By Courtney Baumann
It took only three days after Minnesota fired Tracy Claeys for the school to announce its third football head coach in three years: P.J. Fleck, who spent his first four years as a Division 1 head coach at Western Michigan.
In those four years, Fleck turned a 1-11 2013 season into a 12-1, No. 12 Cotton Bowl team. Now, the fast-talking, boat-rowing, 36-year-old Fleck is ready to “change the culture” of Gopher football.
“One of the challenges we face again at Minnesota is cultural sustainability. [I am] our players’ third head coach in three years. Very challenging for young people,” Fleck said at the Big Ten media days. “We look forward to bringing that culture of sustainability over a period of time.”
“Change the culture” is one of many Fleck-isms the new head coach has brought to the program and perhaps the most important. Midway through December 2016, numerous players were accused of sexual assault, which led to a near-boycott of the Holiday Bowl, Claeys’s dismissal, and plenty of backlash from outside the program.
Fleck isn’t afraid of making a change right away. It has been an adjustment, players said, having Fleck in the locker room, and the head coach is aware of that.
Now, almost seven months into his tenure, some players are still having a tough time buying into Fleck’s way of doing things.
He understands this, though.
“When you take over a program, you have three different areas,” Fleck said. “You have the area over here that says, ‘No way, I’m out, this is not for me.’ You’ve got the area in the middle that says, ‘I’m on the fence, I just gotta give this guy a chance,’ and then you’ve got the other people that say, ‘This is exactly what we need; I’m all in no matter what.’ ”
The time for this adjustment has taught him patience, because every player is different, he said.
Several players decided to either decommit from signing with the team or to transfer after Fleck was hired, but he is not worried about them. He’s only thinking of the players who are on board with the way he wants the team to go.
A few of those players who jumped on board quickly with Fleck’s beliefs are seniors Steven Richardson and Jon Celestin, as well as redshirt junior Rodney Smith.
“It’s very different. He’s much more demanding,” said Richardson, a defensive lineman. “Culture is everything. It’s definitely what’s helped us grow from the situation we’ve been in. We’ve learned a lot. We were an immature team. Obviously, we won nine games, but the things we weren’t focusing on was life outside of football.”
Life outside of football has become a focus of the team since Fleck arrived in Minneapolis, and it has helped many players, particularly Celestin, through the past few months. Much of that has to do with the new vernacular.
The little sayings Fleck has — “Row the boat,” “Change your best,” and “Plus three” for example — caught on quickly with the team and can be heard all around the locker room.
One of Fleck’s mantras, “Keep your oars in the water,” is something the Celestin has kept in mind since his father died, three days after Minnesota’s spring game.
“We’ve learned to accept it. These actually have true meanings in life,” Celestin said. “It was tough, but I’ve kept my oars in the water and kept rowing.”