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Souhan: Gophers football is the best post-season team in town


Minnesota sports fans turned their Homer Hankies into crying towels again after the Wild and Wolves’ first-round playoff losses.

It’s a recent trend. The Minnesotans have complained about big game losses in the last 31 years alone.

They were doubly wrong.

While complaining about Minnesota sports teams in the 2000s, the Lynx won four WNBA titles in seven years and missed a fifth title by a rebound.

Over the past seven years, another team has proven it can win big post-season games: that bastion of sports dominance known as the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team. .

After decades of mediocrity and a seven-game losing streak from Glen Mason in 2005 to Jerry Kill in 2015, the Gophers have won five straight bowls.

Tracy Claeys has won her only two bowl matches as head coach. His teams beat Central Michigan 21-14 at the Quick Lane Bowl in December 2015 and Washington State 17-12 at the Holiday Bowl in December 2016.

Beating a Central Michigan team that finished 7-6 isn’t much of a feat, but the Gophers’ defensive performance against a talented Washington State team was masterful.

Current Gophers coach PJ Fleck is 3-0 in bowl games. His teams beat Georgia Tech 34-10 at the Quick Lane Bowl in December 2018, Auburn 31-24 at the Outback Bowl on January 1, 2020; and West Virginia 18-6 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl last December.

The Outback Bowl victory remains a highlight for Gophers football since Murray Warmath won the Rose Bowl in 1962.

The Gophers had won five bowl games prior to 2015. They have won five bowl games since.

Is this a sample size too small to be taken seriously? No, it’s football. The Super Bowl is a small standalone sample and that means everything in the NFL.

Winning bowl games reveals many positives about a program:

  • The possibility of going to the boules game.
  • The flexibility of coaching a team during a long break after a long regular season full of emotions.
  • Practice chops were expected to outplay an opponent when given enough time to think and plan. (That’s why NFL teams make so many coaching records after byes.)

Claeys was an excellent defensive coach who performed well on the pitch during his short stint after Kill.

Fleck is 35-23 in Minnesota, including 21-22 in the Big Ten.

A losing conference record? Isn’t that a bad sign?

Not in the context of recent Gopher history. Claeys was 6-8 in the Big Ten. Kill was 14-21. Tim Brewster was 6-21. Mason was 32-48 years old. Jim Wacker was 8-32.

You had the idea.

Fleck overstated the idea that he inherited a terrible team, as Claeys had just won a bowling match.

He was right to sell the idea that he was supporting a mediocre program. Mason won in Kansas and couldn’t win big in Minnesota. Kill was admired throughout the coaching profession but struggled to win in Minnesota. Brewster could spell one of Vince Lombardi’s names correctly.

Considering the Gophers’ recent history, going 21-22 in the Big Ten is impressive, and winning three straight bowl games is a stunning achievement.

I nitpicked at Fleck’s speaking style and blamed him for working so hard to disparage his predecessors, but, let’s be honest, few college football coaches are endearing.

College football coaches are hired to win games, sell tickets, and avoid (getting caught committing) recruiting violations. Winning bowling games is both rewarding for current program members and helpful in attracting new recruits.

Love it or mute it, Fleck gets the job done.

This season, Fleck’s program will feature one of the country’s best full-backs, Mohamed Ibrahim. If the coaching staff can get quarterback Tanner Morgan back to his 2019 form, the Gophers will play in another bowl, a Minnesotans will be justified in watching with an alien but gain optimism.

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