Minnesota’s seniors are a unique group among college football.
Not for their record, not for the team’s performance, but this class has seen three head coaches over the course of their career. The group of 16 seniors will play their final game at TCF Bank Stadium against Wisconsin on Saturday.
“They stayed when they didn’t have to stay,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “I told them a long time ago they didn’t pick me, but I picked them. That’s the hardest part about cultural changes.”
Some seniors, whose time with the Gophers can date back to 2013, started their collegiate careers under former head coach Jerry Kill. He stepped down as head coach in October of 2015, and subsequently, his defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys took over for the rest of the season.
Claeys was at the helm for the entirety of the 2016 campaign which saw the Gophers go 9-4 and win a bowl game. After a sexual misconduct scandal and a player boycott, athletics director Mark Coyle made the decision to fire Claeys, and then in January, current head coach P.J. Fleck was hired.
“We will all look back on it and [say], ‘We went through three different coaches,’” said cornerback Adekunle Ayinde. “It’s going to make us better people. It’s just setting us up for later in life.”
Fleck said the change was tough on the players, but the seniors who decided to stay with the program in the wake of his hiring helped his transition into the new culture.
Ayinde has had one of the more tumultuous careers at Minnesota, from a football perspective.
He has been a backup, to a starter, without a scholarship and with one. He came into the season as a safety, but swited over to cornerback once Fleck and his staff arrived in Minnesota.
“If one guy has seen more change on our entire football team, I’d like to see him, because the guy who's seen the most is probably Kunle,” Fleck said. “To see a guy like him stay, and maybe think ‘I’m going to be a backup,’ [then] be this starter the entire year at multiple positions, that’s what [the seniors] have done.”
Minnesota loses more pieces on defense after the season is over, and the leadership aspect that some seniors provided on the defense has set some of the foundation for the team.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith said that Celestin has provided a lot of leadership for the linebacker unit, which helped them be prepared for the future.
Some of the Gophers’ seniors said that their time in college, some since 2013, has flown by, and that it doesn’t feel like it is their last game in front of their home fans.
Linebacker Jon Celestin said that the emotions of the moment will hit him during the senior day recognitions or after the game.
The group still has one game to play, though, against No. 5 Wisconsin. If the Gophers win, for Celestin, it could be a good cap to his career at TCF Bank Stadium, but also an opportunity to get to a bowl game.
“It’s been one of the best feelings ever,” Celestin said. “To be able to play in front of all the Gophers’ fans at TCF, I’ll always remember every moment, I just hope that maybe we’ll finish it out with a bang.”