Rowing the Boat: Building a Successful Program

This started as not a great week for Minnesota Gopher football fans.   But it ended on a high note with the signing of the hottest name in coaching, PJ Fleck.  Coach Fleck comes to Minneapolis fresh off a nearly undefeated season at Western Michigan spoiled only by Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.  He says #RowTheBoat a lot.

I graduated from The U (Minnesota) but grew up in the crucible of Badgers sports in Madison so I rooted for UW even while technically a Gopher.  Yes I got a lot of grief, but UW generally was more successful in the 2 sports I cared about (men’s basketball and football) so I didn’t care.  And FWIW, I absolutely deserved even more venom than I received in my time there.  I agree you should root for your alma mater, but I couldn’t get the UW fandom out of my system despite little to no effort.  So I completely understood and agreed with the accusations of treason.

Anyways, the Gophers fired head coach Tracy Claeys following the most successful season for the program since 2003.  The Gophers won 9 games and the Holiday Bowl but his (mis)handling of the sexual assault accusations against numerous Gopher players.

Wisconsin has been a model of stability going bowling 19/20 years including an even .500 record in 6 Rose Bowl appearances.  Minnesota, hasn’t been able to match its rival.  So why the difference?  Here is my guess as to factors contributing to program success.

(1) Success Begets Success

The progressive political group EMILY’s List takes the name EMILY as an acronym meaning “Early Money Is Like Yeast: it raises the dough.”  For its purposes, helping fund candidates early in a cycle helps them build a foundation for strong fundraising throughout.  For our purposes, winning is the currency that matters.  Successful programs get more exposure, which attracts better recruits, which generates more revenue for the program, which upgrade the facilities, which attract better recruits, which leads to more talented teams, which leads to more winning, and more exposure, and revenue, and recruits, and on the cycle goes.  See Coach Mufasa’s explanation.  Barry Alvarez’s first full recruiting class won the 1994 Rose Bowl.  Since the 1994 Rose Bowl game, Wisconsin has failed to be bowl eligible just twice.  Minnesota has failed to be bowl eligible 3 times since 2007.  The Gophers finished under .500 in 2015 but thanks to the surfeit of bowl games and dearth of eligible teams, The U still went bowling thanks to some NCAA academic metric.  To their credit, The U won the Quick Lane Bowl thank you very much.

(2) College Town

Madison has state government but it is a college town to its core.  Metro population now around 640K and a wide open campus that covers a fair amount of ground on the near west side of the city.   The campus itself is urban but still it’s very clear when you’re on campus and when you’re not.  Of note, other than the Madison Radicals, there aren’t a lot of other options in town.  You’re watching the Badgers or you’re not a sports fan.  Wisconsin football dominates the city on Saturday.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul is a major American city with a metro population of 3.8M.  The capital is in St. Paul.  The campus is urban and in pieces with the Mississippi river splitting the Minneapolis campus and the more rural campus location in Saint Paul.  There will be 6 professional sports teams in the metro area once Minnesota United joins MLS this year.

Why does this matter? Because if you’re a D1 football player all you do is football.  You have classes too I suppose, but your focus is 100% football with precious little time for academics around practice, conditioning, weights, film session, travel, games, etc.  Exploring local art museums or nature areas may be fun but just aren’t feasibly part of the regular equation.  So having a fun campus environment is important.  That’s easier to obtain at Madison where the campus envelops a sizable portion of the city and you really don’t ever need to leave campus so long as you don’t mind overpaying for produce at Cap Center Foods.  The Twin Cities metro is a great place.  Especially if you want to work for The U, or 3M, or General Mills, or Target or any of their suppliers.  But the Twin Cities can’t match the college town vibe of Madison because the Twin Cities are far too interesting and busy.

Rankings of Top College Towns

Business Insider: Madison #25 (out of 50)…Minneapolis unranked

Best College Reviews: Madison #3 (out of 50)…Minneapolis #25

Wallethub:  Madison #7 among midsize cities…Minneapolis #6 among large cities

Collegeranker: Madison #16 (out of 50)…Minneapolis unranked

Niche: Madison #25 (out of 94)…Minneapolis unranked

Fansided: Madison #19

USNews: Madison (listed in Top Ten)

PureWow: Madison

(3) Facilities

Good on campus stadium and training facilities are signals of program strength and help attract recruits.

Wisconsin plays at Camp Randall stadium, capacity of 80,000+.  The most recent renovations were in 2005 and the UW is pretty proud of itself:

The 2005 Camp Randall Stadium Renovation assures Badger fans and Athletic Department personnel will be able to compete well into the 21st century. There is not one student-athlete or athletic department staff member whose life has not been improved by the renovation.

Minnesota finally got an on-campus stadium after years of debate, opening in 2009.  The stadium has a capacity of 50,000 with room to grow to 80,000.  This is a major get for The U.  For years the Gophers played at the Metrodome that was objectively one of the worst stadiums in all of sports.

Wisconsin has a new sponsorship contract with Under Armour.

UW will get $96 million in apparel, equipment and money over 10 years. Athletics officials say around $4 million every year will be in cash and much of that will go to support athletes, like the student athlete development program….the extra money will help pay for other new athlete support efforts that have started since the NCAA changed its rules. UW offers a monthly stipend to help students pay for college expenses. Athletics also provides 850 athletes with a free breakfast every day, which costs about $2 million.

Minnesota has a sponsorship deal with Nike that is slightly less lucrative per year than the UW contract with Under Armour.

UW’s sponsorship contract is worth an extra $1.8M per year which probably says something about the brand value of the schools.

(4) Clean Program

Neither school is rife with problems.  But UW but Minnesota has to be envious of the consistency from Wisconsin.  The Badgers have had 4 head coaches since 1990.

  • Barry Alvarez (current AD)
  • Brett Bilema (Alvarez’ hand-picked successor, bolted for Arkansas after 3rd consecutive B1G Title)
  • Gary Andersen (misfire by Alvarez. Andersen had 2 unremarkable seasons in Madison before leaving for Oregon St)
  • Paul Chryst (deep roots in Madison on both professional and personal level. Chryst will be head coach as long as he wants)

Minnesota now has had 8 different head coaches since 1990.  Glen Mason was coach for 10 years and easily the most successful with a .529 winning percentage all time.  But Gopher fans and alums got impatient with 7-5 seasons and fired him.  Tim Brewster went 15-30 in 3+ seasons before being fired.  Jerry Kill was an even .500 during his 4+ seasons but had to resign for health reasons unfortunately.

Recruiting suffers the most with a revolving door among coaches.  Guys want to feel confident the salesman will be there for 4 years.  In addition, most schools have the country split geographically with different coaches handling different regions.  And of course, the position  coach helps close all sales for a particular recruit.  But when the head coach goes, the rest of the staff is usually gone as well and it’s a complete rebuild and rebrand on the recruiting front.


Minnesota has had its share of serious scandals within its athletic department.  An academic scandal under former basketball coach Clem Haskins landed the Gophers on 4-years of NCAA probation and vacated wins including the 1997 Final Four run.

More recently, Minnesota had to fire its AD after serious allegations of sexual misconduct.

This season was the sexual assault investigation that contributed to Claey’s firing.


Wisconsin lost some scholarships but preserved its records and postseason eligibility for improper shoe benefits to some UW athletes.

Basketball coach Bo Ryan “resigned” on his own after word of his extramarital affairs came to light.  So far there have been no NCAA repercussions.

(5) NFL Exposure

This one isn’t complicated.  Recruits are more likely to attend a school that gives them the better opportunity to get a professional career.  At present, its not much of a contest between Wisconsin and Minnesota in terms of producing NFL talent.  There are 10 Gophers active in the NFL and Eric Decker of the New York Jets is the best of the bunch.  There are 23 Badgers active in the NFL including Joe Thomas (the best OL in the NFL mired in Cleveland), Melvin Gordon (broken out in year 2 for San Diego at RB), Russell Wilson (Super Bowl winner), JJ Watt (best DL in the NFL), Travis Frederick (All Pro C for Dallas).  There are 7 Wisconsin OL starting in the NFL.


Probably doesn’t help the Minnesota cause to close the gap against Wisconsin that the Badgers have won Paul Bunyan’s axe every year since 2004.  At some point that streak will end, but the recent history of the rivalry has not been kind to Minnesota.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of Wisconsin and Minnesota W/L records from 1990-2016.  I used 1990 because that’s when Barry Alvarez took over at Wisconsin.  It was his first full recruiting class that went on to win the Rose Bowl in 1994.

2016: UW (11-3) Cotton Bowl W                   MN (9-4) Holiday Bowl W

2015: UW (10-3) Holiday Bowl W                  MN (6-7) Quick Lane Bowl W

2014: UW (11-3) Outback Bowl W                MN (8-5) Citrus Bowl L

2013: UW (9-4) Capital One Bowl L               MN (8-5) Texas Bowl L

2012: UW (8-6) Rose Bowl L                          MN (6-7) Meineke Car Care Bowl L

2011: UW (11-3) Rose Bowl L                                    MN (3-9)

2010: UW (11-2) Rose Bowl L                                    MN (3-9)

2009: UW (10-3) Champs Sports Bowl W     MN (6-7) Insight Bowl L

2008: UW (7-6) Champs Sports Bowl L         MN (7-6) Insight Bowl L

2007: UW (9-4) Outback Bowl L                    MN (1-11)

2006: UW (12-1) Capital One Bowl W           MN (6-7) Insight Bowl L

2005: UW (10-3) Capital One Bowl W           MN (7-5) Music City Bowl L

2004: UW (9-3) Outback Bowl L                    MN (7-5) Music City Bowl W

2003: UW (7-6) Music City Bowl L                 MN (10-3) Sun Bowl W

2002: UW (8-6) Alamo Bowl W                     MN (8-5) Music City Bowl W

2001: UW (5-7)                                               MN (4-7)

2000: UW (9-4) Sun Bowl W                     MN (6-6) Micron PC Bowl L

1999: UW (10-2) Rose Bowl W                  MN (8-4) Sun Bowl L

1998: UW (11-1) Rose Bowl W                    MN (5-6)

1997: UW (8-5) Outback Bowl L               MN (3-9)

1996: UW (8-5) Copper Bowl W                MN (4-7)

1995: UW (4-5-2)                                           MN (3-8)

1994: UW (7-4-1) Hall of Fame W           MN (3-8)

1993: UW (10-1) Rose Bowl W                  MN (4-7)

1992: (5-6)                                                     MN (2-9)

1991: (5-6)                                                     MN (2-9)

1990: UW (1-10)                                            MN (6-5)


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