Wisconsin has beaten Minnesota 13 straight times in football, and the Badgers earned another victory of sorts when the first episode of ‘Being P.J. Fleck’ aired on ESPNU this week.
The show chronicles the life of new Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, and part of the first episode focused on his aspirations as a kid growing up in Sugar Grove, Ill. Those early life dreams included wanting to play basketball for the Badgers.
The episode even included a picture of a young Fleck decked out in a red Wisconsin shirt with the old Bucky Badger logo on the front.
New Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck decked out in a Wisconsin shirt during his younger days. (Buckyville via ESPNU)
There was a noticeable absence of buzz around Big Ten media days this week in Chicago. Whether it was due to the conference’s top players not being there, the lack of memorable one-liners or just media day fatigue on the part of the national media, the loud noises that came from SEC and ACC media days earlier this month were generally nowhere to be found.
And that extended to what had become a staple at the event in recent years — Minnesota players promising that they’d be parading around with Paul Bunyan’s Axe after beating Wisconsin that fall. It hasn’t happened, of course, as the Badgers have won 13 straight times, but the passion of the players each year always provided a guaranteed headline that would stoke the fires of the most-played rivalry in college football.
On Tuesday, though, there were no dramatic statements from the Gophers contingent when they spoke with reporters inside a ballroom at McCormick Place in downtown Chicago. They sidestepped nearly every question about rivalry games, including this year’s matchup with the Badgers on the final day of the regular season.
LISTEN: Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck says he took the Gophers job to win a Big Ten title
“Wisconsin is something we are not focused on right now,” defensive lineman Steven Richardson said. “We’ll focus on that down the line. We’re just as hungry for that as we are for the first game [against Buffalo].”
Running back Rodney Smith came the closest to admitting the importance of games like Wisconsin and Iowa, but the senior caught himself and laid out qualifiers while answering the question.
“Every game is a big game, but that’s definitely one the state expects us to win,” Smith said. “[We’ll] take it each game at a time, but that game specifically, we’re all looking forward to it.”
Those responses are a far cry from 2014 when defensive back Cedric Thompson talked openly about how badly he wanted the Axe back in the Twin Cities, and running back David Cobb spoke confidently about chopping down the Badgers goal posts when — not if — they won their end of the season matchup.
LISTEN: P.J. Fleck doesn’t deny being a self promoter, says every coach is.
But this is a different Minnesota outfit, and the outside message has changed. Though new coach P.J. Fleck is definitely an energetic, fast talker that feels like he’s always trying to sell you something, the former Western Michigan head man has clearly made it a priority to have his guys think about the process and not what will happen four months from now.
“I’ve never talked about winning. I’ve never talked about the number of wins. We’ve talked about building our culture the way that we build it,” Fleck said on Tuesday. “Same thing when we went from 1-11 [at Western Michigan] to 13-1. We didn’t talk about winning. We talked about every day, winning the day. Being better than we were yesterday.”
It seemed clear that the players brought to Chicago had adopted a similar mindset or had at least been coached well enough to stay on message. Any attempt to get them to open up on their desire about finally beating Wisconsin and getting the Axe back was met with answers that sounded like they came out of a textbook full of cliches.
“No,” linebacker Jonathan Celestin said when asked if they talked about the Badgers at all. “Right now we’re just focused on getting better day-by-day, trying to make sure we’re ready when camp comes, then ready for Buffalo and taking it one week at a time.”
Fleck reportedly met with Minnesota’s Athletic Director Mark Coyle and school president Eric Kaler on Wednesday afternoon in Chicago.
The hiring process comes just days after Minnesota football coach Tracy Claeys was fired, despite posting a 13-7 record in his year-plus leading the program. He finished the 2016 campaign with a 9-4 record and a Holiday Bowl win over Washington State.
Because of contract details, Minnesota would have to pay Fleck somewhere in the range of $21 million over six years for an average salary of $3.5 million. Claeys was making $1.5 million annually.
Fleck led the Broncos to a 13-1 record and a Cotton Bowl appearance where they fell to Wisconsin 24-16.