P.J. Fleck was true to his Energizer Bunny reputation during his Gophers debut Thursday, leaping into celebratory hip-bumps with players, sprinting all over the field, getting into spirited discussions with officials.
Ninety minutes after TCF Bank Stadium cleared, it was a much quieter scene, when Fleck finally headed home, still clutching a game ball, as he walked with his wife, Heather.
Fleck’s parents, Linda and Phil, had traveled from Sugar Grove, Ill., for the game, along with other relatives, so he made sure to greet them.
The game ball, painted white on one side, had been a surprise gift from athletic director Mark Coyle. Fleck was the first to win his Gophers football head coaching debut since John Gutekunst in 1986.
“The opener’s the opener, but it’s those little things as we go,” Fleck said. “Because it’s going to be a process.”
Fleck knew the victory wasn’t pretty. For fans, it probably raised more questions than it answered about a team coming off a 9-4 finish under Tracy Claeys. But anyone who watched Fleck closely saw how different his high-octane, in-game coaching style will be.
Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 145 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Fleck ran for about 350 yards, and paced the sidelines for 600 more. He gives new meaning to the “Minnesota March.”
Three hours before kickoff, the band’s drum corps provided the soundtrack as P.J. and Heather Fleck led the Gophers off the bus, holding hands and greeting fans. The players filed into the stadium behind them.
Fleck headed for the field to check the wind conditions while Heather made the rounds, greeting the cheerleaders. The Flecks reunited on the Gophers’ bench, enjoying about 10 minutes of quiet conversation during the calm before the storm.
With kickoff approaching, the stadium’s electricity increased. Fleck, 36, stood before the players in the tunnel for an elongated minute, chin held high. Ever style-conscious, he wore sunglasses, a white windbreaker, maroon tie, maroon pants and another pair of custom-painted shoes.
Once he got his cue, Fleck came sprinting onto the field, outpacing the players behind him, some carrying flags and oars.
“Same old P.J.,” senior linebacker Jon Celestin said, comparing Fleck’s gameday energy to what players have seen every day since Fleck’s hiring in January.
When Tyler Johnson turned a slant pass from Conor Rhoda into a 61-yard, first-quarter touchdown, Fleck charged down the sideline, holding up one finger, summoning the extra-point team. Then Fleck did a windmill fist pump, like Tiger Woods in his prime.
A former NFL receiver, Fleck caught serious air when he leapt to bump hips with Brooks after his 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. got the same treatment after his blocked field-goal attempt in the second quarter. When safety Jacob Huff made his interception along the Gophers sideline in the third quarter, Fleck hopped right on the safety’s back.
Fleck also had several animated moments with the officials. When Brooks was marked down before the goal line in the first quarter, the referee studied the replay while Fleck worked on the linesman. The coach held his fingers an inch apart, signaling how close the ball was to the goal line, and suddenly that striped-shirt linesman was smiling.
Amid all the showmanship, Fleck has moments of cool composure, too.
He briefly rubbed his shaved head when Rhoda threw his interception into the end zone late in the first half. When Rhoda reached the sideline, Fleck asked, “What did you see?” Rhoda explained that he had misread Buffalo’s coverage, and Fleck patted him on the helmet.
“Those are the things you learn from,” Fleck said. “We’ve got to do a better job teaching.”
With the Gophers clinging to their one-touchdown lead, All-Big Ten kicker Emmit Carpenter missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter. A camera caught Fleck’s reaction. He quickly spit something in frustration but seemed to catch himself, determined to stay composed.
When Carpenter rebounded with a 43-yarder to seal the victory with 2 minutes, 5 seconds remaining, Fleck pointed at him with pride.
Later, when asked what he’ll remember most about his Gophers debut, Fleck mentioned the student section, “10,000 strong.”
“I’ll remember that, and I’ll remember the resiliency of our team,” Fleck said. “And I think Emmit Carpenter was the perfect example of that.”
During the postgame locker room celebration, Fleck jumped into the arms of his waiting players and crowd-surfed above them, as he did after victories at Western Michigan.
Now in his fifth year as a head coach, he said he’s learned something: “Always appreciate a win, no matter how you get it. Because I’ve seen 1-11, I’ve seen 13-1. I’ve seen national championships. I’ve seen a lot of other things. But you never ever take winning for granted.”