Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fleck embraces the challenge of playing in a city surrounded by pro teams

                                                            Photo Credit: Geno Green

CHICAGO— In the game of life, most are afraid to leave their comfort zones.

First-year Minnesota Golden Gophers coach P.J. Fleck went outside the box, going from a small school in Western Michigan, which is the only game in town in Kalamazoo, MI, to a vibrant, urban area in Minneapolis.

Few Power Five schools can boast about playing in a big city, where Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium sits right in the middle of a booming campus, where state of the art apartments and campus bars surround the facility.

Expectations are very lofty after Fleck inherited a nine-win team from last season, but with blue bloods Nebraska and Wisconsin standing in the way in the Big Ten west division, the Gophers have their work cut out as their season starts in earnest on Thursday against the Buffalo Bulls.

Despite being surrounded by professional sports teams from the NBA (Timberwolves), NFL (Vikings), NHL (Wild), MLB (Twins) and WNBA (Lynx) in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Fleck believes an opportunity can be created by flocking fans across the river to TCF Bank Stadium and sees the potential of the Gophers to become a consistent winner in the Big Ten Conference.

“That’s what people’s perception of the Twin Cities is and I don’t believe it. I believe that it is to our advantage,” Fleck said in July's Big Ten media days in Chicago.

“We are not here to compete against each other, but to be together. We are Minnesota. It is not the Minneapolis this and the St. Paul that, it is the Minnesota Wild, Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins and Lynx. We are all together with this and have to start looking at it that way. I am here to do whatever I can to connect all of our sports teams and make it a powerful force.”

Chicago native and senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson has embraced the atmosphere of Minnesota's campus over the years as one of the primary leaders. Richardson recorded 31 tackles (11 for loss) and seven sacks last season and credits the effort to an easy transition from one big city to another.

"I am from Chicago, so being in Minneapolis is a nicer version and can never complain about having a bad day given the atmosphere here," Richardson said.

In order to see the process play out, Minnesota needs better results in its rivalry games against Iowa and Wisconsin— where it is a combined 1-9 in the last five seasons. Fleck knows that getting over the hump will not be easy, but envisions the success aligning with other sports teams in the area.

“Can you imagine what the twin cities if all of the pro teams and the Gophers were contending for championships all at once?," Fleck said. "That is why our staff came here to Minnesota because of the surrounding teams in the area and to create something different. I love that our players can walk a half a mile across the river and go watch a pro game. If you are ever bored in our city, then there is a problem.”

The energy and enthusiasm of rowing the boat is in full effect in Minneapolis, but only time will tell to see if it can transfer to wins on the gridiron.

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Follow Geno Green on Twitter @TheGenoGreen.