Minnesota and P.J. Fleck rowing in perfect tandem

The Minnesota Golden Gophers go in to Week 11 of the College Football season undefeated. They’re in the midst of something special, a small number of teams without a loss in 2019. Head coach, P.J. Fleck, is no stranger to loss, and one personal one defines his whole ethos.

Row The Boat

You may have heard it, you may have not. Fleck has carried it with him through his days as head coach at Western Michigan, to his time at Minnesota. Although it’s message is deeply relevant to football, it’s origins and its meaning are so much more.

In February 2011, Fleck lost his son, Colt, to a heart condition. Row the boat became his mantra, his vision, to carrying on a life that his son would never get to live.

“It’s a never-give-up mantra, that has to do strictly with life, or adversity, or handling success, never giving up, and it means a few things.”

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Fleck is talking at a “What Drives Winning” conference in 2016.

He talks confidently, and passionately, about what row the boat means to him. It’s impossible not to be encapsulated by his story, and by him. You can imagine him delivering a speech to thousands of people, them hanging on his every word.

More importantly, and impressively, you can imagine him delivering it to a locker room of 53 college football players and them ready to run for a wall for him.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Minnesota this season.

Ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Penn State, the Golden Gophers are 8-0. To put the size of that achievement in to context, they’ve only had 5 seasons this century with 8 or more total wins. In those 5 seasons, their best start was in 2003, when they went 6-0 before being defeated by Michigan 38-35.

You have to go back to 1941 to find the last time that Minnesota were 8-0.

A brief history of Minnesota

The early 1900’s was a golden era for the Golden Gophers.

That 1941 season was their 8th College Football National Championship. It also marked the first, and only, time that Minnesota provided the Heisman Trophy winner in halfback, Bruce Smith.

Under head coach Bernie Bierman, they had multiple perfect seasons and National Championships. Bierman accounted for 5 of their titles, after Henry Williams had delivered the first 3 in 1904, 1911, and 1915.

Most recently, Murray Warmath guided them to the 1960 National Championship, and scooped the Coach of the Year award along the way.

Learning from the past

Despite Warmath’s success, Fleck actually sits as the second most successful Minnesota head coach by record, behind only Bierman.

The past plays a part in the current head coach’s mantra.

“When you row a boat, you’re rowing. Your back is to the future, which is something you cannot control, nor can you see. You have to trust the person in front of you. You don’t know if there’s rocks, water falls, stormy seas, you don’t know what’s ahead of you. You’re rowing in the present, which is the only thing you can control, and the only thing you can actually have an impact on. But you’re looking at the past, which is the only thing you can actually learn from.”

The current Golden Gophers team is learning from the past to strive for new glories in Minnesota. In P.J. Fleck’s not too distant past, there are lessons to be learned about building success for a program.

His 2013 Western Michigan team had a 1-11 record. By the time he left to take on the head coach role at Minnesota, he had led the Broncos to a 13-1 record and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl.

A similar pattern is emerging in Minnesota. After a 5-7 season in 2017, through a 7-6 campaign including a Quick Lane Bowl win in 2018, to their present undefeated position.

The 2019 Minnesota Golden Gophers

One player learning from the past, which is impacting on the present, is quarterback Tanner Morgan.

Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports

After a freshman season beset by accuracy issues, he’s greatly improved in 2019. Whereas he had a completion percentage of 58.6% last year, he’s currently throwing at a 65.3% completion rate. He’s doubled his touchdown throws from last years 9 to 18 in 2019. So far.

Another sophomore coming in to his own this year is wide receiver Rashod Bateman. He’s already equalled his touchdown tally from 2018, and needs just 60 yards to surpass is receiving yard total from his freshman campaign. His average catch yardage is up from 13.8 yards per catch to 20.8 this season.

The offense with Morgan and Bateman, plus seniors Rodney Smith and Tyler Johnson, is averaging 38.4 yards per game, good enough for 14th in the country prior to week 10.

The defense is playing their part too. In the past 4 games they have held Maryland, Rutgers, Nebraska, and Illinois to under 20 points.

Photo Credit: gophersports.com

The performances of Antoine Winfield Jr (34 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 5 interceptions) and Carter Coughlin (28 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF, 4 pass break ups) have been particularly impressive. It hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Coughlin received a senior bowl invite earlier this week.

The Gophers are heading in the right direction.

Direction is the final part of the three key components that make up Fleck’s row the boat.

“There’s three parts to rowing a boat: there’s an oar, there’s a boat, and there’s a compass. The oar is the energy you bring to your life, your family, your team, your spiritual life, your personal life, your social life. It’s the energy. Energy breathes love. If you love something, you’re going to put a lot of energy into it.”

“The second part is the boat. The boat is the sacrifice. What are you going to give up for something that you never had? The more you sacrifice, the more you give. Our program is about two things: serving and giving.”

“Then last but not least, the compass, which is the most important part for our young people, and that’s who you surround yourself with. Your compass is the direction of where your boat is actually travelling.”

Energy. Sacrifice. Direction.

No-one embodies the components of Fleck’s mantra more than redshirt sophomore Casey O’Brien. During this most improbable of starts to the season, the fact that O’Brien has featured in it at all is the biggest improbability.

Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports

O’Brien is a four-time cancer survivor. He has endured months and months of surgery and chemotherapy to fight the disease. In total, Casey has had 14 surgeries.

To facilitate his dream of playing college football, he switched from high school quarterback to holder. In order to practice he had to take chemo pills and wear a special shirt to protect himself. He would not let cancer defeat his dream of playing college football.

During the Week 8 victory over Rutgers, O’Brien’s dream came true. He held for 3 extra points in the 42-7 win. He was mobbed by team mates and shared a sideline embrace with his head coach.

As Fleck told the Big Ten Network after the game, it was the true epitome of row the boat.

“He’s an unbelievable person, and he’s been through an awful lot. When you think courage, you think Casey O’Brien. When you think row the boat, you think our program. You think the University of Minnesota and our state of Minnesota, you think Casey O’Brien.”

The Future

When you think of the program, you also think of P.J. Fleck. The two will be in the same boat for some time.

Where Fleck’s mantra calls for putting the trust for the future in the hands of the person rowing opposite you, the coach and the program have put their trust in each other.

Amid swirling rumours of interest from FSU, coach and college put pen to paper on a 7 year contract extension this week.

“It’s a tremendous honour to lead this team, and represent the University of Minnesota and this great state” Fleck said in a statement after signing the deal.

Whilst all is well inside the boat, choppy waters await during the run in.

This weekend’s Penn State game is the beginning of a stint that features 3 ranked teams in 4 games to end the season.

However, the direction of their season is still in their hands, with a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game very much achievable.

No matter the result on Saturday, you can be sure that P.J. Fleck, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers, will never give up.

Feature Image Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Oliver Hodgkinson

College Football Writer

Oliver Hodgkinson is a college football writer for the touchdown. He also writes on the nfl for the pro football network. you can hear his opinions on all things college football as one third of the college chaps podcast