Gophers seniors who saw PJ Fleck's vision getting rewarded with chance to win Big Ten West

Carter Coughlin #45 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers plays against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on November 23, 2019 in Evanston, Illinois. ((Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images))

PJ Fleck remembers having multiple sleepless nights nearly three years ago, after accepting an offer to become the next head football coach at the University of Minnesota.

He had just finished taking Western Michigan to a 13-0 regular season, and battling Wisconsin to the wire in a 24-16 loss in the Cotton Bowl. He was bringing his “Row the Boat” mantra to Minneapolis, and at the time, the seas were rough.

Athletic Director Mark Coyle had just fired Tracy Claeys after a 9-4 season and 17-12 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. The game almost didn’t happen as Gopher football players threatened a boycott after several players were suspended amid a sexual assault investigation dating back to after the team’s season-opening win over Oregon State.

Fleck was doing everything he could to keep a divided football program together, largely without knowing any of the players on a personal level.

“I still remember the first week we had the job and we were at the Graduate Hotel, I literally didn’t go to bed for four to five days and it was just convincing people to stay,” Fleck said. “Calling guys on their cell phones, getting to know them a little bit more.”

For the current senior class, Fleck was their third head coach. In addition to Claeys’ dismissal, fan favorite Jerry Kill had to retire from coaching due to medical reasons.

There are now 12 seniors who will play their final home game on Saturday against Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium. Five of them -- Thomas Barber, Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Sam Renner and Tyler Johnson, are Minnesota natives. The winner earns the right to face Ohio State for the Big Ten title. The Gophers have a very real shot at heading to Pasadena, Calif, for the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Fleck’s biggest and most immediate duty after becoming the new face of the Gophers was re-recruiting current players. His biggest early challenge, arguably, was safety Antoine Winfield Jr, who currently leads the Gophers with 76 tackles through 11 games and is one of the top players in the Big Ten with seven interceptions.

Winfield Jr. was among the players suspended at the end of the 2016 season. His father, Antoine Winfield, was outspoken at the time saying his son was leaving the school. Winfield Jr. was eventually cleared from any wrongdoing in the 2016 incident, and returned to the team. After talking with Fleck and his defensive roommates, including Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin, he wasn’t going anywhere.

“A big part would be Coach Fleck, sitting down and talking with him. Him sharing his vision with me that I believed in,” Winfield Jr. said. “Another huge part would be my roommates, and my teammates. I would say roommates because they’re my brothers, I love them. I remember going back to my room and talking to them, they’re really one of the main reasons why I decided to stay.”

Senior defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere remembers being in the locker room after the coaching change. Players left notes for each other, wishing love before they left the program to head to another school.

Fleck spoke individually with every player on the roster after the coaching change, and it was up to the players on if they were going to stay. It wasn’t going to be easy, and there were going to be difficult times.

Fleck has never been shy about his approach. He wants players who consistently strive on a daily basis to improve themselves academically, athletically, socially and spiritually. Players would sit in the front two rows of their classes, sporting a shirt and tie. They would be committed to weekly community service. Fleck even hosts a “Date Night,” where players and their girlfriends gather, eat dinner and learn about chivalry.

The Gophers’ team grade point average has never been higher, they’re routinely doing community service and their work off the field is translating to success on the field. Minnesota has 10 wins for the first time since 1905, and the players will tell you their “oars are in the water.”

Saturday marks the final run to the field for the likes of DeLattiboudere, Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Chris Williamson, Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, Tyler Johnson, Tai’Yon Devers, Thomas Barber, Alex Melvin, Jacob Herbers and Sam Renner. A victory over Wisconsin likely sends Minnesota to at least the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1962.

“We made a decision to all stay together because we saw a vision and we saw something greater coming down the pipe,” DeLattiboudere said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and by all means it wasn’t easy at all, but I couldn’t be more blessed to be in the position that I’m in right now with these guys that I’m in it with.”

Fleck received a 7-year contract extension before the Gophers upset then No. 4-ranked Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium. This Saturday, 12 seniors have their opportunity to lead the Gophers to a place the program hasn’t been in 57 years.

“You look at all those guys who stayed, there’s not many of them, and not only stayed but did the right things, and earned the right to stay as well. And then found a way to continue to connect with each other. That’s why we’re powerful, it’s because of the leadership of our football team,” Fleck said. “That’s what’s special about that senior class.”