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The era of P.J. Fleck — the University of Minnesota’s exuberant, inescapable, chatty new football coach — is about to begin

Fleck arrived as one of the hottest young coaches in the country. Yet many Gophers fans — mindful of so many past disappointments — have been hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. 

Anyone who followed social media, read a local sports section or watched ESPN the last few months knows it’s been impossible to avoid P.J. Fleck.
Gophers Athletic Department

If you come to a college football practice seeking innovation, you’re usually going to be out of luck. Coaches are thieves (a line that comes from a hockey coach but applies nonetheless). They liberally borrow drills and concepts from each other, making adjustments for time, personnel or individual whims. This is football, not Silicon Valley.

With Philip John Fleck, better known as P.J., the new head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, that notion is as true as it is any other place. Music at practice? New to the Gophers, but not to college football. Todd Hoffner does it at Minnesota State, and lots of teams in the Big Ten Conference and the Pac-12 use programmed soundtracks, with songs keyed to specific drills. In the NFL, the New York Jets have done it going back a decade. In fact, the practice is now so ubiquitous that a telecommunications company called CoachComm makes sound systems specifically geared for it.

Before each practice, Fleck gives video coordinator Matt Childers a list of six to eight songs to cue up at key moments, usually hip-hop, pop or heavy metal chosen for tempo and tone. When the Gophers field goal unit dashed onto the field during an open practice earlier this month, they heard “Under Pressure,” the Queen & David Bowie collaboration. Fleck likes that song a lot. (It should be noted that Fleck, now 36, was in diapers when it came out.) 

A cliché? Sure. But it came with a wrinkle: Fleck squirting a water bottle at players in three-point stance, challenging them to remain still. “It’s a small detail that shows that practice matters,” Fleck said. “Even the music at practice matters to me, because music touches all of our souls. Music takes us all somewhere, sometime, someplace. It does. And so, same thing at practice. If there’s some way I want them to think, we do that. You’re going to hear even stranger stuff throughout the year, I promise, in terms of tactics I feel can motivate and inspire.” 

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We know all of this because Fleck opened six August practices to the media and fans — again, not an original idea, but important to someone who values salesmanship as much as coaching.

The perpetual exuberance machine

Anyone who followed social media, read a local sports section or watched ESPN the last few months knows it’s been impossible to avoid Fleck. Hired last January to replace the fired Tracy Claeys, his face has been everywhere, talking up the Gophers like nobody since Lou Holtz in the 1980s. When making the hire, Athletics Director Mark Coyle sought someone who could coach and create buzz around a program emerging from a sexual assault scandal. Fleck scored highly on both counts. 

He arrived as one of the hottest young coaches in the country, taking Western Michigan from 1-11 his first season to 13-1 and the Cotton Bowl in his fourth. He brought his copyrighted “Row the Boat!” catchphrase with him to Dinkytown, determined to reinvigorate a Gophers program that’s halfway to being the Chicago Cubs of the NCAA. It’s been 57 years since Minnesota won the last of their seven national championships, 55 since its last Rose Bowl appearance, and 50 since sharing its last Big Ten Conference title.

Around the U’s football offices Fleck’s influence is inescapable, from the canoe and oar in the foyer to the sayings affixed to the walls of the meeting room. “The Ball Is The Program” hangs above the main video screen, a phrase Fleck barks late in practice when the Gophers work on stripping the ball and recovering fumbles. As in: Protect it, at all costs. 

“A lot of energy has been brought to the complex,” said defensive tackle Steven Richardson.

The media-savvy Fleck welcomes attention — anything to get the Minnesota name out there. While some coaches impose silly restrictions on media, two years ago Fleck gave Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel three days of unfettered access at Western Michigan. And when ESPN approached Fleck this summer about a reality series, he jumped at it. Fleck especially liked that the four-part series, “Being P.J. Fleck,” would air in August — when coaches can’t recruit.

His willingness to seize on those PR opportunities speaks to something that’s a secret to only the most myopic of Gopher fans. Outside of the Midwest, Minnesota holds little national cachet. Football recruits could name the 100 programs off the top of their heads and not come up with the Golden Gophers.

Fleck’s task: Turn Minnesota into a football destination. 

“I think any publicity is really good publicity,” he said. “When people are talking about you, as long as it’s not for such negative, negative things, then I think it’s positive. … I don’t think you can ever put a price tag on that in terms of when you talk recruiting.”

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And talking is certainly one of Fleck’s strengths.

Can the boat become a bandwagon?

At a recent practice, Fleck wore a wireless headset connected to a sideline sound system. He hardly needed it. This is the same guy who, at his introductory press conference, spoke in a large conference room with no microphone and no amplification; he projected like a Broadway actor belting lines to the rafters. Imagine that voice, turned up to 11: piercing, unmistakable and impossible to ignore. 

A flag-carrying staffer fired an air horn every 10 minutes or so, sending players sprinting to the next station or assignment. Everybody ran, including Fleck, who wore sunglasses, black shorts and a maroon Minnesota vest over a long-sleeved white shirt. (He prefers a sportcoat and tie for press conferences.) The flag indicated the gathering point for drills. With several hundred spectators looking on, Fleck’s voice carried everywhere. At times he killed the mic to address a player or a group.

Occasionally the music choices leave his players perplexed. “Uptown Funk,” by Bruno Mars, sure, they all know that. But Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”? “Paradise City,” by Guns ’N Roses?  That’s a little too vintage for certain guys. “Some days, I like the music,” said running back Rodney Smith. “Some days, it’s a little iffy.” 

Many Gophers fans, mindful of former coach Tim Brewster’s unfulfilled bluster — Brew famously promised to take Minnesota to a Rose Bowl at his first press conference — have been hesitant to jump on the Fleck bandwagon. Season ticket sales are up only slightly. Plenty of seats remain for Thursday night’s season opener with Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium, which conflicts with the Vikings-Miami Dolphins exhibition game downtown. And Fleck himself has tried to quell expectations by noting the 50 freshman or redshirt freshman on the roster.

A Gopher volleyball inter-squad  scrimmage more than a week ago attracted more fans — about 1,000 — than either of the football practices I attended, which makes sense. Minnesota is a volleyball hotbed, and the volley Gophs are coming off back-to-back Final Fours.

That’s the biggest challenge for Fleck. Minnesota produces tons of terrific small-college football players — that’s why North Dakota State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and the nationally ranked M.I.A.C. teams win a lot — but not enough with the talent needed to play in one of the nation’s premier conferences. Iowa and Wisconsin don’t either, but they long ago hired coaches who lured talented receivers, backs and quarterbacks from out of state.

Minnesota still awaits that transformative coach. We’ll know soon enough if it’s the ebullient guy in the boat.