MINNEAPOLIS — Lou Holtz is the best University of Minnesota football coach since the end of World War II. That statement might shock more than a few Golden Gophers historians who will object and argue such praise belongs to Bernie Bierman or Murray Warmath.
Nope. Give me Holtz, who was dubbed the “Music Man” for his clever and persuasive ways. He coached the Gophers for just two seasons, in 1984 and 1985. That was long enough to see his magic — and I mean that literally. He was an amateur magician who occasionally performed tricks on TV including on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. To this day I am convinced that had he stayed at Minnesota, his coaching “bag of tricks” would have turned the Gophers into a Big Ten power and perhaps national champions.
The CEO of CEOs in the coaching world, Holtz took a mostly deplorable Minnesota roster that was a combined 1-17 in Big Ten games the two seasons before his arrival and turned those players, along with newcomers, into a sound football team. In Holtz’s second year the Gophers came within seven points of upsetting No. 3 ranked Oklahoma and five points of upending No. 9 Ohio State on their way to a 4-4 conference record, an overall record of 7-5 and the program’s first bowl game since 1977.
Bierman won five national titles at Minnesota but they all came before World War II. The Grey Eagle grew older and he wasn’t the same coach after the big war that changed the world. Warmath won Minnesota’s last national title in 1960 and took the Gophers to two Rose Bowls.
Holtz was so popular that in less than two years the Vikings were paranoid about losing their place as the No. 1 football attraction in the state. Vikings general manager Mike Lynn brought coach Bud Grant out of retirement to counter the Holtz mania that had resulted in crowds of more than 60,000 at the Metrodome and a huge jump in season-ticket sales.
But in late 1985 Holtz, a devout Catholic, told us of an enduring childhood memory about how he skipped off to grade school many mornings singing or humming the Notre Dame fight song. Holtz reportedly had a clause in his Minnesota contract that said if the Fighting Irish ever had a coaching opening he could skip off to Notre Dame. And away he went, taking with him a bunch of high school recruits who planned to be Gophers to the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame where a few years later the Irish, not the Gophers, would be national champions.
Having been burned by Holtz, older Gophers fans have been biting their collective nails these days about 38-year-old P.J. Fleck moving on. The university announced Tuesday afternoon Fleck has signed a new contract that will take him through 2026. The seven-year extension must be approved by the U Board of Regents but that is likely to be a formality.
What Fleck has done at Minnesota is impressive. Dating back to last season, Fleck’s Gophers have won 11 of their last 12 games, including returning Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Dinkytown after a 15-year absence. No. 13 Minnesota is 8-0 for the first time since 1941 and will play a much-anticipated game on Saturday at home against No. 5 Penn State. The last time Minnesota was ranked in the top 25 and played another ranked team was in October of 2004 when the 13th-ranked Gophers lost to No. 14 Michigan.
I might have been the first to inquire about Fleck’s commitment to Minnesota when I brought the subject up last summer during a brief one-on-one interview. Fleck said that when he was considering leaving Western Michigan to come here with his wife, Heather, and young children, she emphasized the next career stop needed to be a long-term commitment. “She looked at me and says, 'Listen, when we move there (the next job), we’re going to live there. We’re going to live there a long time…build a lot of roots.’"
The new deal of seven years for $33 million ($4.5. million for 2020 reaching $4.9 million by 2026) will certainly pay him much more than his current $3.6 million per season, a mediocre amount compared to his Big Ten peers.
There perhaps are a few scenarios including new school president Joan Gabel approving a loan from central administration that would pay for other department costs and free up money for Fleck. Outside money sources could be another alternative. A person with money and connections told me a few weeks ago he believes if the circumstances are right, funding can come from individuals or private businesses. Coyle might also project new monies from ticket sales, sponsorships and other revenue streams that will increase enough with football’s new popularity to justify big money for Fleck.
Let’s be more positive and balanced about a school that in the last several years has increased its commitment to football with new facilities including a stadium, and a practice and training palace. The Gophers are also the only Division I football school in the state and there is high potential to make the Gophers a big deal here with the public like long ago.
With decades of experience as a sports reporter and columnist covering professional and college sports, Twin Cities-based sports columnist David Shama not only shares his perspectives, but he also quotes many of Minnesota’s biggest newsmakers among players, coaches and owners.