In 1999, Northern Illinois defeated Central Michigan on the road. The winning head coach Joe Novak was late returning to the locker room.
When Novak arrived in the cramped room after talking with a reporter, he heard the team’s fight song — led by then-freshman wide receiver P.J. Fleck as he stood on top of the lockers. Even then, Fleck took part in team traditions and culture.
“Kind of unheard of,” Novak said. “All these upperclassmen and other players looking up at him as he was leading them in the fight song.”
Since then, Fleck has become the youngest head coach in the Big Ten and is now trying to change the Gophers’ culture.
The on-field product was successful last season — a 9-4 record — but the team had a two-day boycott over the suspension of 10 teammates for an alleged sexual assault. After the boycott and eventual bowl game, nearly every Minnesota coach, including former head coach Tracy Claeys, was fired.
The Gophers’ new on-field era starts Thursday when they face Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium in the season opener.
“Everybody is held to the culture’s high standard, and the culture is never going to come down to somebody,” Fleck said. “You’ve got to rise up.”
The practice routine
During the summer, the players went through an unconventional warm-up routine called “Team Coffee.”
Players still have stretches, but incorporate yoga and meditation on the morning of practice.
“It’s been a really huge factor for us,” said running back Shannon Brooks. “On a half day, ... we can come in here as a team, roll out, kind of connect and get our bodies back to where they need to be.”
Fleck also uses scents for his players in meeting rooms. The coach puts different smells in rooms to create different senses.
Music is another big theme when players practice. Fleck changes up the music, but one song always stays on the playlist — “Under Pressure” by Queen. The song plays during field goal routines to add a different element to the kick.
“He’s tried just about everything he can to distract us, whether it be splashing me in the face or dumping [water] on the back of my neck,” said kicker Emmit Carpenter. “He’s done a really good job of just making us focus.”
‘Big guys shouldn’t wear stripes’
Fleck added a program since he arrived called Gopher for Life, which is a set of classes the players can take. The classes teach everything from restaurant etiquette to dress code.
“I didn’t know the reasons things are the way they are [in etiquette],” said defensive tackle Steven Richardson. “The drink is on the right side, and how to eat with silverware from the outside in.”
The classes teach players about skills like communication. Players are also selected in Fleck’s leadership council.
“I’ve had the privilege of being on [Fleck’s] leadership council,” Carpenter said. “We meet once a week and talk about different leadership topics. It’s been an absolutely life-changing experience.”
The leaders discuss topics from team towels to issues with players.
“We talk about team issues if we have any,” said running back Rodney Smith. “Who we think we can influence to get on board, to buy into the culture.”
Fleck also invites speakers to educate the team. Sportscaster Rachel Baribeau and the Aurora Center, a University group that gives support to sexual assault victim-survivors, have both presented to the team.
“It’s not just one thing or one speaker, it’s the constant education of societal issues that we have,” Fleck said. “Letting our culture educate the response moving forward.”
The class on dress code, otherwise known as “Swag Class,” helps players dress according to their body types. Smith said he asked for the class.
“We had stylists come talk to us about do’s and don’ts,” Smith said. “Big guys shouldn’t wear stripes, stuff like that.”
The difference culture makes
Last year, Tracy Claeys finished his Minnesota head coaching career with an 11-8 record, including an upset victory over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl in December.
The year before, Jerry Kill was head coach of the team, but stepped down mid-season due to health concerns. Some upperclassmen on the team have had three different head coaches in three years.
“I’d say the biggest change is there’s probably just a lot more energy around here,” Carpenter said. “Everything is just very lively and upbeat and passionate.”
Fleck had a 30-22 record as Western Michigan head coach. The Broncos finished 1-11 in Fleck’s first season there. In 2016 at Western Michigan, the team finished 13-1, losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl in the last game.
During Fleck’s tenure with the Broncos, he helped the team win their first conference title since 1998 and twice earned MAC Coach of the Year for his efforts.
“Sustain the culture at Minnesota, and I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve been missing,” Smith said.
Minnesota has been projected to finish 4-8 by USA Today, and the team was ranked No. 66 in the ESPN Power Index for Fleck’s first season.
Novak said anytime you have a coaching change, the team should be patient to adjust.
“It’s a culture change, and with [Fleck], it’s probably a big culture change,” Novak said. “I don’t think anyone can predict exactly how well they’re gonna do this year.”