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SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. – He grew up in the far western Chicago suburbs, has lived the nomadic coaching life with stops in Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida and Michigan. And on Sunday, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck showed just how Minnesotan he really has become after five years in the Twin Cities.

He talked about Arizona as a retirement destination, pushing the needle on the "One of Us'' meter.

"This is where Heather and I want to live one day,'' Fleck said on a sun-splashed day with Camelback Mountain as a backdrop. "We come here all the time, about three or four times a year, and have a great time. There's so much to do around here, the people are so friendly, and the weather is always really good. That's what's so fun coming from Minnesota, especially at the end of December.''

Yes, like the estimated 25,000 Minnesotans who have relocated to Arizona over the past decade, Fleck can see a far-off future amid the cacti and orange trees. First, though, he and his Gophers will try to finish a working vacation in Phoenix on Tuesday night with a victory over West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

The game will mark the finale of Fleck's fifth season at Minnesota. His tenure has featured early rebuilding in 2017, a late-season turnaround in 2018, the incredible high of an 11-win campaign in 2019, the COVID-19 blues in 2020, and a mixed bag in 2021 that the Gophers are trying to punctuate with a bowl triumph.

Just where is the Gophers program five years into Fleck's reign, and where is it headed?

"We are exactly where we should be,'' he said. "We're exactly where we are, and that's really how we get judged in this profession.''

That's Fleck's way of saying the past can't be changed and the future will play out. He's not one to use the end of a season as a milepost but rather another data point that each game brings.

"We don't judge success on wins,'' he said, pointing to the academic, social and spiritual legs of his program. "I know we get judged by that, but we don't base our success off that.''

That, of course, isn't the case with most fans or media members. The Gophers' 8-4 record in 2021 has been a snapshot of Fleck's tenure at Minnesota. The program has had highs with the victory over Wisconsin and a four-game winning streak midseason, lows with frustrating losses to Bowling Green and Illinois, and room to improve with a close loss to Iowa that cost the Gophers a chance to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.

"When you look at this year, could we have won some more games? Maybe, but that discredits the people who beat us,'' Fleck said. "Could we have lost some games? Sure, but credit to our team for pulling out those victories.''

Navigating choppy waters

Fleck, who in November signed a seven-year, $35 million contract that could keep him at Minnesota through the 2028 season, had to guide his team through much adversity in 2021. Starting with Mohamed Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten running back of the year, the Gophers lost their top three running backs to season-ending injuries and had a fourth transfer. That left the bulk of the work to redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and true freshman Mar'Keise Irving.

"These guys did a tremendous job of finding a way to win eight games,'' Fleck said. "When you look back at it, we got the most out of them, and that's all you can ask for as a coach.''

The Gophers were a run-heavy team this season, with an 80% to 20% run/pass split through five games. If the run game bogged down, however, the passing game didn't always step up, and upset losses to Bowling Green and Illinois were the result.

After the regular season, Fleck fired offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., saying "I just felt like we needed a change on offense.'' That change is Kirk Ciarrocca, Fleck's longtime confidante who left for Penn State after the 2019 regular season and returns to try to get the offense running more smoothly in 2022. In his first go-round, he helped Tanner Morgan pass for school records of 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2019.

The coordinator change is the second one that Fleck has made at Minnesota, and he'll be hopeful this one goes as well as the last one. In 2018 with the Gophers giving up 53 and 55 points in losses to Nebraska and Illinois, Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith. In stepped Joe Rossi, who orchestrated a 180-degree turnaround in the final three regular-season games and the Quick Lane Bowl win over Georgia Tech. This year, Rossi's defense ranks fourth nationally in fewest yards allowed and tied for ninth in fewest points allowed.

"Coach Rossi is a phenomenal football coach because he gets the most out of all his players,'' Fleck said. "They do it for each other and they do it for him.''

Building back to 2019

The highlight of the Fleck Era so far has been the 2019 season, when the Gophers started the season 9-0 with a win over No. 5 Penn State. They finished with a triumph over No. 9 Auburn in the Outback Bowl, a result that left the Gophers 11-2 and with the No. 10 ranking in the final polls, their best final rating since the 1962 team also finished No. 10.

Returning to that level and taking a step further is the challenge. In both 2019 and this season, the Gophers were a win away from winning the Big Ten West outright and advancing to the conference title game. They've knocked hard on the door.

"Knock harder,'' Fleck said on how to break through. "We've just got to do it better. Mike McCarthy used to say, 'Close gets you cut, almost gets you fired.' … We've come really close in both years, 2019 and this year, but we know what we have to be able to do. We have to play better in those crucial games.''

The most crucial have been against rivals Wisconsin and Iowa. The Gophers have won two of the past four, including this season, against the Badgers, but their 2019 loss cost them the West title outright. Fleck is 0-5 against Iowa, with the 23-19 loss in 2019 and the 27-22 setback this year being especially costly.

In 2022, the Gophers will have holes to fill but return a quartet of offensive building blocks — Morgan, Ibrahim, wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell and center John Michael Schmitz.

"We're in the infant stages of building here, we feel like,'' said Fleck, who is 34-23 overall at Minnesota and 21-22 in the Big Ten. "We're off and running, that's for sure. We're not crawling anymore, we're running, but we've got a long way to go.''