First-year University of Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck has the Gophers off to a 3-1 start heading into a Big Ten game against Purdue this weekend. Fleck led Western Michigan to a 13-1 season last year, which included a MAC Championship and a spot in the Cotton Bowl. He sat down with Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports to discuss his vision for the program at Minnesota.
By P.J. Fleck
Every day when I get to my office, I light a candle and pull out my iPhone. There’s a quote on there that I like to read each morning:”Nobody ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” That’s me, that’s my life and a good window into how I’ve started to establish the new culture here at the University of Minnesota.
There’s a rich history here at Minnesota that myself and my staff appreciate and respect. What we’re setting out to do is write a bold new chapter in that history, something that hasn’t been done in 50 years. We arrived here with the goal of building a program that’s going to win a Big Ten championship. I told athletic director Mark Coyle in my interview, “If you want this be an extension of what’s been done here, I’m not your guy. I’m a completely new and different culture.”
Now what does that mean? We’re not going to change the mascot to a squirrel. We’re not changing the school colors or move to a different stadium. What we’re doing here is embracing the past to create the future. I want to embrace our successes, failures, adversities and challenges, and use them as scars and armor for the future.
There’s a balancing act for that that’s tricky. I can’t speak for the last culture or the next culture. I can speak to this culture.
For us, the culture really starts off the field. In the offseason, we did a lot to educate our players in life.
(Editor’s note: Ten Minnesota players were suspended last year in connection to a sexual assault investigation and the team threatened to skip the bowl game in protest. Four players ended up getting expelled from school and another suspended for a year).
Our program is based on serving and giving, instilling the skills that help our players thrive long after football. One example from our Gopher For Life program that illuminates how seriously we take off-field development is our police education program. We didn’t just have an officer come and talk to the team. We brought in a bunch of officers to role-play with our players in different situations throughout our field house. How do you act when you get pulled over? How do you act if an officer approaches you at a party? And we taught our players how to interact with the officers. Where do you put your hands? How do you ask permission to do certain things? These are important and prevalent issues in our society today.
It wasn’t just police education. We brought in a speaker about domestic violence, Rachel Baribeau, to emphasize changing the narrative about Minnesota Golden Gopher football players. We had a date night to better get to know the players and their girlfriends and to help teach proper etiquette. We’re working to teach our players skills for their lives after they leave here. We have cooking classes and teach nutrition, things that will stay with them long after they graduate and help them be better fathers and husbands.
We had a great teaching moment in our first few months here. A picture from a party popped up on Twitter with four or five of our players in it. One was holding an alcohol bottle, and the others had alcohol all around them. Our players put it out collectively and didn’t find anything wrong with it. We had a team meeting over that particular picture. I’m sure a lot of our players were grumbling, “We’re having a team meeting for this?”
In the meeting, I asked them if I put up a picture of my wife Heather and I posing with alcohol and asked them, “What would happen to me if this got tweeted out?” One player mentioned I may get fired. One said it would be another black eye for the program. Some said it would make me look fake. Everyone agreed it wouldn’t validate what we do, or the culture we’re establishing here. The lesson was simple: You have a choice in the decisions you make. You don’t have a choice in the consequences that come your way. Let’s make the smart choice in our decisions. I won’t sacrifice doing the right thing for wins. I will hold players accountable.
The key to getting the program to end the 50-plus-year Big Ten title drought will be continuing to bring in great players in recruiting. We were fortunate to arrive here and inherit elite players, like junior running back Shannon Brooks, redshirt junior running back Rodney Smith and senior linebacker Jon Celestin. In addition to recruiting high school players to be future Gophers, I had to recruit the current players on our team, as well, and teach them our culture. It’s a process to turn a group of men into a team. And part of my job is to make sure we provide our team with the best experience they can possibly have at Minnesota.
Our roster is weighted heavily toward young players, however, as nearly 45 percent of the roster is either a freshman or redshirt freshman. Nearly 70 percent are underclassmen. Recruiting to keep the young talent coming in has gone well and is a sign of how we’re working to change the culture around here.
In August this year, we’d already had 23 recruits committed. That blew past the pace of commitments in past years. Minnesota had never recruited that aggressively before, and we’re trending toward this being the best recruiting class in school history.
(Editor’s note: Rivals.com ranks Minnesota as having the No. 29 ranked class nationally).
One thing we’ve really stressed is that we want to be wide open to coaches – from Pop Warner to high school – and help provide them useful information. Not only with X’s and O’s, but my job is to serve the high school coaches in Minnesota and beyond and give them access to how we do everything. That’s my small, small contribution and way of serving and giving.
Why keep it tight? Is someone going to use it against me?
It has been exciting introducing a new state and fan base to “Row The Boat.” It’s a never-give-up mantra that’s the foundation of our program and a large part of its identity on and off the field.
Minnesota has had six head coaches in 11 years. Think about it. In the past 42 years, Iowa has had two coaches. I want our identity to be our culture – academically, athletically, socially and spiritually.
Mark Coyle and I both share that vision of what the culture needs to be, and that’s a big part of it. I believe in Mark and we realize we’re going to take some scrutiny as we build this program.
Once we establish our culture, we will take the players and make them the best people they can be. In return, you recruit better people and develop them into better players. The recruits have to be able to handle the pressure of accomplishing something that hasn’t happened in 50 years. And they have to be OK with it.
I know I’m not for everyone. And this program isn’t for everyone. It takes someone who doesn’t want to be like everyone else to thrive and succeed in this culture we’re building at the University of Minnesota. We look forward to establishing and perpetuating that for years to come here.