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Brian Murphy: P.J. Fleck's tone-deafness is ear-splitting

Macro level, Fleck’s seventh season with the oars was a disaster.

A time-tested way to punch up a low-level college bowl game is leveraging outsized coaching egos and grievances.

Beaten down fan bases and desperate television producers love grudge matches. They’re conveniently packaged and easily sold to football junkies who need something to watch trimming the tree or avoiding snow blowing.

Gophers fans would be blessed with Jerry Kill vs. P.J. Fleck II in the Martyr Bowl or whatever they’re playing Dec. 16 in Albuquerque, according to the initial postseason predictions by recruiting site 247Sports.

Might as well have both head coaches grilled about their flaccid feud while mutually playing the disrespect card to distract from the dry rot spreading in the Gophers football program.

Kill can cluck all he wants about leading his New Mexico State Aggies to a 10-3 record, including a 21-point takedown of Auburn, while bemoaning how good buddy Tracy Claeys was dissed in Minnesota in favor of a self-absorbed huckster.

Jerry’s old news.

These days, Fleck is airing his own grievances in Dinkytown in a ham-fisted sleight of hand to avoid accountability for the regression of a program he supposedly was rowing upstream.

New Year’s Day victories, top-25 rankings and Big Ten upsets will make oily sloganeering shine. But it is much harder to tackle the straw men Fleck is hiding behind to rationalize Minnesota’s bottoming out in a lame-duck West Division that was theirs for the taking – again.


Fleck's 2023 Gophers are going bowling despite finishing the regular season 5-7. 

Fleck has thinner skin than an onion when it comes to justified scrutiny of a team that was outscored 141-73 in losing four November games to tumble to 5-7.

But for a walk-off field goal by Hawaii to beat Colorado State in the wee hours Sunday and the Gophers season of discontent would be finished after Wisconsin skulked out of Huntington Bank Stadium with a 28-14 victory and Paul Bunyon’s Axe.

Losing records and bowl berths smack of participation trophies, but give Minnesota’s players credit and then some for fulfilling their academic duties to earn the invitation. The Gophers ranked eighth in the nation among 133 Division I football teams in academic progress rates.

Good for the fellas to have one more road trip and ballgame to forge feel-good memories, especially the seniors who will never suit up again.

Make Fleck work to avoid the program’s first five-game losing streak since Tim Brewster was hawking maroon-and-gold used cars in 2008.

Macro level, Fleck’s seventh season with the oars was a disaster.

Ugly losses to Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State and the Badgers laid bare the widening disparities between Minnesota and their now-former West rivals Iowa, Wisconsin and even Northwestern, which defeated the Gophers in September.

Fleck has a hand-picked sophomore quarterback, Athan Kaliakmanis, he can’t trust, a vanilla offense he won’t trust and a porous defense that couldn’t tackle a stuffed panda.

No question the transfer portal and the Name, Image and Likeness ATM have empowered athletes and made it much more difficult for middling programs like Minnesota to win recruiting bidding wars and maintain four-year rosters.

College free agency is here to stay. No use whining about it. Not when you’re pulling down $2 million per Big Ten victory like Fleck, who has grown more petulant as the losses have piled up.

His postgame news conference after Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin was a master class in gaslighting fans who have gnashed their teeth to the roots over his unwillingness to go for it on fourth down in opposing territory and passive-aggressive bullying of anyone who dares question him about it.

“I named it the readjustment year,” was how Fleck summarized the 2023 season. “There are a lot of things to adjust moving forward. A lot of things to evaluate. But there are a lot of things outside our control.”

Such as?

Fleck read a laundry list of defensive injuries and huffed, “nobody cares about that.”

Go on, coach.

“At one point there were five freshmen, six freshmen on that defense on the field at one time today. That’s not where you want to be.”

As if Minnesota was the only team in the country dealing with injuries.

“There’s a lot of reasons for that,” Fleck droned on. “And none of you really care about those reasons. So I’m not going to talk about them.”

His tone-deafness was ear-splitting.

It’s a wonder anyone’s still listening.