Twins and current Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said he understands why the Twins front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine made some of their deadline deals: “There’s a group there running that ballclub that is trying to do all the right things and get all the right people in there. They’re loading up the farm system — again, you have a lot of young talent and they’re trying to get it right.”

• Baseball America listed the Twins’ minor league system as the seventh best in baseball, behind the Padres, Rays, Blue Jays, White Sox, Braves and Reds. The publication wrote: “Deadline deals added a smattering of high-upside talent, but the biggest reason the Twins are a top-10 system is because they have hit on their recent high draft picks. [Royce] Lewis, [Alex] Kirilloff and [Brent] Rooker all have reached or exceeded expectations.”

• Former Gophers basketball standout Andre Hollins recently wrapped up his season with Kormend in Hungary and averaged 10.8 points, 3.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game. His former U teammate Austin Hollins has signed with Rasta Vechta in Germany for 2018-19.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com