There were some contrary responses to a couple of extremely clever Tweets offered by me coming out of the Gophers’ 23-19 loss to Iowa on Saturday. This included a Gophers fan stating that Phil Fleck already has proven himself to be the finest University of Minnesota football coach in the 115 seasons dating to 1905.
This theory was based on the 2019 team becoming the first collection of Gophers to start a season at 9-0 since 1904.
Coach Henry L. Williams (as in Williams Arena) coached those Gophers to 13 straight victories, in order: Central High School, South Dakota, Shattuck, Carleton, St. Thomas, North Dakota, Iowa State, Grinnell, Nebraska, Lawrence, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa.
Those last three were Western Conference games, allowing the Gophers to claim the title at 3-0. And, while the earlier portion of the 1904 schedule was very similar to that played by the 2019 Gophers prior to the Penn State visit, I’m required to offer some perspective to downplay the claim that it had been 115 years since our beloved rodents had matched the excellence provided by the 9-0 start from Fleck’s lads.
For instance: Following the 10-1 record in 1905, the Gophers played from 5-to-7 games per season from 1906 to 1917. They played eight games in 1918, then returned to seven games from 1919 to 1923.
The Gophers played eight games from 1924 to 1930, popped up with 10 games in 1931, and then settled in with an eight-game schedule from 1932 to 1941. Which brings us to Point A in downplaying the 115 years-angle on launching a season at 9-0:
The Gophers did not play as many as nine games in 35 of the 36 seasons starting in 1906 to 1941 – a fact that dramatically lowers the odds of starting 9-0.
And even without a 9-0 start to his credit, it might be reasonable to suggest that Bernie Bierman had a couple of runs that Fleck still must aspire to reach.
For instance, the Gophers of 1934 and 1935 both went 8-0 and were named as back-to-back national champions. The Gophers were also unbeaten in 1933 – four wins, four ties – and opened the 1936 season with four victories.
That means the Grey Eagle’s Gophers had a winning streak of 21 games from the final game of 1933 to the middle of 1936, and they had an unbeaten streak of 28 games from the start of 1933.
Not 9-0 in any season, but impressive nonetheless.
Bierman also had back-to-back 8-0 teams in 1940 and 1941, and again both claimants to the national championship. The Gophers had won the last one in 1939 and the first in 1942, so the winning streak was 18.
The streak ended with a 7-6 loss in the second game of ’42 to Iowa Pre-Flight, which was coached by Bierman, who had entered the military after the 1941 season and the start of World War II.
So not only did Bernie build that winning streak; he ended it. George Hauser was the coach for the Gophers during Bierman’s three-year absence.
The Gophers expanded the schedule to nine games to make room for Iowa Pre-Flight in 1942, and they stayed with a nine-game schedule from then through 1964.
Which means it was impossible for the Gophers to start 9-0 for 35 of those years after 1904, and it would have required regular-season perfection for another 23 years to achieve that, which cuts a 58-year swath through the mythology that we must go back 115 years to find a Gophers coach who brought the magic of Fleck’s 9-0.
We are used to this lack of perspective, of course, when it comes to Gophers football. We were told often during Glen Mason’s tenure from 1997 to 2006 that he was leading the Gophers to more bowl games (seven, eventually) than the number they had played previously (five) in their football history dating to 1882.
There were a few asterisks needed to go with this claim:
*The first bowl game of any kind (Rose) was played in 1902, abandoned, and did not resume until 1916.
*The Gophers as a Big Ten team were not permitted to play in a bowl game until the 1946 season.
*The only bowl game that a Big Ten team could play in was the Rose until the 1975 season when the conference allowed two bowl appearances: Ohio State in the Rose and Michigan in the Orange.
*Mason’s first bowl game was after the 1999 season, when seven of the Big Ten’s 11 teams played in bowls.
Last season, 70 percent of the teams in Power Five conferences were invited to bowls, meaning it’s much more difficult for the Gophers of this era to avoid a bowl than to play in one.
This is what the youth of America wants from those of us now referred to as “Boomer,’’ is it not? The perspective that comes from wisdom.