Granted the shield of anonymity, opposing college football coaches offered more candor about what they really think about the Gophers football program.
Athlon Sports has been providing this journalistic condition as part of its college football preview magazine for years and each Power Five team receive the veiled treatment. Some, of course, got harsher reviews than others.
On Minnesota, some of outside coaches’ comments had bite, others were complimentary or just pointed out cold, hard truths.
Here are four coaches’ statements put into context:
“(Head coach P.J. Fleck’s) brand and style never makes friends in the division; they want to be flashier and louder than the programs that have been successful in their area.”
There is no doubt Fleck is vastly different than Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst and even Purdue’s Jeff Brohm. Fleck is more front-facing salesman and promoter than an ol’ ball coach.
There’s clearly a rivalry with Brohm, given their icy postgame handshake and Fleck’s comments after the 2019 game, and Fleck will always have more colorful quotes than the vanilla Chryst.
When Fleck called a very late timeout to try to stave off a shutout in a 35-7 loss to the Hawkeyes last year, Ferentz responded by burning all three of his timeouts to make a point on top of taking the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry trophy south for a sixth straight season.
Ferentz had an on-the-record quip about it postgame: “We figured we’d take Floyd and leave the timeouts here.”
Given the anonymity of this quote to Athlon, it’s impossible for outsiders to know which coach said it. It’s also difficult to follow up on what was meant by “flashier and louder.” Minnesota’s shiny gold helmets?
On the field, Gophers players are taught to hand the football to officials after plays, including touchdowns, and their run-heavy offensive philosophy is more old-school than in-your-face razzle-dazzle.
“(Running back Mohamed Ibrahim) could be really, really good. The only thing he lacks is game-breaker speed; otherwise you’d be talking about a Heisman (Trophy) campaign.”
Wait, “could be”? Ibrahim is the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year after rushing for 1,076 yards and 15 (!) touchdowns in only seven games last fall. That is currently really, really good.
While it’s true he doesn’t have top-end speed, that hasn’t really, well, slowed him down in the grand scheme of things. To say he would be on the verge of Heisman talk is a big compliment — even if there is a back-handed element within it.
“Defensively, they were a bit of a mess. They need to get back to playing complementary football for their offense.”
When Minnesota gave up 94 points in opening losses to Michigan (49-24) and Maryland (45-44 in overtime) to start 2020, the defense was full-out mess — no “bit” about it. The Gophers struggled mightily to replace seven starters, including four NFL draft picks, from 2019 to 2020.
But as the season progressed, the U’s defense showed improvements. There is nothing controversial about pointing out they need to do more on that side of the ball, with nearly every starter and contributor coming back while also also adding transfers who could make big impacts.
“Can Fleck win big rivalry games? It’s great they upset Penn State, but that next step to advance recruiting is to beat the Iowas, to beat the Wisconsins.”
Fleck’s record is 1-7 against the Hawkeyes and Badgers since coming to Minnesota in 2017. The U’s 2018 win in Madison was its in the series in 14 seasons and made the Gophers bowl eligible.
Then after beating the Nittany Lions in 2019, Minnesota went to Iowa City, played poorly in the first quarter and lost its perfect season to the Hawkeyes in a 23-19 loss. Two weeks later, Wisconsin spoiled Minnesota’s attempt to win the Big Ten West by roughing up the Gophers 38-17.
With two more losses in 2020, Fleck’s winning percentage has slipped to .125 against arch rivals. If this continues, anonymous comments from coaches will just be part of a louder and louder critique.