Detroit — Perhaps it could be considered simplistic to sum up second-year Minnesota Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck by the collection of phrases and acronyms that make up a majority of his soundbites.
There’s “Row the boat,” an expression that caught the attention of a national audience during Western Michigan’s run to the Cotton Bowl in 2016, Fleck’s final ride of a four-year stint as the Broncos’ head coach; or his take one the word “family,” which in Fleck’s mind, translates to: Forget About Me, I Love You.
These easily digestible metaphors are commonplace in most collegiate sports programs. But according to Fleck, who’s back in the state of Michigan ahead of Wednesday’s Quick Lane Bowl matchup with Georgia Tech, these messages resonate because, from top to bottom, they’re rooted in a culture of “serving and giving.”
“We just want to be a part of change,” Fleck said Monday during a team charity event at Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit.
“That’s when you know you have the right culture and have a positive environment for growth in every area of their life … they feel like they can make a huge difference not only on our team, but outside.”
And Fleck also believes in “the process,” which he said is “hard for coaches because we’re in an instant gratification and a win-now society.”
For players to buy into a change of culture, they have to feel comfortable with the person selling it, which naturally takes time — especially for someone who, for those who don’t know him, can sometimes sound more like a self-help book author than a football coach.
In his inaugural season at Western Michigan, his team finished 1-11. Last year, Minnesota went 5-7 and missed a postseason berth before finishing 6-6 this year.
“Year one, in our way, can be hard at times,” Fleck said. “One thing I learned at Western Michigan was be yourself; you get hired to be your culture. Be your culture.”
There are supplementary values that go along with Fleck and his coaching style, but they’re all more or less entrenched in the rowboat theory: a group’s success is tied together by the cohesive effort of all individuals.
And that includes the person directing the watercraft. Fleck said that to form a bond with his players, he goes further than just having an open-door policy.
“One of the rules I have, I don’t like to sit behind my desk when I talk to players,” Fleck said. “If a player comes in with an issue or just wants to talk, just kind of rap for a little bit, we’ll go sit on the couch.”
While Fleck’s exuberant personality has typically called for an adjustment period within a particular program, it’s worked wonders in securing a recruit’s loyalty. Fleck’s 2016 recruting class at Western Michigan was ranked No. 1 in the MAC by 24/7 Sports.
The following year, current Gophers’ starting quarterback Tanner Morgan flipped his recruitment from Western Michigan upon a single phone call from Fleck, despite having never stepped foot in the state of Minnesota.
Morgan said Monday that he rode with Fleck because he’s a coach who aims to improve his players in “all four areas of your life” — another colloquialism — “academically, athletically, socially and spiritually.”
“His culture, the row the boat culture, I just fell in love with it,” Morgan said. “It’s selfless, it’s about serving and giving, helping others more than yourself.”
There have been some considerable marks of progress with this year’s Gophers squad. Aside from a return to the postseason, Minnesota beat arch-rival Wisconsin in Madison for the first time since 1994 to earn a bowl bid, Fleck’s marquee win in maroon and gold thus far.
Not to mention, Minnesota has one of the youngest teams in college football — five freshmen and five sophomores started in the Gophers’ season-opener against New Mexico State — so there are plenty of reasons to be patient with his vision of bringing Minnesota its first Big Ten title since 1967.
And if nothing else, it’s certain that his team will be paddling in-stride.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.
Quick Lane Bowl
Minnesota vs. Georgia Tech
Kickoff: 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Minnesota 6-6, Georgia Tech 7-5
Line: Georgia Tech by 5