MINNEAPOLIS - University of Minnesota football coach PJ Fleck has already moved onto the “Iowa championship season,” but he took a moment Tuesday to thank the state for its help in the Gophers’ biggest win in the 10-year history of TCF Bank Stadium.
The then No. 13-ranked Gophers knocked off No. 5-ranked Penn State 31-26 on Saturday in front of more than 51,000 fans. It was the first sellout at TCF Bank Stadium since 2015, and the Gophers needed a late interception from Jordan Howden in the end zone to seal the victory.
Fleck, in his usual sharp suit with a “Row the Boat” pocket square, held that very football in the Minnesota locker room Tuesday as he presented a game ball for the win to the State of Minnesota. The recipient: Governor Tim Walz.
“When I got here, I said that it’s going to take the whole state of Minnesota to get University of Minnesota football back to what it used to be and to be able to restore the traditions of old. We have a lot of work to do, but it’s a start,” Fleck said.
One thing Fleck said after the win should sound very familiar to Walz. It was his campaign slogan before being elected Governor in November of 2018: “One Minnesota.”
Fleck told his team and reporters after Saturday’s win, “We are one Minnesota.”
“What we want to be able to do is be one Minnesota and when I heard the Governor say that, we just want to be able to echo that message,” Fleck said. “That game brought everybody together, and that was the whole vision from the start. We’ve got a long way to go, we’re very proud to be 1-0 in the Penn State season.”
After Howden’s late interception, Tanner Morgan and the Gophers’ offense went into victory formation to drain the final minute on the clock. When that game clock hit zero, the celebration was on.
Thousands of Gopher fans in attendance made their way to the field to celebrate with the team. It was Minnesota’s first home win over a top-five ranked opponent since 1977.
“I got a little teary-eyed, it’s been a long road. Me and my brothers have fought hard to get to this point, so it was a beautiful thing,” senior defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere said. “Coach (Jim) Panagos came and grabbed me and was like ‘We did it, we did it.’ So it was just kind of like a moment of euphoria.’
Several players stayed on the field to celebrate long after the game was over. Some even missed Fleck crowd surfing with his team in the Minnesota locker room after, and his postgame celebratory speech.
Fleck said Tuesday that he’s gotten 500 to 600 congratulatory text messages since the win from colleagues, former players and even the ABC crew that did the game broadcast. His wife, Heather, got another 300 to 400.
The two spent several hours after the game in his office at TCF Bank Stadium soaking in the win, and the day after, did the best they could to respond to every message, whether it was text or email.
The 2019 Gophers are writing their own history. They’re off to their first 9-0 start since 1904. They’re 6-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1961. They’re ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls for the first time since 1962.
Minnesota came in at No. 8 in the newest College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night, jumping nine spots after debuting last week at No. 17. It's the biggest one-week jump in the history of the rankings.
“This is amazing. It’s one thing to dream about it, it’s another thing to put plans in place to make it happen,” Walz said. “I’m certainly proud as a Minnesotan to see this happen. You can feel it across the state, good things happen when you start winning like this.”
Walz added that the way Fleck has gone about winning at Minnesota is what makes it the most impressive. The culture he’s brought to the Gophers is largely what’s led to the turnaround. It led to the biggest win so far in program history, and Fleck’s signature win in his third season at Minnesota.
“I can’t tell you what it means. The excitement that you’ve brought to the state, of course the records, those are one thing. But it’s the way you’ve gone about it. It’s the professionalism, it’s the sense of common purpose, it’s a humble confidence that this team exudes, and you watch it wherever you go,” Walz told Fleck. “You go into every Kwik Trip, you go into a restaurant, you’re in your workplace, people are asking where you were at when that happened.”