A note stuck to a locker.
“I love you guys, but …”
That’s how Gophers players learned some of their teammates wouldn’t be back in 2017. The turbulent time is a distant memory now, with the Gophers on the verge of their most meaningful game in decades Saturday against Wisconsin.
But back then, the practice became so routine, players were numb to it. Defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere recalled singing a made-up song whenever he went into the football facility, an upbeat chorus of “I wonder who’s going to leave today?” that belied the harsh reality.
The program had gone through massive upheaval, starting with coach Jerry Kill’s resignation halfway through 2015 for health reasons. Coach Tracy Claeys’ firing after the 2016 season, when players boycotted in protest of the school’s handling of a sexual assault allegation, was the next hit. Then current coach P.J. Fleck came in on his tidal wave of culture.
None of that was easy to accept. And players transferring became a norm.
But not everyone left. And many who stayed will now play their final game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, capping off an unprecedented regular season with a chance to beat their archrival and go to the Big Ten Championship Game.
“I feel like we all knew that if we stuck together that something beneficial would come from it. Whether that be on or off the field,” said running back Rodney Smith, the most veteran of the players, in his sixth year. “We all stayed for a reason. … We all knew that we could be special. … Minnesota is a special place. And we know that because we’re here.”
Smith recalled how all the players who stayed — including most of the 13 the program will honor Saturday for senior day — talked about “buying in” to Fleck’s culture and how that might look for each player. Some players even did research into Fleck and “Row the Boat” before he arrived on campus.
Fleck spent many sleepless nights his first week on the job, calling players and trying to convince them to stay, worried about fielding even just his 85-scholarship limit. One of those was safety Antoine Winfield Jr. He is still just a sophomore eligibility-wise after back-to-back season-ending injuries, but he has spent four years with the Gophers. That could have ended at one after he was one of the players facing suspension from the sexual assault allegation, though the school eventually cleared him.
The reason Winfield remained wasn’t because of Fleck’s culture. An appreciation for that came later. First, it was his teammates. Specifically, his roommates from his recruiting class, including defensive end Carter Coughlin and linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, all ending their Gophers careers this season.
“I just couldn’t leave them. I couldn’t leave those boys,” Winfield said. “I love them.”
Those few are part of the self-dubbed “empire” 2016 recruiting class, a group that committed to Kill, stayed on once he resigned and persisted when Fleck took the helm. Their bond forged partly because so many of them are Minnesotans who grew up 20 minutes apart playing high school football. Coughlin helped that along as the crown jewel of that class with a Gophers family legacy to uphold. He invited his future teammates to his cabin to bond and sent constant Twitter messages to recruit those still on the fence.
Receiver Tyler Johnson said those nagging DMs were a “big reason” why he’s on the Gophers now. And that communication helped later on during the coaching change.
“A lot of trust was built then within one another,” Johnson said. “… The main point was sticking together. … We were always talking, all the time, like, ‘Yo, what’re you thinking? What’s going on? How you feeling?’ But we were all just all there for each other, really. And I feel like that’s just what made us strong.”
While they all decided to give Fleck a chance, that didn’t mean they trusted blindly. Fleck said he actually considered redshirting that entire class while they dealt with the changeover. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca remembered with amusement how those players didn’t give the new coaching staff any “street cred.” Some struggled to adapt, like defensive end Tai’yon Devers, who said all the changes throughout his career were a shock, and it was hard for him to take at first.
The same for Coughlin. While he never wavered on wanting to play for the Gophers, he didn’t hide his frustration.
“Initially, I reacted emotionally. I was upset,” Coughlin said at Big Ten Media Days this past July. “And I realized that my role is as a leader, either I can accept what’s happened and choose to respond in a positive way or I can keep feeling bad for myself. So quickly, even though I didn’t necessarily believe it, I faked it until I made it. I think I put on a face for guys that encouraged them to feel the same way and help that transition move along faster.”
Sometime about halfway through last season, that veneer faded and true belief took its place. And now the seniors have forged a 10-1 record. Individually, many, including Johnson, Martin and Coughlin, will be NFL draft picks. Some, like Smith, have already written their names into the Gophers’ record book.
“It’s an amazing story. It’s an amazing journey from every single one of their perspectives,” Fleck said. “From when they got here, to what they went through, to three head coaches, to highs, to lows, to the top, to the bottom.”
Saying goodbye to that class will be bittersweet, sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan said. But he also noted this is the ultimate send-off for a group that has meant so much to the team and will never go unnoticed.
“When you look back years down the road of what Minnesota is, you’ll think about those guys,” Morgan said. “What they went through and how they turned around the University of Minnesota football program. Those are the guys that started it all.”
And now, they can finish it on top.