Dinkytown’s coffee shops were not yet open for business at 5:50 a.m., when Gophers football players assembled this winter for twice-a-week meetings under new coach P.J. Fleck.
Nobody needed caffeine anyway. Not with the espresso jolt that comes whenever the 36-year-old Fleck holds court.
The Gophers open spring practice Tuesday, and an inside glimpse at their preparation last month gave no hints that the turbocharged coach even sleeps.
Hired from Western Michigan two months ago to replace Tracy Claeys, Fleck won’t coach an actual game until the Aug. 31 opener against Buffalo. But Fleck views each meeting as a critical step toward connecting the players and instilling his will.
As players arrived, the 143-seat, theater-style meeting room pulsed with a hip-hop beat from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Wearing matching gray T-shirts and maroon shorts, players filled the first few rows, with the coaching staff assembled in back.
At 5:47, three minutes ahead of schedule, Fleck burst through a door, and everyone leapt to their feet, clapping and cheering — giving their “Gopher Welcome,” as they call it, for anyone who addresses the team.
“Good morning!” Fleck said. “Great to see all of you!” Players shouted back in kind.
The tone had been set, and it was loud.
“Your volume is your confidence,” Fleck later explained.
Players sat back down, with senior quarterback Conor Rhoda perched in the front row. A backup last season, Rhoda was ready to leave football and begin job hunting before Fleck convinced him to return.
Rhoda has been through three previous Gophers offseasons — two under Jerry Kill and one under Claeys.
“It’s just a 180,” Rhoda said. “Not that it went from being bad to good, but it’s just a lot different.”
The 6 a.m. offseason conditioning workouts aren’t new. The Gophers held those under Kill and Claeys. But those coaches reserved team meetings mostly for spring practice and the season. Fleck holds them year-round, unless the players are on break.
When the team meetings end, players come running — not walking — down the steps toward the indoor facility for the workout. Fleck greets them again on the field, wearing a wireless microphone to keep his buzzwords flowing over the loudspeakers.
“Change your best!”
“Trained behavior becomes instinct!”
Fleck often gives a theme for the day during the meeting and drives it home during the workout, while players push themselves to their physical limits.
“I think guys are receiving it really well,” Rhoda said. “When we have a meeting, you can’t walk out of here and yawn because it’s 5:50 in the morning, or you’re going to get your butt chewed.”
Attacking all senses
At Western Michigan, where his teams improved from 1-11 to 13-1, Fleck occasionally showed up for meetings in a shark costume or a pirate costume. He once had his assistants come dressed as the starting five for the Showtime Lakers, introducing Magic, Kareem and Co. to his players.
College football now demands an 11-months-per-year player commitment, and Fleck is always seeking things to break up the monotony. He will show short movie clips and call on players afterward to make sure they understood the point.
“These are 17- to 22-year-old young people whose lives change every second through social media and everything else,” Fleck explained. “Most people sit there and say, ‘I can’t keep their attention, so why bother?’ Well, I’m not that way.”
Fleck’s mother, Linda, spent 29 years working as a teaching assistant in Sugar Grove, Ill. After playing wide receiver for Northern Illinois and the San Francisco 49ers, Fleck had a brief stint as a sixth-grade social studies teacher.
Now, everything is scripted, right down to the music that pumps from the practice facility’s speakers. At Western Michigan, Fleck had a DJ booth installed at Waldo Stadium.
“These guys listen to music 24/7,” he said. “There’s always headphones in their ears. You’ve got to be able to hit all five senses. That’s one thing I learned as a young teacher.”
For this meeting, Fleck gave a 17-minute PowerPoint presentation on the meaning of his signature word: “Elite.”
Whenever Fleck’s players are asked how they’re doing, they’re expected to say, “Elite!”
“And it kind of sounds silly,” Fleck told his players. “You don’t necessarily know what it means. You’ve kind of just taken it and ran with it, which I appreciate.”
Fleck listed three tenets:
“Elite is a nekton mentality.”
“Elite is a Prefontaine pace.”
“Elite is a farmer’s alliance.”
Fleck’s nekton slide showed a great white shark midair, flaring its teeth. Nektons are sharks and other organisms that can swim independent of water conditions.
“They don’t let circumstance dictate their behavior,” Fleck said, switching to a picture of Navy Seals. “These guys actually call themselves nektons. They can fight on land, water or in the air. They are trained for every single circumstance.”
He also noted that great white sharks aren’t satisfied, even if they have just eaten two sea lions for lunch. If they see a third sea lion, they are immediately ready for an early dinner. “You are always attacking, never full,” Fleck said. “… Every. Single. Day.”
The projection screen switched to a picture of an Olympic runner from the 1970s.
“Who is this guy? Anybody know?” Fleck asked. “Steve Prefontaine died in a car crash in the 70s, or you’d all know who he is. He was the Usain Bolt of distance running. He was so fun to watch because he sprinted the entire race. ‘Pacing was for average people,’ he said. ‘You’re going to get all of me, all the time.’
“And that’s the urgent pace you must have in this culture to become elite.”
Explaining the “farmer’s alliance,” Fleck gave an example of two neighbors: one rich with the finest seed, equipment and fertilizer, and the other struggling to survive. If winds blow the struggling farmer’s seeds onto the rich farmer’s land, Fleck said, neither crop will prosper. “That’s why farmers are selfless,” he said.
Fleck threw out a hypothetical situation, where players stumble upon trouble brewing at a party, such as a potential fight.
“You grab your guy and get out!” Fleck said. “You don’t sit there and say, ‘Let’s stick around and see what happens in this [fight].’ That’s probably not the best thing for this program.”
Though Fleck didn’t reference it specifically, his example ran parallel to the incident that embroiled the program last fall, when multiple players were involved in an alleged sexual assault. Ten player suspensions led to a two-day team boycott, and Claeys was eventually fired, even though the Gophers went 9-4 and won the Holiday Bowl.
Fleck’s “farmer’s alliance” concept “doesn’t go back to what this program has been through,” he said. “It goes back to what our societal issues are in 2017. We have to take care of each other. You’ve got to find a way to get out of a negative situation.”
From Wiffle ball to football
Toward meeting’s end, Fleck called on redshirt freshman cornerback Kiondre Thomas, asking, “Can you repeat all those things that make you elite?”
Thomas drew a blank.
“That’s my point,” Fleck said. “It can take one guy to ruin the entire crop.”
Three days later, in the next team meeting, Fleck gave Thomas another chance. The coach also made a promise: If Thomas answered correctly, the players wouldn’t have to run gassers. Sure enough, Thomas summed up Fleck’s entire speech — nekton mentality, Prefontaine pace, farmer’s alliance — drawing big cheers, since it saved everyone from extra sprints.
Most of Fleck’s conditioning workouts are physically and mentally demanding. Players bend and contort their bodies, push weighted sleds around cones and sprint between every station.
One February morning, Fleck surprised the players. Instead of drills, he had them pick teams and play Wiffle ball. Last week, he set up competitions even the injured players could enjoy: a bubble-gum blowing contest, rock-paper-scissors, coin toss best-of-seven. Healthy players competed in dodge ball and a three-point contest.
Even in that environment, Fleck didn’t miss a chance to motivate. He has a saying: “Plus-3.” For example, if coaches ask you to sprint 10 yards, you should sprint 13. Each player is expected to raise his grade-point average by at least 0.3.
“It’s all mixed together,” Rhoda said. “So whether it’s changing your best in the weight room or the classroom, it’s just striving to be that elite person they talk about so much.”
Now comes spring practice. Players have seen the energy their new coach brings to 6 a.m., winter workouts. They can only imagine how fired up he gets once they’re in pads and footballs start flying.