On December 14, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents approved a one-year contract extension for head football coach P.J. Fleck.
There is a rumor that Fleck was standing outside the door as the regents arrived, allowing each of them to take a “selfie” with Paul Bunyan’s Axe (the legendary traveling trophy) wrested from our arch-rivals in Wisconsin not three weeks earlier.
I kid, of course, but a win over the Badgers couldn’t have come at a better time for Fleck. Conventional wisdom says he may have received the extension anyway, but to disgruntled Gopher fans (and those who remain skeptical of Fleck’s non-stop sales pitch) the win made the move much more palatable for everyone.
Fleck’s original contract for five years at $18 million was already extended for a year, with a $50,000 raise to boot, following his 5-7 debut season with the Gophers. Sources say Fleck’s most recent extension included a similar raise following a 6-6 second year, which wrapped after the signing with a 34-10 trouncing of favored Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
If you’re wondering why a coach whose teams have struggled to reach .500 and can claim only an appearance in a less-than desirable bowl game deserves a contract extension... I’ll give you two reasons.
First, the U is paying as much for potential as they are for past performance. Fleck’s reputation is that of a first-rate recruiter and motivator who can also coach. With two solid recruiting classes under his belt and his most promising class coming in, the Gopher football program appears to be heading in the right direction.
Secondly, that’s just how the game is now played. At the college level rosters are constantly turning over and recruiting is everything, which makes the appearance of stability extremely important.
If you think Fleck (who also received a $75,000 bonus just for getting the Gophers into that second-rate bowl game) is overpaid now, just wait to see what happens if and when he wins a bowl game that people have actually heard of... in a location that fans would actually like to visit.
Now, the REAL angle on today's Riff: Contrast Fleck’s situation with that of Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman.
On Thursday at his year-end news conference, Zimmer told the media he’s “got no problem” working without an extension, and that’s good.... because he doesn’t deserve one.
Zim received a three-year contract extension from the Vikings just prior to training camp in July of 2016. Several sources say Spielman is also heading into the final year of his deal.
After the disappointing conclusion to the 2018-19 season, Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf gave the duo the always-dreaded “vote of confidence” in telling Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network that both Zimmer and Spielman will be back in 2019.
I’m OK with the two getting another year, but to me, that’s exactly as much as the Vikings ownership owes their head coach and GM right now.
Unlike Fleck, Zimmer and Spielman don’t have to recruit players the way a college coach does, and stability (while desired) is hardly required. When it comes to free agency in the NFL it always comes down to dollars and opportunity, with dollars FAR outweighing opportunity.
Much was made this season about how the Vikings signed free agent defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to a one-year 'prove it' contract, with a multi-year contract hanging on how he performed.
If that kind of a deal is OK for the players, why would it be any less so for the head coach and GM?
In five seasons with the Vikings, Zimmer has compiled a respectable 47-32-1 record. But with a 1-2 playoff record and with the frustrating, sub-par season the team just completed, Zimmer very much needs to have a bounce-back season in 2019.
Zimmer capped his year-end newser by saying he had to restore the ‘nasty' his team played with in 2017, especially on offense... where he says the Vikings need to “do a better job of creating the mind-set that we have on defense.”
As I recall, it was Zim’s 'nasty bunch’ on defense that had the ball shoved down their collective throats on the game’s opening drive (when the Bears ran on 8 of 9 plays) on a 71-yard drive that clocked almost four minutes, as the Bears made themselves at home, 7-0.
Then, after the Vikes had closed to 13-10 late in the 3rd quarter, it was Zimmer’s defense that was thoroughly manhandled by the Bears on a 75-yard drive that lasted 16 plays and consumed over nine minutes of clock.
As culpable in this mess is Spielman. While many fans have already given up on QB Kirk Cousins, the reality is the Vikings have him for two more seasons, and they have to find a way to make it work. To spend that much money on a quarterback, give him a first-year offensive coordinator and a sub-par offensive line, and then do nothing throughout the season to improve that line is a major fail that lies squarely with Spielman.
Let's be clear: When it comes to the Vikings, I still believe this team. While obviously flawed, the purple still has a lot to work with. The question is, are Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman the guys you still want running the show?
My answer is yes... for now, anyway. Zimmer and Spielman have exactly one year to prove their worth, or it’s time to move on and start over.
Who knows... maybe P.J. Fleck will be ready for a new challenge by then. I’m sure the patient football fans in this town would LOVE that!