MINNEAPOLIS — If you are less demented than some of us and follow college football only cursorily, you might have gone decades without noticing, let alone pondering, Minnesota. You might perceive Minnesota as only for Vikings, Twins, Karl-Anthony Towns or the bizarre collective noun “Wild.” It’s possible that the last time some force of personality drew your attention to the footballing Minnesota Golden Gophers, it was a 47-year-old Lou Holtz in 1984-85, a two-season run that also has gone largely, yes, forgotten.
Yet as the Big Ten celebrates a fourth straight season of mattering again nationally, and as Penn State has regained big relevance while Ohio State and Michigan have regained big bigness, and as Madison remains a place to be on any fall Saturday, and you wonder if Ohio State might avenge visiting Penn State on Oct. 28, and you wonder if Michigan might avenge visiting Ohio State on Nov. 25, do reserve a fraction of an eyeball for the goings-on at Minnesota, which opens its season Thursday against Buffalo. It should become a case study in the effects of one impossibly energetic, unusually charismatic human.
In a Big Ten West division era one might call establishmentarian and semi-sleepy, P.J. Fleck is the seventh non-interim Minnesota coach since Holtz went a commendable 10-12 before a Golden Dome sucked him to northern Indiana. Fleck is the third coach in three years for reasons unrelated to football at a program that has won frequently enough (14 bowl games in 18 seasons, a 37-28 record in the last five), even if it hasn’t snared your attention. He will not be 37 until late November. Even if you meet him at 7:30 on a May morning, as some dare do, your own blood flow might soon hasten.
His brand has too much verve to be saddled with the dreary American word “brand,” so let’s say he has developed a national identity with his slogans, most notably “Row the Boat,” the concept that each player, coach, manager, practice DJ, secretary and others should always mind a proverbial oar in the proverbial water to propel the proverbial watercraft (now in the Land of 10,000 Lakes!).
He even instructs players on how they should walk around campus.
(Eyes open, heads up, communicative.)
His penchant for zest and slogans rings dauntingly familiar to some Minnesotans. Walk downtown to pay homage to the Mary Tyler Moore statue, strike up a conversation, state your reason for visiting town, and the first thing you might hear is doubt owing to Fleck’s alleged similarity to Tim Brewster. Minnesota hired Brewster in 2007. It fired him in 2010.
Such Golden Gophers fans have earned their wariness (no outright Big Ten title since 1941), but they also haven’t spotted at least two crucial differences. One is that Brewster, who went 15-30 and lost two Insight Bowls, arrived from the murky position of tight ends coach, Denver Broncos. Fleck arrives from having hauled Western Michigan from 1-11 in 2013 to 13-1 in 2016 and the New Year’s cream of 2017, with a non-embarrassing 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
The other is one of the pivotal forces in all American history: turnover margin.
When he was 32 years and 19 days old, Fleck overtook a Western Michigan program ranked 114th nationally in turnover margin (minus-14), then ushered it to No. 104 in 2013 (minus-7), to No. 1 by 2016 (plus-18).
“You wish there were an exact science that you could prove,” Fleck said. “Just like anything, I think you have the ability to improve on it, but when it’s out of your control — right? — and there’s a factor of somebody else affecting it, you can’t control it a hundred percent. But what we do is, the number-one slogan in our entire program, above anything else … I’m a slogan guy … is, ‘The Ball Is the Program.’ There is nothing more important than the ball when we talk about football.”
To cherish the ball properly, then, anyone spotting a “ball violation” must bark the word “chin.” Said Fleck, “If that ball comes away from your chin at any point, when you’re running back or sprinting back from 80 yards downfield after a play, whether you toss the ball to a manager, you’re not allowed to ever toss the ball to a manager. You have to hand the ball to a manager, literally. We go above and beyond to exaggerate the rule to make sure we get close to that come game day.”
Did you ever stop to think about the “five points of pressure” when carrying a football, “the claw, the forearm, the biceps, the chest, the rib cage, and then the sixth one, we just say ‘chin?’ ”
Maybe now you have.
He spells it out: “I’m not for everyone.”
He elaborates: “We are as real as real can be, and we’re us. And we’re real and us all the time. And I think young people like that. They know exactly what they’re going to get. We have high energy. I think young people like energy. They like vision, and they like to see how they plug into that vision, without being sold anything. We sell nothing. I don’t sell a kid anything. And I don’t convince a kid to come here. If I have to convince you to come here, I don’t want you. I want young people who need me, who need the hyper ‘Row the Boat’ culture in their life. I need parents who want that and need that for their son.”
He even adores ramming against entrenched reality, as it fits with his childhood spent being too small, yet climbing all the way through Northern Illinois to, for two seasons, the NFL: “We haven’t had a championship in over 50-some years and they love the Gophers!” he said of the fans. “But I almost compare it to the [Chicago] Cubs a little bit. They love cheering for the Gophers, but they always have this thought in the back of their mind, ‘Yeah, but, doom’s coming.’ I’ve got to change that. And that is my personal responsibility. And that’s the pressure I feel every day to do, that I can’t wait to get to the office for.”
He already “changed” Mid-American Conference recruiting and “raised the bar,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. Said Helmholdt, “The question is, is there a ceiling that P.J. Fleck is going to bump into from a recruiting standpoint in Minneapolis?”
And: “He’s not banal. He’s not middle-of-the-road. That doesn’t mean everybody fits with him … But there are going to be a lot who do.”
So far, Minnesota ranks 27th in Rivals’ team ranking for 2018, but with 23 players committed. None is five- or four-star, but 20 are three-star. They hail from eight states, five players each from Minnesota and Georgia. They include two Big Ten-caliber players from Chicagoland, cornerback Tyrik Henderson and defensive tackle Elijah Teague. To the Chicago Tribune’s Bob Narang, Teague said he’d deleted Minnesota, but revisited because of the coaching change, and that Fleck “has a lot of juice.”
It might even make you look.