Electrified after watching a Tai’yon Devers sack during Tuesday’s practice, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck hustled over for a hug, leaping high into Devers’ arms.
An hour earlier, the 36-year-old Fleck had challenged linebacker Everett Williams to a foot race. They finished the sprint and did an up-down, each jogging in place and dropping his chest to the ground, as the rest of the team howled with cheers.
It was the Gophers’ third spring practice under Fleck, the first that was open to the media, and Fleck’s everyday exuberance was on full display.
“If I don’t have the energy, how can they bring the energy?” Fleck said.
Never mind the chilly conditions. It was 34 degrees — 25 with the windchill — and Fleck happily held the two-hour practice outdoors.
“First of all, it’s sunny,” Fleck said. “We are in Minnesota, and it’s in March, and it’s above 30 degrees — you bet we are outside. It was a beautiful day. That is football weather right there.”
Fleck zipped around the field, literally sprinting between drills, wearing a maroon zip-up top, black sweats tapered toward the ankles, and white shoes with black laces.
Music pumped through the speakers throughout practice, with a mix of hip-hop and heavy metal. Fleck has a wireless microphone, so he can preach his mantras to players at any moment.
At one point, Fleck had seen one too many dropped balls. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” faded briefly, while he bellowed, “The ball is the program! The ball is the program!”
It’s one of his most important sayings, written in big letters in the team’s meeting room. Last season, a key reason Fleck’s Western Michigan squad went 13-1 is because it led the nation with the fewest turnovers (eight).
Fleck usually stands behind the line of scrimmage during 11-on-11 drills, quickly glancing down at his white practice script. In one three-play sequence Tuesday, he saw receiver Rashad Still drop a pass over the middle. Fleck ran to Still, spoke for an extended moment, then patted him on the helmet.
As Fleck ran back, receiver Eric Carter caught a bubble screen and made a nice move. Fleck sped back to the huddle to give Carter a high-five.
After the next play, the first-team defense went to the sideline and within seconds, Fleck was there with them, pulling them in for a talk.
“I think a lot of people look at me and go, ‘Oh, he’s trying to be like that,’ ” Fleck said. “I’m just me, and I just like being me. I don’t have to be anybody else but myself.
“And our coaching staff — I don’t want them being anybody but themselves, and the players, the same way. But the culture demands a certain amount of energy from everybody in the organization.”
The Gophers went 9-4 last season under former coach Tracy Claeys, their highest victory total since 2003. Fleck hasn’t promised more victories this fall. He has promised to build a culture that eventually will lead to championships.
In Tuesday’s pre-practice meeting, Fleck shared with his players some of the statements Theo Epstein made when he took over as Chicago Cubs president in 2012. The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908 before finally winning last October.
“We showed them his vision from five years ago,” Fleck said. “He said, ‘When we win the World Series, here’s what it’s going to look like and how we are going to do it.’
“It’s the same in our organization and our football program. There is a high, high standard of how we do things — not what we do, but how we do it.”