Gophers’ PJ Fleck calls allegations of toxic program, culture ‘baseless’

PJ Fleck spoke for the first time Thursday morning since allegations of running a "toxic culture" within the University of Minnesota football program arose as Big Ten Media Days started in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

In a story posted by Front Office Sports, former Gophers players and staff talked about having Fleck has a head coach under the condition of anonymity. One allegation was that a "Fleck Bank" gave players the chance to get out of suspensions for failed drug tests and violating team rules by doing community service.

Fleck denied that allegation Thursday, and explained it as an analogy.

"The Fleck Bank, mostly used in 2017 and 2018, was an analogy in a team meeting talking about the more you invest into a program, the better experience you’re going to get out of it. If you’re not doing all the right things, you’re probably not going to have a great experience," Fleck said. "There was no currency ever exchanged, there was no coins that ever existed. It was an analogy simply to explain investment for life, a life lesson of investment, simply that."

Fleck came to Minnesota in 2017, and brought his "Row the Boat" mantra with him. It’s in honor of his son who passed away, and one of his pillars in coaching involves serving and giving related to working with charities and community service.

Another allegation is that some players were pushed too hard to practice or play through injuries, and some had to do extra conditioning as a form of discipline. After the 2022 season, in which the Gophers won at least nine games for the third time in four seasons, 13 players left the program to either the transfer portal, medically retiring or pursuing the NFL.

Fleck said Thursday any punishment or discipline players have faced in his six years with the Gophers was not physical.

"In ‘punishing’ our football team, we do not use physical activity to discipline our players at the University of Minnesota, we have never done that. Our players do things like they wake up early and clean the weight room. Whatever you did, you watch a video on that," Fleck said. "If you were late to class, you watch a video on tardiness. You then write your professor a letter, those are the disciplines we actually have within our program. Our athletic department changed their policies and made sure that no physical activity of any sport could be used as punishment based on what we created as a football team.’

Since the story became public, Gophers’ players present and past have flooded social media with their support for Fleck. He’s entering his seventh season at Minnesota, and is 44-27 over at that time. That includes a 26-26 mark in the Big Ten, and 4-0 record in bowl games. Fleck's teams have won 29 games over the last three full seasons.

Fleck also said his team has more than a half dozen resources to reach out to at the university of a player needs help. That includes Coyle’s cell phone number. Former players and staff cited anonymously in Wednesday's report described an environment under Fleck filled with "intimidation and toxicity," and called it "cult-like."

"These allegations are baseless. This is a similar story that gets pedaled every single year, and the majority of the players have been dismissed or removed from our football team. Mark Coyle gives his cell phone to every single football player to call him if they have an issue. To this date, there have been zero claims on this issue. Our program and culture is proven to work on and off the field, and is always done in a first-class manner. We’re one of the most transparent programs in the country. My energy needs to be on the 2023 football team, and that only and not the baseless allegations. With all the other things that were reported, we have explanations on that as well."

Team culture is at a heightened awareness with the Northwestern hazing scandal, which resulted in the firing of coach Pat Fitzgerald.

The Gophers are also represented at Big Ten Media Days by Tyler Nubin, Chris Autman-Bell and Brevyn Spann-Ford. They start fall camp next week, and host Nebraska on Aug. 31 at Huntington Bank Stadium  in a game you can watch on Fox 9.