P.J. Fleck bolted up the steps to the podium and popped the top on a can of Coke, one of the University of Minnesota’s sponsors.
His Gophers football team had just lost the biggest game of the season, at home, but when you are the kind of guy who trademarked your own motivational phrase, it is never not the right time to practice product placement.
Coca-Cola likely will survive its affiliation with the University of Minnesota football program. “Row The Boat’’ may not.
The Gophers concluded their home schedule for the 2018 season on Saturday, losing 24-14 to Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium, where a small crowd arrived late and departed early.
The Gophers next head to Wisconsin for their season finale, needing a victory to ensure a .500 record and bowl eligibility. With his second season at Minnesota almost complete, Fleck is 10-13 overall and 4-13 in the Big Ten.
The record that may be most significant is his 2-6 mark in the Big Ten this season. His team has not improved in its second year, even while playing in a mediocre league.
Another loss did not diminish Fleck’s ability to dazzle an audience with inanities. In his opening statement after the game, Fleck said of Northwestern: “They beat teams just like that. Iceman from ‘Top Gun,’ for all the people who know that. Cool as ice. Never makes a mistake.’’
Most of Fleck’s speechifying targets 18-year-olds who may be impressed by such silliness. Iceman from ‘Top Gun’? I may have been one of the few people in the room old enough to know what he was talking about, yet I had no idea what he was talking about. He might as well have been comparing Northwestern to Gatsby, or Shemp.
Playing at home against a good team battered by injuries, the Gophers not only played poorly, but they also failed to entertain. There is an art to beating bad teams, and Northwestern brought the right paint brush. The Wildcats avoided turnovers, kept things simple and waited for the Gophers to make mistakes, which they did.
“A very businesslike championship approach culminated with a very businesslike win,’’ Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
The Gophers made precious few big plays on offense against a defense with an injury-depleted secondary, and their defense created zero turnovers.
The Gophers should have been at their best in this game. They should have played at an emotional peak. Final home game. Senior Day. A chance to clinch a bowl berth. A chance to breathe life into Fleck’s slogans.
Instead, they looked mediocre and uninspired, even as junior receiver Tyler Johnson and senior linebacker Blake Cashman, two Minnesota natives recruited by Fleck’s predecessors, played like stars.
Fleck compared his program with Fitzgerald’s, saying the difference was “cultural sustainability,’’ noting that Fitzgerald played at Northwestern and worked as an assistant coach there before becoming the head coach.
But wouldn’t that be an argument for Minnesota to have kept Tracy Claeys, an outstanding defensive coordinator for the Gophers, instead of hiring someone with no connection to the school?
Then Fleck told a story. When he was coaching at Northern Illinois, he asked Fitzgerald to take him to lunch, during which Fitzgerald told him that Northwestern’s previous head coach and his mentor, Randy Walker, had told him, ‘We’re not going to make excuses anymore.’ ’’
But everything Fleck says sounds like an excuse. Like these from Saturday: “Time is your best friend but it’s also your enemy. … The culture is being built. … Failure is growth. … We’re getting close.’’
Fleck took over a program that had won nine games in 2016 and had appeared in five straight bowls, the final two of which it won.
If Fleck loses to Wisconsin, he will continue to distract with shiny slogans, but any rational evaluation of him should conclude that the first two years of the Fleck experiment have been an embarrassment.