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P.J. Fleck is on a Mission to Create "Firsts" at the University of Minnesota

07/18/2019, 4:30pm CDT
By Daniel House

When the Gophers walked off the field on Nov. 3, 2018, it felt like the sky was falling. On a day in which Minnesota’s defense allowed 646 total yards and five explosive plays, many thought the program was still miles away from taking another step. 

After a reeling Illinois team obliterated the Gophers, 55-31 in Champaign, the youngest team in college football reached its lowest point. 

A few days later, Minnesota made a change at defensive coordinator. With just three weeks remaining in the 2018 season, head coach P.J. Fleck handed the play-calling duties to assistant Joe Rossi. The Gophers needed two wins over the final three games to qualify for a bowl game. At the time, the task felt improbable. 

Suddenly, seven days later, it's like a light-switch flipped. 

Minnesota dominated Purdue, holding the Boilermakers to 233 total yards. A 41-10 win changed the entire direction of the season. The Gophers’ tenacious offensive line and simplified defensive scheme brought them out of a slump. Two weeks later, Minnesota physically dominated Wisconsin to claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 14 years. In the team’s final four games, the defense only allowed 14.8 points and 300 total yards per game. 

During a season filled with peaks and valleys, a small light started to shine. All year, signs filled the practice facility with the phrase, “Race to Mah-turity”, inscribed into a NASCAR logo. It took until mid-November, but the team finally made progress toward their goal – to mature. 

“To have success and to become a champion, I feel like you need both spectrums. You have to fail enough to be successful and you have to go through some of those positive shining moments. The team last year had the entire spectrum,” head coach P.J. Fleck said at Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day. “At one point, I think they failed enough to become successful if they were mature enough to handle it.”

The leadership of new coordinator Joe Rossi was critical, but the players also responded to adversity. This sudden change in approach helped them mentally grow. Now, instead of teaching everything, coaches can now focus on helping players individually master the system in 2019.

“At the beginning, those younger guys were playing and we’re just doing everything we can to get them to line up right -- just line up right -- let alone master your craft and get to know all of your technique,” Fleck said. “When you have that many young players playing at once, it’s harder to be able to get better. It’s just about getting out there and doing your job. But towards the end of the year of the year, I thought we were able to get better in a lot of areas.”

Reaching "78 Percent"

With such a young 2018 roster, Minnesota focused on winning the “78 percent” battle every week. Last offseason, the Gophers’ football staff conducted research on NFL and collegiate games over the past 50 years. They found turnover margin, explosive plays and missed tackles were directly correlated to success. Coaches learned teams that held advantages in these categories won football games at a 78 percent rate. In 2018, the Gophers were 7-0 when they won the 78 percent battle. Minnesota lost all six games when they didn’t meet the requirements. This not only can apply to future seasons, but helped develop a different mindset for young players. 

“It helps our coaches through individual practice, through the time they spend with the players - what we had to focus on,” Fleck said. “Now we can get into mastering our system and even be able to expand on that 78 percent, but more in-house with our system. When your hardest workers are your best players, you have something really special and we’re starting to get to that point.”

Fleck strives to build a "life program"

Outside of the win column, Minnesota’s program has been showing growth in other areas. Since joining the Gophers in early 2017, P.J. Fleck made it clear his players would develop academically, athletically, socially and spiritually. After two full years in Minnesota, Fleck is continuing to create what he calls a "life program."

“We have the highest GPA in the history of the football program at 3.20 and we’re proud of that. We’ve had guys that have gone from 2.4 to 3.7 GPAs and it’s no coincidence that they’re also becoming really good football players,” Fleck said. “They’re loving their life, they’re appreciating their life, they’re putting value back into their life in all areas and becoming a complete person. The word success has a lot of meanings and we’ll continue to have successful people first.”

As many of the variables start to come together for Minnesota’s football program, they are about to embark on a season filled with plenty of opportunities. The Big Ten West is competitive, but Fleck is starting to see his program make new strides. 

“All of the Big Ten West teams have been able to elevate [their rosters] and we feel like we’re a part of that as well. And the recruiting success that we’ve had over the last two years, we feel like we’re breaking boundaries, we're knocking walls down in terms of recruiting to the Twin Cities area,” Fleck said. “Maybe doing things that haven’t been done before and that’s the life line of your program —recruiting.”

Creating “firsts” at Minnesota 

In 2018, Minnesota won a regular season finale and bowl game for the first time in program history. As Fleck and his staff look ahead, they want to keep creating “firsts” at the University of Minnesota. A 37-15 win over Wisconsin brought the Axe back to Dinkytown for the first time in 14 years. The win injects energy into a roster filled with youth and returning experience. 

"There are a lot of things that happen to people’s minds, especially in our state. They doubt it more, they say we’ll never ‘never’, they say words like that. Breaking that mold creates this hope for the future. That’s what I hope our state of Minnesota understands,” Fleck said. 

The head coach is ready to show the state of Minnesota what his program can accomplish in the future. This starts by continuing to improve every area of the team's culture. 

“Academically, we’re showing people how we’re changing. Socially, we’re showing people how the brand of the University of Minnesota is changing. Spiritually, we’re showing our lives are bigger than just ourselves. And then, athletically, we are doing things that haven’t been done in a very long time - some never.”

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