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Fleck to Gophers fans: We'll return to former glory

Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck Forum News Service file photo

MINNEAPOLIS—The first thing P.J. Fleck addressed in front of a crowd of Gophers fans at Owatonna Country Club this week was Minnesota's 5-7 record in 2017.

"Obviously not what we want, but I told you this was going to happen," he said.

That was a four-win decrease from the 2016 season, Tracy Claeys' last year on the job—a point of contention among some fans last season. Without saying it, Fleck addressed that, too.

"This was not an extension of something that was here prior to me," Fleck said. "The only extension I'm looking at is the '40s, '50s and '60s, those are the things that actually matter in terms of championship cultures."

It's been 51 years since the Gophers won a Big Ten football championship. The last half century has been a far cry from the powerhouse Minnesota was in the decades prior. Fleck is aiming to return the Gophers to their former glory.

"Now, when you haven't done that in 51 years, that's very difficult to do in the new era of college football," Fleck said. "Fifty years ago, we were the Alabama of football. We were that. Fifty years later, we are not that currently. That is what we are going to get back to.

"With our new facilities, $166-million facility, the Athlete's Village ... and all of your support, all of your help, we will get there. It was going to be a little while before that happens."

Fleck joked that last year fans told him they wanted to see a championship before they died, so he better hurry.

"You came back to me this year and said, 'Coach, I made it another year,' " Fleck said. "I said, 'Whatever you ate last year, just keep eating that. Just keep going, because it's keeping you alive, we're doing well.' "

He doesn't plan on the program's ascension being an overnight ordeal. He continues to call the 2017 season "Year Zero."

He compared his building of the Gophers football program to constructing a house. Year Zero was the dig. The next two years will be pouring the foundation. Year Three is when the framework goes up. Year Four is when the roofing and siding is put on. Year Five is "the little things" such as fixtures within the house—and the family moves in. Then subsequent years are just changing the paint colors and rearranging room layouts.

Six years is a long timeline for a fan base to stomach, so Fleck pointed to early signs of progress. After a decade littered with turnover, Fleck said he's bringing "cultural sustainability." He pointed to the Gophers' highly-touted 2018 recruiting class. He lauded the two IMG linemen the Gophers signed—6-foot-9, 400-pound tackle Daniel Faalele and 6-foot-5, 370-pound guard Curtis Dunlap Jr.

"We need to beef it up. We got some more beef, wouldn't you say?," Fleck asked fans. "We're getting what we need, but there's going to be some things we have to, along the way, be patient with."

Fleck said the Gophers might play up to 18 freshmen in 2018, but Dunlap Jr. is "probably going to redshirt" this fall.

"You're going to thank me in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 if we do this and not look at just, 'Hey, let's get some early success for long-term pain,' " Fleck said. "It's going to be opposite: short-term pain for long-term success. You'll thank me when you see this kid in a few years."

Fleck points to players such as Dunlap Jr. and receiver Rashod Bateman as high-profile recruits who picked the Gophers over other premier programs.

"(Bateman) picked this. He picked us. He picked a culture that was very, very unique. Maybe more unique than any culture in America," Fleck said. "Different? I know. But we are not going to be Minnesota, who sits in the corner anymore. What do I mean by that? Minnesota, sit in the corner when our big dogs come around, and you come out when we tell you to come out. That is not how this program and what I was hired to do is like. Now, I know that's different. I know it's uncommon. I know it makes you uncomfortable at times. Because it forces all of us to change."

Fleck spoke of the recent NFL draft, in which no Gophers were selected. He took fans through the numbers—no Minnesota offensive linemen have been drafted in 12 years. Only 11 Gophers have been drafted in the past 12 years.

"Most of the time, when people win championships (he then whispered 'Alabama'), they have 12 to 13 draft picks," Fleck said. "We didn't have any."

Fleck expects to change that.

"We are here to change all of your expectations and give you realistic expectations and make the expectation you have of winning a championship actually real," Fleck said as he started to raise his voice. "Actually real. And not just sell you something, actually real."

But, he again insisted that is a "journey" that is going to take some time.

"I understand everybody's excitement, I understand everybody's passion. But I promise you, with what's going on and how we're recruiting and what we're doing, we are rebuilding that brand of the University of Minnesota football to become that national brand," Fleck said. "Not just the brand that's good with just getting to a bowl game, not one that just wants to be 6-6. We're talking about a championship brand."

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