P.J. Fleck spent the first day of 2020 basking in the Florida sun, as his Gophers toppled Auburn in the Outback Bowl to cap an 11-2 season that was only a figment of Minnesota’s imagination when that journey started.
Now, 297 days later, Fleck and the Gophers finally have another game to play, with Michigan visiting TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday night and the crew from ESPN’s “College GameDay” already on campus to mark the occasion.
The nine-plus months in between these events have been difficult for everyone with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been a year of adjustments across the globe, for Fleck included.
“P.J. is not really a sit-still kind of person,” said Heather Fleck, his wife. “So when someone tells him he has to sit still, it’s rough.”
After months of false starts and confusion about whether there would be a Big Ten season at all, Fleck is back to having football dominate his time. But this year has taught Fleck how to coach in a new way: hands-off and from afar.
“Respond. Period,” is how Fleck said he managed his new socially distanced life. “ … We’re not going to allow this to dictate our behavior. We’re going to constantly grow. We’re going to constantly learn.”
The Gophers return the bulk of their offense, including quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Rashod Bateman, but they’ll be learning under a new offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford Jr. The defense needs to replace four NFL draft picks — Antoine Winfield Jr., Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin and Chris Williamson.
Unlike most seasons, when the Gophers can iron out kinks against three nonconference opponents, they are jumping straight into Big Ten play, starting with the Little Brown Jug rivalry. Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines went 9-4 last season but have a new starting quarterback (Joe Milton) and big holes after having 10 players picked in the NFL draft.
With the national spotlight shining — ESPN’s top crew of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Maria Taylor on the call — both teams could battle some opening-night jitters.
“That’s why you come to Minnesota,” Fleck said. “Those are the expectations and pressure that we’re going to be able to put on ourselves to be able to perform at a high level.”
It’s Fleck’s job to have the Gophers ready, and he’ll rely on lessons learned when the world went quiet.
When Fleck thought there would be just a brief interruption to his Gophers team’s spring practices, those first couple of March days were kind of nice, finally some rare time to relax. Of course, that serenity lasted about three days before the restlessness became overpowering.
Fleck, an early riser even with nowhere to go at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, made quick work of little house projects since he didn’t have football to coach. Organizing the closet, tinkering around the garage, washing the car. Then came countless movies and games with his wife, chatting with some of the neighbors — including Twins star Josh Donaldson — and playing with new Maltipoo puppy Bella.
When Fleck couldn’t take sitting on the couch anymore — and his wife couldn’t take him being so antsy — he declared a rare voyage to one of the only places still open: the grocery store. Sure to return with a cartful of gummy bears and Oreos the health-conscious coach would never actually eat.
Instead, he made a great discovery: His local Total Wine was open.
“He loves wine. So I think that first month and a half, he might have went to Total Wine every day, maybe just to walk around,” Heather Fleck said. “ … Just see what they had. Just for something to do.”
But as soon as P.J. Fleck realized his routine wasn’t going back to normal any time soon, a new stress mounted. He quickly had to figure out how to lead a team without being there in person, how to go through a day without the same schedule he’s known for years.
Fleck set up an office downstairs in his house that became his command center from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. From there, he conducted FaceTime interviews with recruits and their families, ran team meetings and recorded different talks for his players to watch on their own time.
He game-planned not just for this season’s opponents but for how to navigate a suddenly heavily virtual world. He and his staff set up virtual tours of campus and developed compelling videos to send to recruits. It paid off with 11 players committing to the Gophers — three four-stars — since the moratorium on recruiting travel began.
For his own team, Fleck turned to his vast network of connections to bring in guest speakers on video chat, such as ESPN’s Taylor, Gophers and NFL great Tony Dungy and Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns.
He bounced ideas off friend and Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders. The pair brainstormed everything from how to coach through a screen to how to guide their players through a tumultuous time after George Floyd’s killing.
“It basically was a relationship of, ‘Are you going a little crazy right now? Yeah, I’m going a little crazy, too,’ ” Saunders said. “ ‘OK, well, how are you using your time right now? What are you doing to keep guys engaged? How are you all navigating the COVID, the health aspects of things?’ ”
Football ... finally
Fleck’s agent, Bryan Harlan, said while Fleck tackled the new obstacles in front of him with his usual directness, the worry about his players was something the coach couldn’t easily remedy.
One of the hallmarks of Fleck’s program has been his creativity, especially when it comes to team building. Renting out movie theaters, going paintballing, even a surprise Beyoncé concert once.
“P.J. thinks outside the box,” Harlan said. “So some of the stuff that he excels at, he can’t do. P.J. is frustrated by limitations, and that’s how he is with everything. … It bothers him because he wants the kids to get the full experience of being a Big Ten football player.”
Where the fun activities had to take a hiatus, Fleck instead used the time to teach. Beyond the film study and fundamentals, his conversations about mental health during the pandemic and society’s struggles with racial injustice will stay with his players far beyond it.
“These young men decided to respond to this and find a way to become better out of this,” Fleck said. “Not by winning the game. But by winning in life. And they didn’t sit there and mope for months and months. They responded. And they responded with action.”
Both players and coach seem to have adapted to the circumstances and thrived, though they would likely all prefer to never have to go through a football famine again. And starting with this Michigan game, the Gophers are booked for nine consecutive weeks of the football grind with no breaks.
“P.J. loves to be able to coach and lead and the game of football. And for so long, he hasn’t had that,” Heather Fleck said. “So I’m glad to see him get back into it.
“But I’ve never known P.J. without football in his life. So it was definitely different.”