When P.J. Fleck took the podium during to be introduced as University of Minnesota football coach on Friday, Jan. 6, he spoke of a shared vision with athletics director Mark Coyle.
"We both share a vision of winning a national championship," he said just seconds into the 40-minute session. "We share a vision of winning the Big Ten West. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten. And having Rose Bowls. And I'm not afraid to say that because that's the way I live my life."
Almost every coach proclaims the be-the-best mentality, so it's not particularly surprising to hear the energetic 36-year-old preach high expectations. But it means something different at Minnesota when you say "Rose Bowls". Plural.
When Fleck officially became the Gophers' head coach on Friday, it marked 20,095 days since their last Rose Bowl appearance. One of the Big Ten's founding members, Minnesota has not reached the Big Ten's premier bowl game since January of 1962.
The Gophers went 8-2 in 1961, capped by a 1962 Rose Bowl win over UCLA. They won eight games one year earlier — losing the 1961 Rose Bowl to Washington — and won eight again in 1967 to win the Big Ten title. Then Gopher football died, or at least went into a deep hibernation.
They have zero Rose Bowl appearances since 1962, and have not won a conference championship since 1967. In the thirty years from 1968 to 1998, Minnesota never won eight games in a season, and reached seven wins only three times, making just three bowl appearances.
Then just when the program appeared destined for stability under second-year head coach Lou Holtz in 1985, it blew up like so many other promising Minnesota sports teams over the last half-century. Holtz exercised a bizarre out-clause in his contract that allowed him to leave for Notre Dame. Three years later, as Minnesotans grumbled over a 2-7-2 season and endured another long winter as they watched Holtz win a national championship with the Irish.
The next smidgen of optimism came a decade later when Glen Mason arrived from Kansas in 1997. He restored hope with an 8-4 mark in 1999 and four additional seasons of seven or more wins (2002-05). Still, even during their 10-win season in 2003, they finished fourth in the Big Ten and landed 800 miles from Pasadena in the Sun Bowl. Mason never finished higher than fourth in the conference before his knee-jerk firing in 2006 — a 6-6 season followed by a 31-point blown lead to Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl.
We'll skip the Tim Brewster era to spare folks a walk down nightmare lane.
The beloved Jerry Kill Gophers flirted with the Big Ten West title in 2014, narrowly losing the division to Wisconsin in the season finale, but his other four seasons (including 2015) ended with no better than fourth-place finishes. Same goes for his replacement Tracy Claeys, whose 5-4 conference mark was good enough for fourth in 2016.
Needless to say, Minnesota has rarely made on-field national headlines in November, let alone early January in Pasadena. This is a very difficult job, at least historically. And we haven't even mentioned December's reputation-ravaging boycott, non-stop poaching of in-state recruits by hated rivals Wisconsin and Iowa, or widespread — but understandable — skepticism from fans.
Without question, Minnesota is still a good job, even if it's a difficult one. It's a great school in a large metro area — a rarity in the Power Five — with loads of big-time donors and Fortune 500 companies and endless housing options and family-friendly activities.
It doesn't hurt that Fleck is playing with house money. Bring Minnesota to Rose Bowls, you're a God on par with Herb Brooks, Kirby Puckett, and Harmon Killebrew. Bring more mediocrity, you're just another guy in Gopher history and back to the Group of Five or a Power Five coordinator job.
This is one to watch.