MINNEAPOLIS - PJ Fleck takes a very business-like approach as the head coach of the University of Minnesota football team.
He walks into every media session wearing a sharp suit, a tradition that carries over into game day in multiple ways. He leads the Ski-U-March into TCF Bank Stadium in a full suit, as does every one of his 100-plus players. He sports a dress shirt, tie and overcoat on the sidelines during games to pay homage to mentor and former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel.
He wants a business-like approach. After all, he hopes he’s coaching future CEO’s and business leaders.
The Gophers were very business-like in a 34-7 dismantling of Nebraska Saturday night, improving to 6-0. They ran for 322 yards against the Cornhuskers, and got three touchdowns from Mohamed Ibrahim. The Gophers have scored at least 28 points in six straight games. The last time that’s happened? 1905.
Now for the first time under Fleck, the Gophers are nationally ranked. They came in Sunday at No. 20 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and Coaches Polls. It’s their first time being ranked since 2014.
After Saturday’s win, Fleck referenced a spirited team meeting he held Friday night. He shared various stories of how some of his players got to Minnesota. He shared the adversities some of them have faced, and asked one key question to all of them: “Is it worth it?”
“I want it to be worth it. I want you to love it here, I want you to enjoy your experience. Is there times it’s going to be hard? Yeah. But I want you to love the University of Minnesota, I want you to love our culture, love our program, love each other. Has it been worth it up to this point?” Fleck said.
The response appears to be an overwhelming “Yes.” Not only are the Gophers off to their first 6-0 start in 16 years, he’s got at least 85 players with a 3.0 grade point average or higher. Not one player is on academic probation, and they’re regular volunteers in community service. Fleck has said it from day one: He wants his players to get better every day athletically, academically, socially and spiritually.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan called Friday night an “elite team meeting.” Antoine Winfield Jr. said players got to hear several stories about teammates.
Fleck jokes that senior running back Rodney Smth has been in the program 12 years. He’s in his sixth year and came back after a season-ending knee injury last year. He didn’t have to. He’s now averaging 112.5 yards rushing per game, has four touchdowns and ran for a career-high 211 yards in Minnesota’s Week 5 win over Illinois. He ran for 140 yards and a score against Nebraska.
Smith couldn’t be happier with his decision to stay as the Gophers are now bowl eligible after six games.
“That was one of the reasons why I chose to come back. I believe that this team could be special, and we are special. So it is exciting. We’ve just got to keep working every day, keep doing all we can do to keep winning games,” Smith said after Saturday’s win.
Smith is one of 11 Gophers’ seniors who is soaking in every moment they can this season.
Shannon Brooks ran for 101 yards on Saturday. Tyler Johnson had five catches for 109 yards and tied Eric Decker and Tutu Atwell with his 11th career 100-yard receiving game. Kamal Martin led a dominant defensive effort with 15 tackles. Thomas Barber had nine tackles and a half sack. Sam Renner had four tackles and a sack. Carter Coughlin had three tackles and a sack.
It’s a group of 11 seniors that’s on their third head coach and endured coordinator changes.
“They’ve seen the most here, they’ve been through the most change. They’ve been through the most success, and they’ve been through the most adversity. That senior class has seen a lot,” Fleck said. “We have powerful seniors because they never had to stay. It was the hardest for them to stay and believe in it, but more importantly, they stayed for each other. There’s no coincidence most of them are all roommates.”
It’s a group that has the Gophers as 29.5 point favorites on the road at Rutgers this Saturday.