How 'zany' P.J. Fleck has led a Minnesota turnaround, with Iowa up next
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Mike Grimm has been broadcasting Minnesota Golden Gopher football games through 14 seasons and six head coaches.
Last Friday, he saw something he never would have dreamed possible. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared it “Maroon and Gold” day in the state, and the residents responded. In day cares, middle schools and workplaces, people dressed up in maroon and tweeted out photos. Suddenly, a state that normally fixes its attention primarily on the Minnesota Vikings each fall made some time for the Gophers.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” said Grimm, a native of Manchester, Iowa. “That’s what (Minnesota coach P.J.) Fleck talked about, having that connection with people. Who knows where it goes? But at this time, he’s done everything he said he was going to do.”
The Gophers, playing before a rare, sold-out crowd, went out and upset Penn State the next afternoon to run their record to 9-0 for the first time since 1904. Now ranked seventh in the nation, Fleck brings his team to No. 22 Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium for a 3 p.m. Saturday kickoff, looking to win here for the first time in 20 years.
At age 38, in his third season coaching the Gophers, Fleck is producing one of the most remarkable stories in college football.
How has he done it? According to Grimm, who’s had an inside look, Fleck is exactly who he appears to be. And more.
Fleck latest young gun to take on Ferentz
Kirk Ferentz is the dean of college head football coaches, in his 21st year at Iowa. He has won 94 Big Ten Conference games, sixth-most all-time. Ferentz was 43 when he was hired in 1998. Within four years, the Hawkeyes were Big Ten champions.
Ferentz has seen most of his geographic rivals try a similar approach over the years, looking for the next hotshot young coach to take them to new heights.
- Northwestern turned to Pat Fitzgerald at age 32, and he has gone 8-6 against Iowa in the 14 years since.
- Also in 2006, Wisconsin hired former Hawkeye player Bret Bielema, who was 36. He went 3-2 against Ferentz before departing for Arkansas.
- Iowa State handed the reins to Matt Campbell in 2015 on his 36th birthday. Campbell has lost all four meetings with the Hawkeyes.
- Nebraska brought back former star quarterback Scott Frost in 2017, when he was 42. He lost his first matchup with Ferentz last fall.
And then there’s Fleck, who came to Minnesota after going 30-22 in four seasons at Western Michigan. Ferentz has emerged victorious in his first two meetings with Fleck, but he’s noticed the turnaround the coach has made in Minnesota.
“Mantras and words or concepts are just that. They're words or concepts until players really understand what the concept means, what the meaning behind it is,” Ferentz said. “That's part of the education process and really you have to usually experience ups and downs, but at some point hopefully there's an illustrative moment, if you will, or moments that really help reinforce the things that you're trying to get across to your football team.
“And they clearly are. They're all on the same page right now, there's no question about that.”
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Fleck got the Minnesota job when the school fired Tracy Claeys after a 9-4 season that included 10 players being suspended for suspicion of being involved in a sexual assault case.
Fleck revealed an energetic personality from his opening news conference, delivering words in a staccato cadence that can come across as bombast. He tends to label everything as “elite.” He takes every opportunity to cite his motto, “Row the Boat,” and large maroon oars have become ubiquitous around his program.
But this was all part of the plan Fleck, an Illinois native, carefully constructed years ago while an assistant coach at Rutgers. He kept his hand-written blueprint for how he would approach being a head coach in a three-ring binder.
“Kids need that consistent message, and pretty soon it becomes habit. He’s a strong personality, obviously. He’s an energetic personality,” Grimm said of Fleck.
“The ‘row the boat’ thing, people want to mock it. But that’s what it’s all about is that people get on the same page. When you win, it kind of feeds in to the validity of the whole plan.”
Keep things together; find new pieces
Fleck’s first task at Minnesota was to try to keep the team’s core of young, talented players from leaving. He was successful with such future stars as safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., and linebackers Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin.
But Minnesota didn’t have a quarterback, was woefully thin on the offensive line and had much of its starting secondary suspended. The Gophers went 5-7, and that record seemed like a miracle.
Fleck hit the recruiting trail, looking for athletes who could help him win but who would also buy in to what he knows can be a hard sell. You have to be firmly in Fleck’s boat in order to play for him. And that means being heavily involved in the community.
Gopher players spend hours reading to elementary school students and visiting children in hospitals. During their summer training camp, a day or two is devoted to signing thousands of oars. The players can then request that an oar be shipped back to someone in their hometown who is need of a pick-me-up.
Grimm recalled finding one on his doorstep when he returned home from his father’s funeral in April.
“It’s pretty powerful stuff. It’s personal for people,” Grimm said. “All of a sudden, there’s thousands of oars all over the state of Minnesota, all over the country.”
Fleck sold his vision to the likes of quarterback Tanner Morgan (2,100 yards passing, 21 touchdowns), wide receiver Rashod Bateman (847 yards, eight touchdowns), running back Mohamed Ibrahim (340 yards, six touchdowns) and defensive back Benjamin St-Juste (21 tackles, five passes broken up).
After a 7-6 season a year ago that included Minnesota’s first win over Wisconsin since 2003, this team is jelling like no Gopher squad in recent memory. Minnesota’s six Big Ten wins are by an average of 23 points.
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Fleck 'knows that he's a little zany,' but it works
Fleck has reached out to former Gopher stars, inviting them to come back and support the current team. Remarkably, it’s worked. Grimm said he had never seen so many previous players show up as there were last Saturday.
“It’s a fractured alumni base, and some people still have their feelings hurt (from when the coach they played for got fired),” Grimm said. “Fleck is trying to put it all aside.”
Grimm said there’s an impression out there that Fleck is not self-aware, that he doesn’t realize he’s being mocked in some corners. That’s not true, Grimm said.
“P.J. knows that he’s kind of weird. He knows that he’s a little zany,” Grimm said. “Some people think he’s some cartoon character that’s just this puppet, and he’s pumping out slogans that have no substance behind them. But that’s not the case. What you see is what you get. It’s real, and it’s happening.
“It’s also a lot easier to buy in when stuff’s going the way it’s going right now.”
Minnesota gave Fleck a three-year contract extension last week through the 2026 season, raising his annual salary from $3.6 million to $4.6 million. If he keeps having the success he’s had, he’ll undoubtedly be a hot commodity for any major-college program looking for new life.
Grimm senses that Fleck may be in Minnesota for the long haul, however. Among Fleck’s favorite buzz phrases is “cultural sustainability,” and he’s well aware of the legacy coaches such as Barry Alvarez made at Wisconsin, or that Hayden Fry and Ferentz have made at Iowa.
“I think he is set up for wanting to be a unique guy at a unique place. As weird as it sounds, I think there is a piece of him that probably wants to be Minnesota’s Hayden Fry or Kirk Ferentz. Or Minnesota’s Barry Alvarez,” Grimm said.
“I think there’s a draw to him being a guy at a place where you’re going to stand out.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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