It’s hard to blame any fan of the University of Minnesota football program for being more than a bit skeptical when P.J. Fleck rolled into town as the new head coach in January 2017.
The Gophers were coming off a 9-4 record, including a Holiday Bowl win over Washington State, but Tracy Claeys was quickly fired in the midst of a sexual assault scandal involving several players, which led to a team boycott.
In comes Fleck, a fiery guy small in stature and big on motivational phrases.
His introductory press conference included phrases such as “I eat difficult conversations for breakfast.” And what’s this “Row he Boat” thing, anyway?
Fleck brought his enthusiasm and philosophies on coaching, recruiting and life to the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s annual convention Friday, Jan. 31, at the Minneapolis Mariott Northwest.
He was the keynote speaker at the luncheon and simply owned the room, speaking passionately for 60 minutes about why he is who he is and what he expects from his football program.
The “Is this guy for real?” attitude from Gophers fans was both predictable and prevalent thanks mostly to a history littered with failure.
This is a fan base forced to endure motivational-spewing coaches such as Jim Wacker, Lou Holtz and Tim Brewster.
Holtz actually had substance and coaching prowess behind his words, essential traits Wacker and Brewster woefully lacked.
Three years later, it appears there is ample substance behind Fleck’s catch phrases and seemingly endless energy. While his antics may still rub some people wrong – which he fully admits – it’s hard to argue his results.
Three seasons into his tenure at Minnesota, Fleck is 23-15. Not overwhelming as a whole, but it can certainly be considered progress based on the past 50-plus years.
That record includes a 5-7 mark in his first season, which Fleck called “Year Zero.”
Though the concept behind that phrase is valid as Fleck spent a great deal of time and energy implementing his philosophies while cleaning up issues left behind by the previous regime, the record still counts.
“Year one, we were bad,” Fleck said. “We made a lot of bad choices on our football team. We had players turning us in left and right to the NCAA saying, ‘No, no, Coach – you can’t have this meeting because that’s past 20 hours.’ (I told them) that’s 20 hours of football. This is stuff that’s going to make you a better person. This is a finance class you’re taking inside our program so if you get millions of dollars one day, you’re not part of the 77% who are bankrupt after year three of leaving the NFL.
“They wanted to fight all that. They didn’t understand it. It was a bad year. Nobody led.”
The 2018 season looked to be on the brink of a disaster. Minnesota was 3-5 (1-4 in the Big Ten) entering a game at Illinois, hardly a powerhouse program.
The 55-31 loss led to Fleck changing defensive coordinators, a move that usually doesn’t reap immediate dividends. This one did, and it came just in time. Fleck recalls telling his wife, Heather, after the Illinois debacle they might want to think about packing their bags. Diehard fans were not happy, casual fans were losing interest and attendance numbers at TCF Bank Stadium were unimpressive.
Joe Rossi took over the defense and the Gophers won three of their last four, including a 37-15 victory at Wisconsin that put Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Minnesota’s possession for the first time since 2003.The season finished with a 34-10 drubbing of Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl for a 7-6 record.
“Year two, the coaches had to lead until our young team grew up and then won a bunch of games and everybody loved us again,” Fleck said. “The players were somewhat leading, but it was still mostly the coaches.”
The Gophers’ 2019 season was a strange one for anyone who has closely followed the program.
When the schedule was released, there were broadcasters and writers who said this team could be 8-0 by the time they play Penn State.
While the schedule the first eight games was hardly considered difficult, Minnesota still had to win games they were supposed to win – not exactly a strength of past teams.
The Gophers did exactly that, setting up the biggest game the program has faced in decades against undefeated Penn State.
A national television audience watched Minnesota’s stars — quarterback Tanner Morgan, receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashad Bateman, and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. — make just enough plays to secure a 31-26 victory.
The win and 9-0 start had fans talking Rose Bowl and a potential conference title, accomplishments difficult for a long-suffering fan base to wrap their heads around. Losses at Iowa and at home to Wisconsin squashed those dreams, but didn’t deter Fleck.
The Gophers didn’t get a chance to smell the roses, but they still earned a rare Jan. 1 bowl game. An Auburn team with 58 four-star recruits and coming off a victory over Alabama awaited Minnesota at the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
The Gophers turned in an inspired performance, putting the cap on an 11-2 season with a 31-24 victory that really wasn’t that close as the score might indicate.
“We won 11 games for the first time since 30 years prior to the Great Depression,” Fleck said. “That’s an unbelievable statistic, but we must be doing something right. Our players took over everything. They led. They were our voice.”
How did he do it?
Before the Outback Bowl, Fleck was awarded a lucrative contract extension that also makes it expensive for him to leave until at least 2022.
His time and message are now in demand, but mailing it in on speaking engagements doesn’t appear to be his style.
While most in the coaching ranks would run for the hills when asked to speak to the media, he approached it like he does his coaching by embracing the challenge.
“I’m a little bit nervous just so everybody knows,” Fleck said to open his speech. “When Heather told me I was going to speak to all of you, I said ‘I’m speaking to who?’ She said ‘Yeah, all the reporters and newspapers in the state.’ I was like, ‘You want me to speak to them about our culture, and you know every single one of them will have a recorder and everything I say will be reported on?’”
Fleck was joking to lighten the mood, as he did several times, including stories about his mother taking him to the family doctor to find out “what is wrong with this kid” and his youngest daughter being a bit of a handful.
He talked about “Row the Boat” stemming from the death of his infant son and the difficulties of recruiting athletes from the southern U.S. because of the weather.
“Official [recruiting] visits in June have helped,” Fleck joked.
Fleck captivated the audience, enthusiastically explaining his philosophies and what he wants out of his program.
He was called too small and too short to succeed in football, but he won back-to-back state championships at Kaneland Park High School in Maple Park, Illinois, and was the leading receiver as a senior at Northern Illinois.
He signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent and spent most of the 2004 season on the practice squad before finally appearing in the season-finale on special teams.
His NFL career lasted 2 1/2 years, leading to a quick start to his coaching career. At every level, Fleck said he was told “you can’t do that.” It’s obvious he didn’t like that label.
One of Fleck’s main recruiting tools includes a leadership wall that depicts many of his heroes. It includes the likes of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey and Jackie Robinson.
He asks potential recruits to talk about their lives from birth until now before asking them to identify people on the wall.
“That’s all I do,” Fleck said. “I’ve had players say that Jackie Robinson was Barry Bonds. If you think that’s Barry Bonds, we’ve got a problem. I am not for everyone. There are certain reporters in the state who have hated me from day one and even after 11 wins, they still hate me. Not only that, they hate me more.
“I’m not here to be liked. I’m here to be respected by the job that I do and to be loved by my players. If you’re not 16-22, you’re going to have a difficult time understanding me. You’re not my demographic. When I’m doing things that are out there, it fits with the young people. It’s not an act. The one thing I love about our culture is I get to be exactly who I am.
“I took the job at the University of Minnesota, to be honest, to be legendary. I didn’t take the job to be average. I didn’t take the job to not promise you anything. I took the job to make sure this city gets a championship, and we were two quarters away from doing that.”
He’s off to a good start, and long-suffering Gophers fans are hoping it continues.