P.J. Fleck invited criticism when he arrived on campus.
He dissed predecessors and set seemingly untenable goals. He careened between hype and caution, trying to manage expectations in his first two years without abandoning the rhetoric established in his first news conference.
He trademarked his own slogan, instead of tying it to the University of Minnesota. He hired the wrong defensive coordinator, and was suffering inexplicably embarrassing losses as recently as early last November, when Illinois — Illinois! — beat him 55-31.
If you hate overt marketing and sloganeering, you may still not like Fleck. I know his speeches sometimes hit me like a sinus headache.
If you can’t believe in Fleck until his performance clearly surpasses those of Glen Mason and Jerry Kill, that’s fair.
There is one criticism of Fleck that was always unfair, or at least unwarranted.
He isn’t Tim Brewster. He never should have been confused with Brewster as a personality, and he now is poised to separate himself from Brewster as a Gophers coach.
Brewster and Fleck have or had two things in common: fast talking, and a desire to recruit high-caliber athletes from all corners of the map.
Even the way they speechify is hardly similar.
Brewster’s nonsense wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular. “Let’s get your chili hot!” can’t be classified as marketing, promotion, sales or motivation.
While Fleck’s oratories can wear on those of us who value the English language and have never purchased a ShamWow, he at least has a target audience: 18-year-old recruits and 20-ish college football players.
Recruiting was Brewster’s only strength. He was never a head coach or coordinator above the high school level before Joel Maturi got dazzled by his hocum and hired him to become the head coach of the Gophers, right before the Denver Broncos were going to fire him as a tight ends coach (or so I hear).
Brewster could recruit athletes. He couldn’t coach them. When he lost defensive coordinator Ted Roof, he lost the kind of expertise that could have held his program together.
Brewster went 1-11 with perhaps the nation’s worst defense in his first season, 2007. In 2008, with Roof on board, he went 7-6. When the Gophers lost their last five games and the defense fell apart, Roof left for Auburn.
Brewster would go 6-7 the next year and be fired with the team at 1-6 in 2010.
Brewster never really had a chance, not unless he could have surrounded himself with a coaching staff that could hide his inexperience.
Unlike Brewster, Fleck has proved his coaching chops. After a 1-11 finish his first year as a head coach, he went 29-11 at Western Michigan, going 13-1 in his final season. There was substance to go with all that boat rowing.
Now, with the Gophers, that substance is finally becoming more important than the branding. The Gophers are 6-0. They have won eight straight, including triumphs at Wisconsin and Fresno State and in a bowl game.
They have passed the eye test of late in a way that speaks to coaching. Tanner Morgan was destined to be a backup quarterback yet has presided over the winning streak and has improved from game manager to big-play maker.
The Gophers’ victory over Nebraska shouldn’t have been a surprise, given Nebraska’s injuries and ongoing rebuild under Scott Frost, but the University of Minnesota should never take a victory over Nebraska for granted. Nebraska is one of those schools that has all of the advantages of a remote, land-grant football factory that the Gophers do not have. Blowing out the Cornhuskers under any circumstance is a sign of progress.
Fleck has maximized his team’s strengths (running back depth and wide receiver excellence) and hidden its flaws (lack of size, and secondary depth, on defense).
In two weeks, the Gophers should be 8-0 with an excellent Penn State team coming to town.
It will be possible, at that point, to compare Fleck’s 2019 team with Brewster’s 7-1 2008 team.
But you shouldn’t. Whether you like him or wear earplugs any time you’re within 5 miles of campus, you should be willing to admit that Fleck and his staff can coach.