No one is more excited about bubbles than P.J. Fleck.
And maybe that yellow fish from “Finding Nemo.”
The Gophers football coach has strived to make a “synthetic bubble” for his team. One that has led to zero positive COVID-19 tests as of the first day of training camp Friday.
“Our players have had a lot of weeks to get used to a bubble,” Fleck said. “What happens when you don’t use the bubble? What happens when you do use the bubble? This isn’t the NBA to create this $100 million bubble. This is to be able to trust our student-athletes that are doing that.”
Fleck has enforced this figurative bubble in his own signature way. That means when players walk into the football facilities now, they have to watch out for bubble guns and bubble machines, floating dozens of soapy orbs their way. Pictures of bubbles went up on all the walls Friday. All of that is to encourage his players to make safe choices when they leave campus and go back to their apartments.
It might be working. While several teams around college football have halted their workouts after positive tests — including Big Ten schools Rutgers, Northwestern, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Maryland — the Gophers have avoided that. And as of the latest test results update from the athletic department from June 30, only seven student-athletes tested positive of 170 administered tests for the football, basketball, soccer and volleyball teams. The department is overdue in announcing the latest results, something it initially planned to do at the end of each month.
While Fleck and his staff can only subliminally message their players about bubbles to influence how they spend their off time, when they’re participating in football activities, Fleck can ensure everything is up to standard.
“We’ve had a team meeting at TCF Bank Stadium to make sure we could spread everybody out. When they’re standing around at individual and different drills, they’ve got to be 6 feet apart. Everybody has their masks,” Fleck said, adding the players are currently trying out different safety equipment, such as gator face masks and other full shields. “… We have larger meeting rooms. We cleared out our players’ lounge and use that as a meeting room now. We’ve got smaller lift groups. We’ve got multiple practice fields. We split our team up into different groups that are practicing at different times. We’ve got two locker rooms. And not including all the medical and the sanitation that’s going on.”
The facility even has posted maps that show players where to enter and exit to limit two-way movement.
All of this has drastically slowed a program known for its rapid pace. Fleck’s training campus usually boast blaring music, running on and off the field and to each new drill, cramming an incredible amount of work into 90-plus minutes. Now, it’s a “crawl,” per Fleck, that hopefully will eventually progress to a walk, run or sprint.
“I’m not concerned about, ‘Hey, did we get as many practices to make sure that they were as sharp as they needed to be?’ ” Fleck said. “… There’s not even a plan to put pads on until even next week, like a week from now, and that might even be pushed back. So we are going to do things at a snail’s pace to make sure that our student-athletes are safe.”
Fleck isn’t worrying about whether his team will be ready for a Sept. 5 season opener, should the season start as planned. Part of that is because he feels many of his players — from quarterback Tanner Morgan to cornerback Coney Durr — have already played a lot of football and don’t necessarily need a full-speed training camp to feel prepared. Part of that is because he doesn’t even want his team thinking that far into the future.
All that matters for Fleck and the Gophers at this moment is the now. The present.
Their own little bubble.