One of my favorite pieces I wrote last year was this, examining why Wisconsin and Iowa have built successful cultures that have endured over decades while the third leg of their 3-way rivalry — Minnesota — has not. I could spend a lot of words explaining the differences between Minnesota and its two rivals, or I could just re-print this chart, accurate to Oct. 3 of last year.
Minnesota vs. its two rivals, since 1979
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Fleck’s explanation boiled down to one word, a word that he says with annoying frequency: culture.
The Gophers were preparing to play Iowa that week, and Fleck said the reason Iowa and Wisconsin consistently won eight, nine, and 10 games a year was because those programs took the time to establish cultures, while Minnesota constantly changed its culture every few years, all the while falling more and more behind with every coaching change. Iowa has employed two head coaches since 1979 (Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz) while Wisconsin was led by Barry Alvarez from 1990 through 2005, and then by Alvarez’s hand-picked successors thereafter.
It’s no wonder, Fleck argued, that Iowa and Wisconsin won like they did, and Minnesota wouldn’t match them until they found their own Hayden Fry, their own Barry Alvarez and stuck with him. And, oh by the way, wouldn’t it be great if Minnesota’s answer was standing right in front of you right now?
“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.”
It was a self-serving argument, but it wasn’t an incorrect one.
Fleck was 8-8 at the time he said those words, and 2-8 in Big Ten play. The Gophers lost to Iowa that Saturday — their fourth straight in the series, sixth in the last seven, ninth in the last 12, 14th of the last 18, 19th of the last 26, and 26th of the last 37. Minnesota lost to Ohio State the Saturday after that, and then to Nebraska the Saturday after that.
Heading into their Oct. 26 game with Indiana last season, Minnesota stood at 8-11 under Fleck and 2-11 in Big Ten play.
Since then, though, Minnesota is 12-2. They’re 8-2 in the Big Ten (bested only by Ohio State and Penn State) and winners of 10 straight overall. Included in that winning streak is a 37-15 victory at Wisconsin, snapping a 14-game losing skid to the hated Badgers.
That brought us to Wednesday, when Minnesota announced a 7-year extension to keep Fleck under contract through 2026.
Wisconsin didn’t get to be Wisconsin by firing Barry Alvarez at the first sign of trouble, or the second, or the third — Alvarez went 11-22 in his first three seasons, before going 10-1-1 in Year 4. But that’s just one side of the equation, though. The other is that Alvarez didn’t leave at the first sign of success, either.
Fleck paid lip service to that last October, and on Wednesday he followed through with his signature.
“That cultural sustainability that we talked about when we first got here, that’s really important,” Fleck said Wednesday. “That’s how the Iowas have become the Iowas and the Wisconsins have become the Wisconsins.”
“You look at what Barry Alvarez had done at Wisconsin, there were highs, there were lows. You look at what Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry did at Iowa. That is what I feel like the University of Minnesota is missing. And I feel like someone has to do that,” Fleck said later. “We came here because we felt like it was our mission, that we were called to it. We’re putting that plan to work. We tell our players all the time, there’s nothing you can’t achieve here. It’s going to take a strong commitment for that to happen.”
A massive game with No. 4 Penn State waits on Saturday. After that, the Golden Gophers visit Iowa on Nov. 16, and host Wisconsin to close the regular season on Nov. 30. Minnesota hasn’t won in Iowa City since 1999, they haven’t beaten Wisconsin in back-to-back years since 1993-94, and they haven’t beaten Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season since 1990.
Minnesota has committed its money, and Fleck has committed his time. To turn the Gophers into a consistent winner like Wisconsin or Iowa, to become the burgundy-and-gold answer to Barry Alvarez and Hayden Fry, Fleck has to go out and beat Wisconsin and Iowa. That work starts now.