P.J. Fleck hopes 'everybody is celebrating' Gophers historic 11-win season

Head coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Gophers looks on before the game against the Maryland Terrapins at TCF Bank Stadium on October 26, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images))

If it’s not broken, why fix it? That’s the prevailing message from Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., who met Twin Cities media for the first time on Thursday.

Fleck spoke for the first time publicly since the Gophers capped a historic season with a 31-24 win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The Gophers finished 11-2, the first time Minnesota has won 11 games in a season in 115 years. It was the first time Minnesota has ever won seven Big Ten games in a season.

Fleck is ahead of his own vision as his third year with the Gophers comes to a close. He said it’s just like any other season at the end, calling it “exhilaratingly exhausting.”

“There’s over 100 things this team accomplished that has never been done here. This program has been around 137 years, that needs to be celebrated. I hope everybody else is celebrating it, my job is to keep working so it doesn’t change,” Fleck said. “That we keep that sustainability over a long period of time.”

One thing that did have to change was the offensive coordinator. Fleck promoted wide receivers coach Matt Simon to call the plays in the Outback Bowl after Kirk Ciarrocca left to take the same job at Penn State, and it apparently worked. The Gophers piled up 494 yards of total offense, including a bowl record 12 catches, 204 yards and two touchdowns from Tyler Johnson in his final game with Minnesota.

The Gophers also ran for 215 yards against an Auburn defense ranked in the top-20 nationally. It led to some thought that Simon might be named permanent offensive coordinator, much like Joe Rossi was with the defense last year after Robb Smith’s firing. But Fleck opted to hire Mike Sanford Jr. from Utah State.

Sanford will call plays and coach the quarterbacks next season.

“I think change is really healthy and I think what we showed in the bowl game is no one person is bigger than the team. It doesn’t matter, the culture is the culture. We all work for the culture,” Fleck said. “I love the coordinator being in charge of the QBs, and Mike Sanford brings a wealth of knowledge. You see to whole resume and you can’t wait to work with somebody like that.”

Sanford has already been in contact with all the Gophers quarterbacks and many of next year’s returning starters. There won’t be an overhaul of the offense, and why should there be? They’ll return eight starters from an offense that scored 443 points, the second-most in school history, and averaged 34.1 points per game.

“They just won 11 games in a very daunting schedule and finished the season off against one of the best defenses in college football. To come in and try to make them learn a bunch of new things would make absolutely no sense,” Sanford said. “But for us to find what’s been done and grow it, that makes a whole lot of sense in my opinion.”

Sanford has a lengthy coaching record, including being the head coach at Western Kentucky. He was most recently the offensive coordinator at Utah State, and was also an offensive assistant at Notre Dame and Stanford. Sanford’s Utah State offense this past season scored more than 30 points per game and averaged more than 400 yards per game in total offense.

He said Thursday even though he’ll be calling plays and coaching quarterbacks, he and Simon will work together in every way possible.

“There is no ego, we’re going to work together in every step along the way. It’s going to always be in the best interest of the players,” Sanford said. "I’m really excited to work with coach Simon. He and I are developing a great relationship. The whole staff is developing a strong kinship with one another."

Other notes

  • P.J. Fleck said Thursday quarterback Zack Annexstad is progressing well from having foot surgery during fall camp. He’s already back throwing the football, and is about a week away from being 100 percent healthy. Fleck didn’t rule out that Annexstad will compete for the starting job next season, despite a historic 2019 season from Tanner Morgan that featured 3,253 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
  • Fleck will have to replace star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. next season. The unanimous All-American declared for the NFL Draft on Wednesday. He led the Gophers with 88 tackles, seven interceptions and was a First Team All-Big Ten pick. Fleck said it’s a good thing for the program. “Any time players are leaving early, your program, I think that’s a benefit. That shows the development and the rapid development that you can have within your program. We’re going to have to get used to this with a lot of the players that we have.”
  • The Gophers hope to have a new defensive line coach as soon as the conclusion of the College Football Coaches Convention. P.J. Fleck has to replace Jim Panagos, who took the same position at Rutgers to be closer to his family.
  • PJ Fleck sent a text message to Kyle Rudolph after the Vikings kept their season alive with a 26-20 overtime win at New Orleans last Sunday. Rudolph made the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime, and Fleck took a screen shot of it while watching at his home. Fleck saw the formation and knew the ball was heading Rudolph’s way. Fleck said he sent the screen shot of the play to Rudolph with the message, “Called it.” “What a way to win that football game. I’m just so proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish. What the Vikings have done this year with what the Gophers football team has done, it’s just such a wonderful time to be a Minnesota football fan in general.”