How P.J. Fleck rebuilt Minnesota football using batting doughnuts, ‘The Dig’ and the Nekton mentality

It has been 78 years since Minnesota football last started a season this well.

At 8-0, the 17th-ranked Golden Gophers are off to their best start since that 1941 season, when they won a national title. They’re 5-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1961, and hold a two-game lead in the West Division. If No. 1 LSU vs. No. 2 Alabama weren’t also happening this Saturday, Minnesota’s game against No. 4 Penn State (noon ET on ABC), would top the Week 11 marquee. It’s still Minnesota’s most anticipated home contest in decades.

Before the recent surge, Minnesota’s national relevance had been limited to P.J. Fleck, its 38-year-old spark plug coach — and owner of a new seven-year contract — and the messaging that covers every corner of his program. Most college football fans know Fleck and “Row the Boat,” the program’s ubiquitous motto. There’s probably less knowledge of “The Dig” (experiencing the grind of the first 18-20 months in Fleck’s program) or Nekton mentality — that players should model their way of thinking after those aquatic creatures that move independently of the currents.

Is it necessary? When a program that last won a league title in 1967 finally looks like a contender, should the focus be anywhere else but between the lines? On this point, Fleck and his players are emphatic: The football and the messaging don’t diverge, even when there’s finally reason to take notice of the former.

“Everything’s connected,” Fleck recently told ESPN. “How we live our life is going to be how we play. It sounds like a lot of slogans and all this other stuff. It’s really not. It’s very well connected, it’s very organized, it’s a very detailed culture, there’s a standard, and that standard can’t be compromised in any area of your life.”

Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY Sports

That brings us to the baseball bat in Fleck’s office.

Fleck devotes most of his day to finding fresh motivational tools for the players.

“Whatever’s new today is old within an hour,” he said. “Like, old, old.” But after Minnesota improved to 7-0, Fleck brought a symbol from his past to Minnesota’s 36-player leadership council.

“He gave us the word: doughnuts,” senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said.

Added quarterback Tanner Morgan: “Not Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ Donuts, but doughnuts you put on a bat.”

Fleck introduced the bat at Western Michigan in 2016. Each time the Broncos won, he added a weighted doughnut with the opponent’s name, and positives and negatives from the game. The bat ended up with 13 doughnuts, as Western Michigan reached the Cotton Bowl before falling to Wisconsin.

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Here’s his thinking: The bat represents the program. The on-deck circle, where weighted bats are swung, represents preparation for each game. Each added doughnut represents knowledge, but also pressure.

“We want them to understand that pressure’s a good thing,” Fleck said. “If you’ve having pressure, that means your life is significant, because people expect something from you.”

Minnesota’s bat, now carrying eight doughnuts, appears at every practice and team meeting. But when the Penn State game kicks off, Fleck wants his players to perform unburdened.

“To the average person, the bat is getting heavier and heavier, and getting harder to swing,” Morgan said. “But to us, it’s more pressure. We talk about how pressure is always earned. You put that pressure on yourself throughout the week, and before you go play, put that bat on the ground, take those doughnuts off and you’re swinging that bat like it’s a feather.”

Coughlin isn’t a yes-man. He’s the type to question, research and personally verify everything before absorbing it.

“I have a tough time instantly believing stuff,” he said.

When Fleck arrived in 2017, Coughlin questioned the coach’s messages and methods. Minnesota was coming off of a 9-4 season — its most wins since 2003 — and a Holiday Bowl win. Coughlin had been a solid freshman contributor (25 tackles, two sacks) and, in his mind, an aspiring leader.

“He told me my leadership was terrible and the leadership on the team was terrible, and when I see what it’s actually supposed to be, I’ll look back,” Coughlin said. “I thought he was full of it. Looking back where I’m at right now and where a lot of guys on the team are where right now, it’s night and day different.”

Although Minnesota had been winning before Fleck showed up, the team threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl after the university suspended 10 players during a sexual assault investigation. Coach Tracy Claeys tweeted his support for the players, a factor in his eventual dismissal.

“Any time there’s a boycott, that’s complete separation,” Fleck said. “You’ve got a team that, wins aside, is completely divided, somehow, some way. When you’re walking into that, just like our first team meeting, not every player showed up.”

Fleck knew “The Dig” would take time at Minnesota, just as it did at Western Michigan, which finished 1-11 in his first season. The Row the Boat approach targets four areas of development, only one of which is athletics. A complete commitment is required.

The roster changed in those months, but key older players stayed — Coughlin, wide receiver Tyler Johnson, linebacker Thomas Barber, running back Rodney Smith — and more of Fleck’s recruits arrived.

“It’s people that have really chosen to be part of this,” said Gerrit Chernoff, the Minnesota program’s general manager, “and then you start adding some special wins. It shows, ‘OK, we are all-in, we see it working, we see it changing our lives.'”

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck is always looking for new ways to motivate his players. Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The on-field results didn’t surface until late last season. Minnesota chopped Wisconsin 37-15 in Madison, reclaiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years. A 24-point bowl win followed. When the Gophers assembled in January, Fleck saw “complete focus and commitment,” a team finally ready for players to direct. Minnesota’s leadership council meetings have become more discussion than lecture.

“It’s easy to let coaches demand things,” Coughlin said. “Right now, it’s 100 percent on the players. If anything, it’s the coaches saying, ‘We need to tone this down.'”

As for the team on the field, Minnesota plays complementary football. The defense ranks ninth nationally against the pass (166.4 yards per game allowed), sixth in interceptions per pass attempt (4.8%) and 13th in yards allowed (283.8 YPG). Coordinator Joe Rossi, whom Fleck promoted midway through the 2018 season, has made upgrades.

The offense averages 35.8 points. Minnesota boasts two standout receivers in Johnson and Rashod Bateman, who are featured in a pass attack that ranks sixth nationally in yards per attempt (10.34), behind only Oklahoma, LSU, Alabama, Navy and Air Force. The Gophers also have a proven rusher in Smith and a starting offensive line that weighs a combined 1,700 pounds.

“We’re doing things that haven’t been done since World War II. When you’ve started to do things like that, people take notice.”

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck

“P.J. is 38 years old, and everyone’s expecting all this fast-paced offense,” Chernoff said. “That’s not what we are. We’re a control-the-clock, throwback football team. We’re very disciplined. We don’t have many penalties. We understand situations.”

Fleck, who as a young coach worked under Jim Tressel and Greg Schiano, says he believes more college football games are lost than won. Minnesota’s on-field philosophy is hooked around a win probability: 78%. It’s a team’s likelihood of winning when holding edges in turnover margin, missed tackles vs. broken tackles, and explosive plays generated vs. explosive plays allowed.

During nonconference play, Minnesota drifted between 78% and its counterpart, the dreaded 22%. The Gophers had more turnovers than Fresno State when they played the Bulldogs, but still won in two overtimes — one of four single-digit wins to begin the season.

“It wasn’t a wake-up call, but it brought complete validity to that 78%,” Fleck said, “because in those three games, we were flirting in that 22nd percentile. Our last five games, we’ve won the 78% battle.”

The Gophers have defeated their past four Big Ten opponents by a combined score of 168-41. They’ve scored 28 points or more in their first eight games for the first time since 1904, when they opened with a 107-0 win over Twin Cities Central High School. Minnesota hasn’t played a taxing schedule, but one could argue that fellow unbeatens Alabama, Clemson and Baylor haven’t either. Penn State begins a revealing stretch for the Gophers, which includes No. 18 Iowa (road) and No. 13 Wisconsin (home).

“It’s a really big game because of what’s on the line,” Fleck said. “We’re doing things that haven’t been done since World War II. When you’ve started to do things like that, people take notice.”

Many will get their first glimpse of Minnesota on Saturday. They’ll see an improved product on the field. They’ll also see the cultural markings that follow Fleck and the Gophers everywhere — by design.

“If there’s stuff that doesn’t add up, it wouldn’t work,” Coughlin said. “Everything needs to be interconnected, intertwined. Everything relates back to the ‘Row the Boat’ culture.

“We know exactly who we are, and who we need to be.”

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