CHICAGO — In 1938, Harold Stassen was elected governor of Minnesota when he was 31. He went on to run for president nine times, never to win the Republican Party’s nomination.
Minnesota Golden Gophers football has been the Harold Stassen of the Big Ten. It sends a team into the conference campaign every year, but never becomes champion and seldom is taken seriously as a contender.
It’s been 50 years since the Gophers got as much as a share of the Big Ten title, and they haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since the 1961 season.
While neighbors Wisconsin and Iowa have enjoyed what new Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck calls “cultural sustainability” over the years, the Gophers have been faces in the Big Ten crowd. They have gone to bowls the last five years, but who remembers them?
Enter Fleck, a 36-year-old human exclamation point. I slowed my tape recorder to 75 percent speed to transcribe the comments Fleck made Tuesday at the Big Ten’s media day. It still sounded like he was at 150 percent.
This is a man hired to make Gophers football important in the Twin Cities and Minnesota, a tall order over the decades.
“We love that challenge,” Fleck said. “We love that chaos. We love the dirty water, we call it.”
“For people who ask ‘Why did you take that job?’ that is why I took that job. It fits me. I’m the king of the ‘toos.’ Too small, too short, too inexperienced, too young, whatever.”
In his fourth game as Western Michigan’s head coach, in 2013, Fleck’s Broncos absorbed a 59-3 beating at Iowa. They went 1-11 that season.
But WMU began last season by winning at Northwestern. Two weeks later, it routed Illinois in Champaign, 34-10. Three months after that, the Broncos took a 13-0 record to the Cotton Bowl. They didn’t back down in a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin.
Fleck waved off an overture from Purdue, which had a coaching vacancy. But when Minnesota fired Tracy Claeys in early January, Fleck left Kalamazoo for the big city and big conference.
“I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program,” Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle said.
Minnesota averaged a paltry 43,814 fans per home game in 2016, and that included a visit by Iowa. So, “Row the Boat.”
It seems you can’t discuss Fleck without saying “Row the Boat.” Which, he has said, means “what you bring to life. You choose whether your oar is in the water or out of the water. If your oar is out of the water, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
The slogan is now being used by Minnesota. For some reason, the mantra sticks with people.
“I think every head football coach in America is self-promoting at some point,” Fleck said. “We’re all selling ourselves and showing what we’re like and recruiting our cultures and developing our cultures.
“You’re not the most important thing on campus, but you’re the front porch of nationally what everybody sees.”
On Aug. 2, ESPNU will air the first of four episodes of “Being P.J. Fleck.” It’s a follow-up to the network’s “Being Bret Bielema” of a year ago.
If you wonder why Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz would never do a “Being Kirk Ferentz,” well, no, you’re not really wondering.
“First of all, they approached us,” Fleck said. “This wasn’t something that we said ‘We’re going to have a reality show; let’s go find somebody to air it.’
“One thing I am hired to do is bring national exposure, national attention to the University of Minnesota. And that’s what we’re going to do.
“I don’t know if this is going to be like the Kardashians and they’re going to spin it that way, or it’s going to be a little bit tamer.”
Hey, Fleck is fighting more than Minnesota’s conference brethren. He’s trying to overcome a half-century of irrelevancy in an NFL market.
Being a dynamo probably is a good start. But ultimately, it will take a coach with both oars in the water.