With History Within Reach, P.J. Fleck Has Minnesota Believing

P.J. Fleck's entire life’s work is built on spawning belief in accomplishing the improbable, then delivering on it. At Minnesota, he's got the Gophers on the verge of history.
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Nov 9, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck looks on after a touchdown in the first half against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — It is not even mid-November. Thanksgiving is two weeks away. Yet just inside the door to P.J. Fleck’s office stands the Christmas tree: big, festively decorated with Minnesota maroon ornaments, lights blinking in silent challenge to the holiday spirit of every visitor.

Are you in this Christmas rowboat?

“Goes up the day after Halloween,” Fleck says of the tree, with enthusiasm and without apology. “I am a sucker for Christmas. If everyone could act all year the way they act at Christmas, the world would be so much better.”

The world is divided into two Christmas camps: those who enjoy it for two or three weeks a year, and those who want it to last forever. If the first camp is populated by relative cynics, the latter is the haven of cornball sentimentalists.

You know which camp Coach Cornball is in. Over-the-top Christmas cheer is on-brand messaging for the irrepressible elf of college football. His entire life’s work is built on spawning belief in accomplishing the improbable, then delivering on it—producing holiday miracles, if you will, regardless of what the calendar says.

The Christmas gift he dropped on the emotionally scarred sporting state of Minnesota came early, in the form of a storm-the-field upset of Penn State last Saturday that released a torrent of emotion from a downtrodden fan base. It was, to borrow a Fleck buzzword, an elite celebration.

“Transformational,” was athletic director Mark Coyle’s description. “Nobody sat down. Literally everyone stood up the entire game. Then it exploded like a champagne bottle.”

It was the kind of euphoric sports scene that plays out annually somewhere—but never here. Not in the Land of 10,000 Heartaches.

Excluding recent expansion imports Maryland and Rutgers, every school in the Big Ten has made an appearance in the Rose Bowl and/or the Big Ten championship game since the last time the Gophers did, most recently playing in Pasadena on Jan. 1, 1962. Everyone else has hit a high point or two. Minnesota has routinely, sadly failed at constructing a special season.

“It was tough being a Gopher fan,” said senior linebacker Carter Coughlin, an Eden Prairie native who turned down Oregon and Ohio State to play for the team he grew up cheering for. “But this is exactly why I came here, to help Minnesota play for championships.”

The No. 8-ranked Gophers are now 9-0 for the first time since 1904, own their highest ranking in 57 years and are very much in the hunt for divisional, conference and national championships. And Fleck? He’s now the only coach this century not named Urban Meyer to take two different FBS programs to 9-0 records (and counting) within a four-year span.

Meyer did it at a pair of powerhouse programs, Florida in 2009 and Ohio State in ’12. He was 45 years old when he did it in Gainesville and 48 in Columbus. Fleck, all of 38, has done it at Western Michigan and Minnesota.

These herculean football feats go beyond the relentless sloganeering that defines Fleck’s coaching style. The man of a million mantras has enough substance underneath the schtick to make things happen nobody else thought possible.

“It’s one thing to dream about it,” said the governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz. “It’s another thing to put plans in place and make it happen. … I haven’t seen something bring the state together like that in a long time.”

***

Nine television cameras are set up in an arc around a podium in the Minnesota football locker room. Media people are waiting—sitting on the floor, looking at their phones, small talking—until the men in suits walk in. Then the pace accelerates.

The governor’s entourage has arrived for a presentation—Fleck is giving Walz the game ball from the Penn State triumph. It is the actual ball intercepted by defensive back Jordan Howden in the end zone to stop the Nittany Lions’ last chance and seal the victory.

After the field storming, Fleck dedicated a game ball to the entire state, symbolic of his all-encompassing vision for the program. He echoed Walz’s 2018 campaign slogan in his postgame remarks, referring to “One Minnesota.” And the governor, who declared the day before the game to be Maroon and Gold Friday, tweeted that he would be honored to accept the game ball on behalf of the state.

Seventy-two hours later, Walz has arrived from across the river in Saint Paul for a presentation. If you don’t think this sort of grandiose unifying gesture was part of the P.J. Plan from the moment he took the Minnesota job, you’re underestimating the man.

“A lot of people hope for things to happen … but hope is not a plan,” Walz said upon receiving the ball. “Coach is not leaving anything to chance. That sense of confidence exudes through the state. … When Penn State had the ball driving at the end, Minnesotans believed they were going to win Saturday. You haven’t seen that.”

One of the reasons a job on the margins of the Big Ten power structure appealed to Fleck was the chance to own an entire state, putting his bedrock philosophy to work from border to border. The University of Minnesota is the only FBS football program in the state. Only seven other programs (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Missouri, Connecticut, Boise State, Hawaii) enjoy that advantage.

“That really mattered,” Fleck said. “The Row The Boat culture could really fit here.”

That culture is summed up as the collective power of everyone in an endeavor all rowing together, in unison, toward a common goal. In most other states, the rowers are divided among competing loyalties. In Minnesota, at least in theory, all oars are going in the same direction. And the boat is picking up speed.

Fleck utters his catch phrase so often that those around him probably hear it in their sleep. The sayings and slogans become variations of a politician’s stump speech, repeated at every whistle stop. But they resonate with the people who matter most in his universe: the young men he is coaching and recruiting.

He tells them to wear collared shirts to class and sit in the front two rows? They do it—and the team GPA has soared. He requires significant hours of community service? They do it, building relationships within the community that can be helpful come graduation. He asks them to send handwritten notes to Coyle thanking him for installing new turf on the practiced field? The correspondence floods into the athletic director’s office.

“They have a great deal of appreciation for being here,” Coyle said.

Listen for a moment to quarterback Tanner Morgan, a three-star prospect who originally committed to Fleck at Western Michigan. Ask Morgan about his recruitment and he says he was the “king of the toos— too short, too slow. …” This is a line Fleck has long used about his own career as a lightly recruited wide receiver who went to Northern Illinois but stuck with the San Francisco 49ers for two years as an undrafted free agent.

Fleck called Morgan in early January 2017 to break the news to him that he was leaving Western Michigan for Minnesota. Morgan was prepared to enroll early at WMU—packed up and ready to go—when Fleck offered him the chance to relocate to Minneapolis with him. Morgan accepted on the spot, changing his commitment to the Gophers without even visiting the school.

Morgan sounds exactly like the other quarterback on a Fleck-coached 9-0 team, Zach Terrell. He became an extension of his coach, and now he’s become close to Morgan. Terrell was in the stands Saturday, watching “King of the Toos” Morgan complete 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

“The Row The Boat culture is different than anywhere else in the country,” Morgan said. “The energy and passion coach brings every day is something I wanted to be part of.”

Morgan is hardly the only true believer. Look no further than the right forearm of sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman. There are the initials tattooed into his skin: “R.T.B.”

Bateman is from Tifton, Ga., one of the last places you’d expect Minnesota to have recruiting success. Yet here he is, leading the Big Ten in receiving at 94.1 yards per game and having torn up Penn State for 203 yards.

Bateman was an overlooked talent who originally committed to Georgia Southern, then decommitted. Receivers coach Matt Simon saw him at a satellite camp in Georgia and told Fleck, “We have a Corey Davis in Georgia,” referring to the Western Michigan wide receiver who became a top-10 NFL pick.

Fleck was intrigued, but held to his protocol of never offering a scholarship to a player he hasn’t seen in person. Fleck traveled to Georgia for a Bateman workout, and before it started Bateman told him, “When you watch me, you’re going to offer me. And I’m going to commit.”

Fleck’s response: “O.K., prove it.”

Bateman ran a 40-yard dash and caught some passes, and Fleck offered the scholarship. Bateman did what he said he would do and accepted.

But in the fickle world of football recruiting, nothing is ever done until the letter of intent is signed. Bateman’s stock continued to elevate during his senior season, and here came Georgia coach Kirby Smart—fresh off a earning a berth in the College Football Playoff—for a school visit just a few days before signing day.

Fleck, understandably nervous, repeatedly texted Bateman to see if he was still in the rowboat. After a while, Bateman responded, “Calm down and trust me.”

Georgia came and went. The commitment to Minnesota held.

“It was tough turning down Georgia because it was home,” Bateman said. “But I was thinking about who was real with me from the beginning.”

***

The parking lot at Joe Senser’s Sports Bar is full. There are no more available spaces. The place is owned by a former Minnesota Viking, but it has become Ground Zero for the Gophers faithful this fall.

It’s noon on Tuesday and this is the site for Fleck’s weekly radio show. At the start of the season there were maybe 10 or 20 fans showing up, and the stage was in a corner of the place. Plenty of people who came for lunch completely ignored the show.

Now, it’s appointment listening—one woman was being shushed by her daughter for talking during the show. On this particular week, the first fans showed up to stand in line outside for prime seating an hour before the show.

It’s been a slow build. The Gophers began the season with shaky non-conference wins over South Dakota, Fresno State and Georgia Southern, needing fourth-quarter rallies in all three games. That was followed by progressively stronger performances against Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, Rutgers and Maryland—not exactly a murderer’s row of opponents.

Thus a fair amount of the local populace still only had one foot in the rowboat, waiting for further proof that this team was legit. That stance overlooked plenty of painful program history over the previous five decades.

“People kept saying, ‘Who have you beaten?’ “ said one staffer. “Well, the same teams that used to beat us every f------ year.”

Indeed, the measuring stick for progress was games against Illinois and Nebraska. The Gophers lost those two by a combined 49 points in 2018; they won them by a combined 50 points this season.

Nov 9, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck leads the Minnesota Golden Gophers onto the field before a game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Still, there had been no wins over ranked opponents. Even at 8-0, Minnesota was slotted 17th in the first College Football Playoff rankings. Penn State would have to be the proving ground.

Not only did the Gophers prove it by winning, they never trailed in the game. The brand-name Nittany Lions were the ones playing catchup, and in the end they couldn’t pull off the comeback. The only people who weren’t surprised were the Minnesota players and coaches, who had to wade through the on-field onslaught of fans to reach the locker room.

“We’ve been expecting this to happen since January,” Fleck told the radio show crowd. “This is what a middle of November atmosphere should look like in the Big Ten, what it should look like at the University of Minnesota, and what it should look like every week.”

***

Here is what it looked like at the University of Minnesota in the winter of 2017: goodbye notes in lockers, as players started filtering out of the program.

Health issues led to Jerry Kill stepping down as head coach, and his replacement, Tracy Claeys, became embroiled in a dispute with the administration that led to his ouster after the 2016 season. Ten players were suspended during an investigation into an alleged sexual assault, which led to a player boycott and Claeys publicly backing them

By January 3, 2017, Claeys was fired after just one year as the full-time head coach. And in blew the tornado that is P.J. Fleck, tasked with piecing together a fractured program. The initial buy-in was not great.

With many of the players home for holiday break, Fleck scheduled a team meeting that they could either attend in person or watch on Facebook Live. Only about 20% of the team showed up in person, and another 30% watched online.

“I was just 13-0,” Fleck said. “Now everybody hates me.

“The divide, you had to convince people to stay. We weren’t even going to have a football team. I literally didn’t go to bed the first four-five days, just convincing guys to stay.”

Coughlin remembers hearing the Fleck jargon and thinking, “What are you even talking about?”

“Trust was at a ground level,” Coughlin said. “That was an incredibly difficult year of football. You couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

After going 9-4 under Claeys, the Gophers backslid to 5-7 in Fleck’s first year as the Row The Boat jabber crashed onto the rocks of cynical resistance.

The product improved in year two, though, with Minnesota going 7-6, smashing rival Wisconsin to end the regular season and winning a bowl game. And then came this year, the breakthrough season. During winter conditioning drills, defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere had an a-ha moment that told him something special was coming.

“One day you go into winter workouts, and everyone wants to be there,” he said. “You see that and the feeling is like, ‘O.K., let’s go.’ “

It’s been going ever since. Next stop: Iowa Saturday, where a win would move Minnesota within one game of capturing the Big Ten West Division for the first time and playing in its first Big Ten championship game.

Yet the undefeated Gophers are a three-point underdog to the three-loss Hawkeyes. Just a day after the program’s best win in decades and 10 days after the Christmas tree went up in the office, Las Vegas delivered that lump of coal to Fleck’s stocking.

A lot of people still don’t believe in the Minnesota miracle.

As a boy, Fleck really did get a stocking full of coal from his parents once, after a spate of misbehavior. He was a hyperactive, hard-headed boy, and in an effort to teach him a lesson P.J. had to watch his sister open gift after gift while he sat there with his stocking of coal.

His parents did eventually bring out a couple presents for young P.J. But he remembers well the initial feeling of being left out, and learning from it.

Another Christmas story: the best Christmas present he ever got was a Transformers toy, Optimus Prime. Fleck took it out to the playground and left it there, and never saw it again.

“I went from the high of highs,” he said, “to the low of lows.”

He’s trying to avoid the same thing happening this week to his football program.

***

In the 1991 Soundgarden song, “Outshined,” Chris Cornell sings, “I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota.” It is one of the most memorable lines from the piece, and it spawned a lot of questions about what Cornell meant.

“Looking California is sort of like looking silly,” Cornell explained in a subsequent interview. “And feeling Minnesota is feeling bad.”

This is the widely perceived lot in life for Minnesotans who are doomed to bitter, gloomy winters. Pessimism can percolate for months. And for any residents of the state hoping for sports to lift their moods, well, they’ve long been accustomed to inevitable disappointment. Since the Twins won the World Series in 1991, not much athletically has ended on a high note.

Now here comes P.J. Fleck and his corny optimism, daring Minnesota football fans to take the risk, take the plunge, believe that his program can work a holiday miracle.

If Fleck keeps this up for four more games, the permafrost pessimism really may melt in the frozen north. Feeling Minnesota could become the best feeling in the whole world.