A gray bucket sits on the floor inside the running backs meeting room at the Gophers football complex. A small, ordinary mop bucket that you’d find at a hardware store.
To Gophers running backs, that bucket carries special meaning, a touch of symbolism that applies not just to that specific position group but to the entire team, particularly with an offense that is filled with stars but cares more about group achievement.
Every Sunday, the running backs take index cards and write down their individual stats from Saturday’s game. No names. Just carries and rushing yards. Then they toss the cards in the bucket.
Translation: They did it as a group. No one running back more important than the others. Selflessness over ego. Team success over individual agendas.
“We have really great players,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “But they’re better teammates than they are really good players.”
A 10-1 record with an opportunity to win the Big Ten West on Saturday doesn’t happen without blue-chip talent. This is the best collection of offensive skill players in the program’s modern history. The Gophers and LSU are the only two teams nationally that boast two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher.
But to them, stats are simply numbers on an index card. Players routinely deflect credit to teammates and coaches when asked about individual success.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned to quarterback Tanner Morgan that his passer rating ranked fourth nationally, only trailing a trio of Heisman Trophy favorites in Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts.
Morgan shrugged, noting that he doesn’t look at stats. His indifference reflects the overall mind-set that permeates the locker room.
Spend any amount of time around Gophers players and you feel a sense of cohesion and unity. A selfless vibe defines the team’s personality, which has allowed their talent to flourish without hurt feelings or jealousy.
Maybe that’s partly a byproduct of winning. Success typically brings happiness and fosters buy-in. But this group of players seemed different way back at the beginning, when the season’s path could have gone any direction.
The running backs, for instance, returned seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks along with sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, who emerged as a force last season with 1,160 rushing yards after injuries elevated his role.
All three are capable of being No. 1 on the depth chart. All three are ultracompetitive. All three are human, which means they want the ball in their hands. But they also recognize there is only one football and finite carries to divvy up. So they operate a timeshare.
Smith, the elder statesman, described it as a good problem at the start of fall camp. He saw only positives because of their close relationships.
“We want to inspire everybody,” he said. “Even if we’re not getting the ball, even if we’re not having the game we want to, we want to be infectious and contagious and spread how we’re feeling throughout the entire team and keep everybody’s spirits up.”
The bucket in their room has several slogans taped to it. One side contains these words: “Togetherness, Selflessness, One Heartbeat.”
“You need a lot of running backs in the Big Ten,” Fleck said. “But to be able to share the carries and understand that some days there will be 20 carries for you, some days there might only be six and you need to be OK with that because it’s for the good of the team, then I think that’s a positive.”
Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson form one of the best receiving tandems in college football. Both are future NFL players. Both have surpassed 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdown catches. Both are each other’s biggest cheerleader.
Fleck attributes that productivity to Johnson and Bateman having each other and knowing defenses can’t focus solely on one. He described Bateman, Johnson and Smith as supremely talented players who worry more about team success than personal glory.
“That’s the whole theme of what we’ve been able to capture with these guys,” he said.
Coaches in every sport often talk about their “culture,” which has become a buzzword that sometimes carries nebulous meaning. The culture that exists in Fleck’s program right now is defined by that bucket inside the running backs meeting room with anonymous stats written on cards.