The Gophers were abysmal the first two football games of the season.
And only coach P.J. Fleck could find the teachable moment in that unsavory set of performances.
“I read them a book, ‘Everyone Poops’ ” Fleck recalled of the Friday team meeting before the Illinois game. “And I know that sounds crazy because we didn’t play very well, but poop can be used as fertilizer if you grow. And in Minnesota, we’ve got lots of farms, and the poop is actually the manure, and it can help with crops and the best fruit and vegetables.”
The children’s book, which depicts various animals relieving themselves, is meant to show kids how going No. 2 is normal and nothing to be embarrassed about, especially since everyone does it. And that’s essentially what Fleck was metaphorically trying to convey as well.
The Gophers did really crumble to start the season, losing big to Michigan and at Maryland with a highly touted passing game failing to meet expectations and a defense allowing an average of 578 yards per game. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim was one of the few not wasting his chances.
At Illinois on Saturday, though, the Gophers’ 41-14 victory did seem to sprout from their earlier failures, seizing an opportunity against a struggling opponent. Ibrahim rushed for another 224 yards. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Rashod Bateman connected for their first touchdown. The defense held the Illini to 287 yards. Even the shaken special teams unit went from glaringly bad to not really noticeable.
And maybe that’s because the coach reminded his players that good can come from bad.
“I mean, that’s Coach Fleck. It hit perfect of being able to grow,” Morgan said of the book’s lessons. “… I think our guys really took to it.”
This isn’t the first time Fleck — a former schoolteacher, as he likes to remind people — has tucked his players in with a bedtime story. Earlier this year, he discussed “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” with the team as a strategy for how to navigate an unknown COVID-19-impacted season “just right.”
Fleck said he tried not to mention the team’s winless record to his players throughout the week, instead trying to turn their focus to something they could control. He re-educated them on the foundation of his “Row the Boat” culture, how the ultimate goal is to all keep moving toward the common goal together, no matter the obstacles.
Returning to the basics seemed to help settle the Gophers at Illinois. And they’ll hope the quick turnaround for a Friday game against Iowa won’t be too much of a strain.
“It’s a huge rivalry game for us,” Fleck said. “I think everybody in the state of Iowa and the state of Minnesota knows how important this game is, 2020 or not. It’s a really big game. It’s a really important game.”
The Gophers’ 23-19 loss in Iowa City last season ruined a perfect record and extended a border-game losing streak to five. This year, Iowa is also 1-2, having struggled in its first two games before finally rebounding big Saturday to crush Michigan State 49-7.
It’s unknown what tale Fleck might bust out come Thursday night to inspire his players — though “The Three Little Pigs,” in honor of Floyd of Rosedale, is probably a good bet.
“It’s not just a children’s book, you know, those children’s books have a message,” Bateman said of Fleck’s choice in literature. “And everybody thinks that they’re just for young kids, but it doesn’t matter your age. Of all ages, you read that book, and there’s a message in there for everybody.
“And Coach Fleck does a good job of pulling that message out of the book and spreading it to our team and to apply it on the field and in our lives.”