On Friday night ahead of the Gophers’ big game against Penn State, coach P.J. Fleck made his players write on chunks of coal about the pressures they have faced.
They then all threw their pieces into a bucket, and overnight that pile of carbon became a diamond.
That defies a couple of scientific laws and probably employed some behind-the-scenes movie magic from Fleck and his staff, but the exercise was all in an effort to show his players that pressure, while stressful, makes them into something brilliant.
That proved true when the Gophers, No. 17 in the College Football Playoff rankings, toppled No. 4 Penn State 31-26 on Saturday, improving to 9-0 for the first time in more than 100 years. On Sunday they received their best Associated Press ranking since 1962, No. 7. And the coal trick isn’t the only Fleck original from his three seasons with the Gophers that has gone from ploy to reality.
Fleck’s style doesn’t fly with everyone, as many find his coaching polarizing, either loving his enthusiastic nature or finding it over the top. Fleck himself even admitted to sounding cliché, coach-speaky or gimmicky.
“But at the end of the day, it’s really not,” Fleck said. “It’s just how you win football games.”
And, well, that point is kind of hard to argue. Fleck and his Row the Boat culture — which focuses just as much on off-field development as winning games — turned Western Michigan from 1-11 to 13-1 in his four seasons there. Now with the Gophers, he has the team on track for a Big Ten West title with a two-game lead and three games to play.
Fleck can rattle off a lot of words in just a couple of minutes, and it’s easy to eye-roll or brush off some parts. Such as when he talks about starting every week at 0-0, only caring about going 1-0 in the (insert upcoming opponent’s name here) championship week. Or when he said the Gophers would need the experience of near-misses in the easier nonconference schedule to handle winning close games in the Big Ten.
Considering the Gophers are undefeated this season and just beat a top-five team for the first time since 1999 in a game that twice had only a five-point margin, maybe he was on to something.
“The way we do it is so unique and so different,” Fleck said. “And it’s not for everybody, and I get that.”
His list of isms is lengthy, from row the boat, to zipping up leather vests, to keeping everything within the team’s four walls. And that vernacular has trickled down to the players. Senior Carter Coughlin referenced “oars in the water” and “changing our best” after beating Penn State, while quarterback Tanner Morgan talked about those metaphorical four walls.
But the players weren’t just parroting their coach. They believe it. And Fleck really believes it, becoming a little red-nosed and shiny-eyed after the game Saturday when talking about the culture he’s instilled in this team being for everyone — former players, fans, the whole state of Minnesota — not just for him.
“I know I might be a little bit different, but I don’t know how different I really am. I don’t see what you see,” Fleck said. “But just maybe, just maybe, our Row the Boat different might be the way. And maybe, we’re just ahead of the game.”
At this moment, they are.
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org