P.J. Fleck says Gophers COVID-19 season is what 'Row the Boat' embodies

Head coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks on in the first quarter of the game against the Michigan Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium on October 24, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

When P.J. Fleck brought his “Row the Boat” culture to the University of Minnesota in 2016, there was no way of anticipating how appropriate the message would be as he’s in his fourth season with the Gophers.

How does one respond in the face of adversity? How does one move forward, and do it positively? Between the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the country and affecting sports in every possible way, and George Floyd’s Memorial Day death in south Minneapolis, 2020 might be Fleck’s greatest challenge as both a person and football coach.

He was asked Monday what he’s thankful for, with Thanksgiving three days away. He says he’s learning every day to become a better coach, husband, father, person and making sure he takes the time to listen to 100+ players who struggle physically and emotionally daily with a global health pandemic, and fighting social justice issues. It's his job to keep his team positive amid daily physical and emotional struggles.

This week, he’ll host a Thanksgiving meal with the entire team that abides by all COVID-19 guidelines. They’ll also hold their annual turkey drive with Cub Foods, though it won’t involve fans dropping off donations at TCF Bank Stadium and meeting the team.

“If we’re grateful for what we have, who we have and how we have it, perspective is a powerful thing in this world. We’re not going to let losing or negativity affect our Row the Boat mentality and culture. I’ve learned more than ever, this is what Row the Boat is all about. It’s not for the easy times, it’s for the times that are really difficult and it tests you, and not everybody wants to Row the Boat,” Fleck said.

COVID-19 is affecting everything in every way, between players testing positive, the way he recruits and daily interaction with his team. Last week, Fleck was without 22 players as the Gophers beat Purdue 34-31 due to either injuries or COVID-19 issues. He said Monday “about half” of that number was COVID-related.

Any player who tests positive goes through a series of tests, and if that positive test is confirmed, they’re out 21 days. Fleck was without defensive coordinator Joe Rossi at Illinois due to COVID-19, and didn’t have offensive line coach Brian Callahan and two other staff members Saturday because of it. The team was going through testing Monday as he spoke with reporters.

The Gophers head to Wisconsin Saturday, and in the COVID-19 era, it’s filled with daily uncertainty.

“We hope to get some guys back, I think that’s the most generic answer I can give you,” Fleck said.

Fleck knows first-hand how winning a big rivalry can change the perception of the Gophers. In 2018, Minnesota went to Camp Randall as 20-point underdogs and ran over the Badgers in a 37-17 victory, its first in 14 years.

They arrived back to campus and walked into a party at their football facility. Fleck spoke to fans at a podium like a politician who had just won an election. Paul Bunyan’s Axe went on a tour of Minnesota, with Gophers fans filling buildings to get their picture taken.

Beat Wisconsin Saturday, and a slow start in a weird season can be forgotten, at least for one night.

“You always want to see proof of something work. That was our first proof that we’ve done something that hasn’t been done in a very long time. It was a historic win for our football program, we were 5-6, 20-point underdogs. Everybody was looking at 5-7, I was the Turkey of the Year, you can go on and on about all of it and those kids found a way to win,” Fleck said. “It was one of those statement wins that you said alright, we’ve got something going here.”

The Gophers are 2-3 after holding off Purdue Saturday. The Badgers, who had two cancel two games due to COVID-19, are 2-1 after losing at Northwestern on Saturday. They’d like nothing more than to keep the Axe in Madison. It’s a game that’s bigger than football, it’s for players who have previously donned the Gophers’ jersey, and ones who will wear it in the years to come.

“That’s why you coach at this level, play at this level, for rivalries like this,” Fleck said.