Minnesota hosts Iowa on Saturday, and P.J. Fleck brought up an amazing stat I didn’t know. The Golden Gophers’ two rivals are their two border games, with Wisconsin and Iowa. Minnesota has played Iowa annually since 1891, and Wisconsin annually since 1890. Minnesota and Wisconsin will play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 128th time on Nov. 24; it’s the longest-running continuous rivalry game in FBS. The Minnesota-Iowa series, which award the winner the Floyd of Rosedale, will be played for the 112th time this Saturday, which is only 22nd among FBS rivalries.
These are ancient, bitter struggles, and here’s what Fleck said that astonished me: dating back 15 years, Minnesota is 4-27 in those games.
The reality is actually worse than that, though. Wisconsin is in the midst of a 14-game winning streak over Minnesota. Since 1995, Minnesota is 2-21 against Wisconsin. Since 1978, they’re 10-30. Minnesota’s history against Iowa isn’t much better. The Hawkeyes have taken the last three, and five of the last six, and eight of the last 11, and 13 of the last 17, and 18 of the last 25, and 25 of the last 36.
Wind the clock all the way back to 1982 and Minnesota is 21-51 against its two rivals.
There’s a simple reason for that, as Fleck pointed out: culture.
Wisconsin has operated essentially under one culture for a generation now. The Badgers hired Barry Alvarez in 1990. He served as head coach until 2005, when he ascended to the AD chair and handed the program to his defensive coordinator, Bret Bielema. Bielema remained in Wisconsin through 2012, when Alvarez hired Gary Andersen. Andersen wasn’t a culture fit with the program, lasting just two seasons — though he went 19-7 (and 2-0 versus Minnesota) in those two seasons — before Alvarez hired the ultimate culture fit in Paul Chryst, a Madison native who climbed the ladder as a Badgers player, assistant and coordinator before becoming head coach.
At Iowa, Hayden Fry was hired as head coach in 1979. He stayed in Iowa City until his 1998 retirement. The Hawkeyes hired Kirk Ferentz as his replacement, and he’s still Iowa’s head coach today.
Minnesota actually hired a new head coach in 1979 as well, the same year Iowa hired Fry. He was gone by 1983, and over this 40-year period Minnesota has had nine full-time head coaches to Iowa’s two.
Over a 1 or 2-year period it may be hard to notice the change, but widen the frame to an entire generation and it’s impossible to miss it.
Minnesota vs. its two rivals, since 1979
|AP Top 25 seasons||16||16||2|
“How can you get to that point by: new offense every year or every two years, new defenses, new special teams, new coaches, new head coach, new culture, new identity, new reads, new systems, new players, new beliefs of what they should recruit, how can you expect to do that?” Fleck said. “The reason why they are so successful is they’ve had the same system, the same coaches, the same people that they can recruit to. They can develop in the same strength staff.”
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 2, 2018
At some point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Minnesota wants to catch up with its rivals, so it clears out the old staff and brings in a new staff. Everything the old guys did was wrong, so the new guys bring in a new approach with new ideas, new philosophies, new approaches, all while Iowa and Wisconsin are chugging along with the same formula that already works for them. When four or five years pass and Minnesota hasn’t caught Iowa and Wisconsin, the Gophers clear out the “new” staff that is now the old staff, and the cycle beings anew — all while Iowa and Wisconsin are another four or five years down the road.
“If people think you just take a pill or you hire a coach and immediately win, you need to look around the country right now of what’s happening. People think it just happens. Not in 2018. Not the way recruiting is. Not the way facilities are, and money is.”
And yes, this is an overly simplistic way of studying the trajectory of three programs. The Wisconsin of 1990 was exactly like the Minnesota of today — and the Minnesota of 1997 and the Minnesota of 1979 — until they hired Alvarez in 1990, and then the cycle of “new hire, mediocre football, new hire, mediocre football, new hire….” stopped. Iowa was on that same merry-go-round, too, until Fry arrived.
But, as Fleck pointed out in the clip above, neither Alvarez nor Fry flipped the switch immediately. Fry went 9-13 in his first two seasons at Iowa. Alvarez went 1-10 in Year 1 at Wisconsin, then went 5-6 in Years 2 and 3. It’s a self-serving point for Fleck as he’s 8-8 (2-8 in Big Ten play) in his second year at Minnesota. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Minnesota needs to find its own Barry Alvarez and its own Hayden Fry. (Both of those guys are in the College Football Hall of Fame, by the way.) Northwestern has one in Pat Fitzgerald. That doesn’t mean Northwestern is in the Playoff hunt every year. It means Northwestern has a coach that wins and fits their university, and so the Wildcats’ brass is willing to ride out the 5-7 seasons (2013 and 2014) because they know 10-win seasons are coming (2015, 2017).
Once each of those schools found Their Guy, they made the requisite investments to keep him.
“When I got here, we laid out the whole plan. Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4, Year 5, Year 6, Year 7, Year 8, the whole thing,” Fleck said. “I said, ‘This is what it looks like. If you don’t like this, please do not hire me. This is the way I know how to do it from the people who raised me and my experience as a head coach.”
Loyalty and investment, though, are two-way streets. Hayden Fry could’ve left Iowa. Barry Alvarez could’ve left Wisconsin. Should he reach the level of success he promised, P.J. Fleck will have chances to leave Minnesota. If he wins and he stays, Minnesota may one day catch and surpass Iowa and Wisconsin. If he doesn’t, they won’t.
On Tuesday, Fleck said he wants to be that coach, calling it “the right thing to do.”
“I think it’s really healthy for college football. I really do,” he said. “I think we set a great example for our young people of doing it.”