Unique and elite, P.J. Fleck has Minnesota football on the rise

John Shipley
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Minneapolis – Tuesday was a rewarding day for P.J. Fleck, but money, we quickly learned, will not change the Minnesota Gophers football coach. He remains as goofy as the day he arrived nearly three years ago from Western Michigan.

Minutes after agreeing to a seven-year, $33 million contract to stay in Minnesota, Fleck was asked what his players did with last week’s late-season bye. Health and wellness week, we learned. They listened to a sleep expert from the University of Minnesota hospitals and clinics, and someone named Dr. Carly taught them to meditate.

P.J. Fleck

Most intriguing, however, was the educational portion of wellness week, which he revealed obliquely to a rapt group of reporters.

“We had an educational class, which I don’t really want to talk about to all of you because you’ll sit there and go, ‘Why do you have to do that with your players?’” Fleck said.

Now, it’s not difficult to imagine a dozen educational experiences a group of 100 men between the ages of 18 and 22 could have without eliciting a "Why would you do that with your players?” Apparently it wasn’t any of those.

“I think it’s very proactive, unique and very different,” Fleck said. “We did that.”

At that point it made no sense to ask. If it wasn’t learning to project consciousness into the Astral Plane or knitting toaster cozies, the reality would only disappoint. One likes to imagine the offensive linemen proactively discussing what should be in a go-bag for when the cyborgs become our overlords.

P.J. is gonna P.J., but say this for Fleck: For a guy suspected of being mostly hot air, he has yet to confirm it.

Fleck arrived with a trademarked catch phrase and a penchant for using the word “elite” the way Philadelphians use the word “jawn.” It’s irritating but apparently it works on certain impressionable young men because the real takeaway from Fleck’s introductory news conference in January 2017 — promises to win and clean up a culture of toxic entitlement fostered by predecessor Jerry Kill — are being made good.

Less than three years later, Fleck has Minnesota unbeaten, ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and ready to host fifth-ranked and unbeaten Penn State on Saturday in the school’s biggest game since Glen Mason breathed life into the program from 1997-2006. More important, in the wake of rape accusations that resulted in the expulsion of four football players and one basketball player, Fleck’s players haven't embarrassed themselves or the school.

The Gophers (8-0) will have their hands full with Penn State (8-0), which comes with quality victories over Michigan, Iowa and Pittsburgh. But while Minnesota has yet to play an, uh, elite team this season, remember that the Gophers closed last year with convincing victories at Wisconsin and against Georgia Tech in a bowl game.

It’s impossible to overestimate last year’s 37-15 victory in Madison. Kill’s teams had victories over Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State and Iowa — the “helmet teams,” as former defensive coordinator and interim head coach Tracy Claeys called them — but the Badgers were Minnesota’s Kryptonite, winners of the previous 14 games dating to 2003.

Without beating Wisconsin, the Gophers would never be whole again.

Fleck’s name had been popping up in coaching-search stories the way it had come up after he had Western Michigan undefeated and in the Cotton Bowl in 2016, but he said Tuesday his new deal had been in the works “for a while” — the guess here is since the day after that win at Wisconsin.

Win or lose Saturday, Fleck has the Gophers on the right track, and if he’s a little enthusiastically earnest, well, there are much worse things to be.