Jim Souhan
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The Vikings are the hottest team and best story in the NFL, having won five straight with three different starting quarterbacks while missing superstar receiver Justin Jefferson.

The Timberwolves have won six straight, including victories over the defending champion Nuggets, the previously undefeated Celtics and the Warriors.

The Twins went on an impressive second-half run and earned their first playoff series victory since 2002.

The Gophers women's basketball team under new coach Dawn Plitzuweit has won twice impressively over lesser opponents to begin her tenure.

Those teams have something in common: A successful head coach or manager capable of displaying grace and humility.

In his second season as an NFL head coach, Kevin O'Connell is again putting himself in position to earn coach of the year votes. He had the confidence to hire a defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, who could replace him if the Vikings don't perform well, and Flores has rewarded him with exceptional work. O'Connell is highly accessible compared to most NFL head coaches. He treats people well.

Wolves head coach Chris Finch had to feel pressure last season following the trade for Rudy Gobert. The Wolves are where they are today in part because Finch handles such difficulties with grace. Like O'Connell, he made no excuses and cast no blame. He's accessible and down-to-earth.

The Twins' Rocco Baldelli won the American League manager of the year award in his first season as a manager at any level, but he had his best season as a manager in 2023, diving heavily into platoons and small-ball strategies while relying on youngsters and role players. His two best and most expensive players, Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton, were relatively unproductive (Correa) and largely absent (Buxton), and he had to cycle through setup relievers. He never complained, remained an accessible and endearing team spokesperson, and never asked for credit.

We are just getting to know Plitzuweit. Her résumé indicates she is a quality coach who knows how to run a classy program.

Which reminds me of a story I heard about Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, a future Hall of Famer. When the Heat signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade, Spoelstra became a national figure of interest. He refused to talk about himself. A friend of mine asked him why. He said, to paraphrase, "This is never going to be about me. It's about our players.''

These are the modern faces of sports management.

Which brings us to Gophers football.

P.J. Fleck made his bones with two spectacular victories during the 2019 season: at home against No. 4 Penn State, and in the Outback Bowl over No. 12 Auburn. Those victories elevated expectations. He has not met them.

The 2022 season was Fleck's best chance to recreate the excitement of 2019. He had Mo Ibrahim, one of the best running backs in the country, along with a veteran quarterback, a powerhouse offensive line, a slew of sixth-year seniors and one of the softest schedules possible for a Power Five conference team.

The Gophers finished 9-4, a record that obscures reality. A good team would have won much more, and gone to a much better postseason game than the Pinstripe Bowl.

This season, the Gophers had to play a true Big Ten schedule, meaning games against Michigan and Ohio State, although they were lucky to not face Penn State.

Fleck's buzzwords have not kept the 2023 Gophers from collapsing.

They fell apart in the second half against a bad Northwestern team, were embarrassed by Michigan, imploded in the fourth quarter against a bad Illinois team and were pounded by a bad Purdue team.

Fleck has made this program all about him. His players have been asked to stand when he enters a room and are left to parrot his cliches, from training camp to postgame interviews.

Those postgame interview sessions have prompted questions toward the coach about the direction of his backsliding program. Maybe Fleck could learn from some of his Minnesota peers and treat his players more like equals and less like indentured servants, and comport himself more like an employee than a king.