Why Minnesota is more than P.J. Fleck's flash as it grinds towards title contention

Once you get past P.J. Fleck's rowed boat, his passel of clichés and his friendly takeover of a major American city -- aided by a Saturday field storming -- the current joyride that is Minnesota football doesn't stop at its flamboyant coach.  

Beyond the eye candy, there is some substance there with Fleck, possibly college football's brightest ray of sunshine. That is obvious now. You don't take Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl with gimmicks. 

You don't lead Minnesota to its first 9-0 start since 1904 and a No. 8 ranking without grinding. You don't become one of three undefeated teams left with a victory over a top-10 opponent without scheming, recruiting, leading, outworking everyone else.

"The outside world, who maybe will never get it. The people that need to get it are our players, our staff, our organization," Fleck explained. 

This is a coach who body surfs atop the hands of his players in the locker room after each win. Fleck, 38, plays classical music during the Thursday walkthrough because studies show it calms the mind.

We had to find a way to be diamonds.P.J. Fleck, Minnesota coach

Row the boat? It's long been at the top of Fleck's catch phrases. That one is basically about never giving up.
 
But on the field, these Golden Gophers have a quarterback in Tanner Morgan who has better passing numbers than Justin Fields. They have an All-America-caliber safety in Antoine Winfield Jr. who is the son of a former All-American cornerback. They also have right guard Daniel Faalele, the nation's largest player.
 
Mostly, the Gophers have juice and momentum after one of the biggest wins in their history. Then-No. 4 Penn State felt it Saturday, going down 31-26.

Suddenly, it's OK for Minnesota to dream.

The Gophers lead the Big Ten in pass plays of at least 40 yards and are in the top 10 nationally in time of possession. In short, they are a complete enough team to win the Big Ten West, go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1961 and even challenge for the College Football Playoff. 

"We talked about this in January," Fleck said. "You just know what type of team you have. You know what has left. You know what is coming in. You know what your culture is. You know what the buy-in is."

Ohio State talks about 9-0 in January. Alabama talks about 9-0 in January. Minnesota?

The easiest, softest landing spot for a lot of folks this week when the Gophers landed at No. 8 in the College Football Playoff Rankings remains the bigger-than-life character that is Fleck. 

"The biggest piece is Coach Fleck," said Darrell Thompson, the school's career leading rusher who does color commentary on Minnesota broadcasts. "He's not afraid to, quite honestly, go [hit] on the prettiest girl in the room and ask her to dance."

Thompson is referring to recruiting, where the sausage is made in any program. Morgan was two days away from starting classes at Western Michigan in January 2017 before decommitting in order to follow Fleck to Minnesota.

"There was zero hesitation because I knew Coach Fleck was the coach I wanted to play for," Morgan said. "The energy and excitement is something I wanted to be a part of."

Zero hesitation meant jumping in his mother's Jeep and driving the 13 hours from his Union, Kentucky, home to Minneapolis.

graphic-fleck-minny.jpg
Graphic by Adam Silverstein

It helped that Fleck has known Morgan for five years since he was a high school junior living near Cincinnati. It also helped that the coach wasn't opposed to contacting Western Michigan recruits he had left behind. 

"That's the hardest part," Fleck said. "You felt like a lot of those kids committed to you. When you become a head football coach [at a different school] and you know them really well, it's pressure from the other side, 'My son wants to be with you. My son wants to be with you. My son wants to be with you.'"

In all, six Western Michigan recruits followed Fleck to Minnesota. Morgan is one of four key contributors from that group who were on the cusp of becoming Broncos. 

"Think about that," Fleck said. "They all have parents. Think about the strength of his mom and dad never to have seen the place, never driven by the place. Never been in the state."

Saturday marked one of those moments that make this sport so special. After beating Penn State, 15,000 or so fans poured onto the TCF Bank Stadium field for an impromptu storming. They slapped backs, stopped players for selfies and wallowed in the glory. 

"A lot of people tried to grab my bald head," Morgan said. 

It's now hockey, the Vikings and the Gophers in Minneapolis, which is an upset in itself. There is no finesse or luck to Minnesota being 9-0. In the same week that Fleck got a seven-year, $33 million extension, his Gophers went out and beat the Nittany Lions. Late in his third season, Fleck has positioned Minnesota as something more than a curiosity.

"We felt like we needed to shake the tree," said Mark Coyle, the athletic director who hired Fleck. "How I describe P.J. is he operates with a sense of urgency."

Suddenly, Fleck is off the market with a $10 million buyout. Or is he? The buyout declines to less than $5 million in Year 2 of the deal (2021). The row-the-boat guy is suddenly one of the hottest coaches -- and brightest minds -- in the game. 

"Those people that say things about [the culture], have never been in it," Fleck said. "They've never worked with me. They never watched me. They've never seen me. They've never seen us."

For now, win out and the Gophers are in the playoff. Split with Iowa and Wisconsin down the stretch, and Minnesota can still "afford" a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. An 11-2 Minnesota coming off a championship game loss would still be enticing to the Rose Bowl.

That's a world away from three years ago when Fleck arrived. The buy-in then was something less than optimal. The program and university were involved in a sexual assault scandal that resulted in a boycott by players and resulted in the firing of coach Tracy Claeys. 

"At the first [team] meeting, half the players showed up," Fleck told CBS Sports. "You had to do a lot of things. You're talking about a new head coach where there's going to be no trust, initially."

"I still remember the first week I had the job," Fleck said at his Tuesday press conference. "I literally didn't go to bed for four or five days. It was calling guys, convincing them to stay. You look at all those guys who stayed … now become very, very special leaders. That's why we're powerful." 

Coming from Western Michigan, sure, Minnesota was a Power Five job ... but it was a messy one that required a massive clean up. To know how it happened, you have to know the power couple behind it.

Heather Fleck is a coach's wife with energy to match her husband whether it's fundraising, speaking or during game days on the sideline where the field where she joins P.J. during every fourth quarter. 

"Heather and I always talk about [that] we were made to run to the fire, not away from the fire," the coach said.

The Minnesota rise followed an arc similar to Fleck's at Western Michigan -- one of gradual improvement followed by a breakthrough season. With the Broncos, Fleck started 1-11 in 2013 before consecutive 8-5 seasons capped by that career-changing 13-1 in 2016. Out of the rubble at Minnesota, he has gone 5-7, 7-6 and now 9-0.

Morgan called the beginning, "The Dirty Water Years"  of trying to build something substantial.

"Year 0 was the dig. Last year was the foundation. This year is the frame," he said. 

Critics will no doubt parse a season that has included a narrow season-opening victory over South Dakota State. Because of Big Ten scheduling vagaries, Minnesota missed facing Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State this season. 

None of that is really their fault. At this point, 9-0 is 9-0. That has to translate to some level of respect. The offense certainly isn't LSU-level spread/RPO concepts. In fact, it's fairly simple: a power running game that forces defenses to stack the box and play man coverage on the perimeter. 

"You've got to commit so much to stopping the run that you're one-on-one [defending the pass] and their receivers are really good," Penn State coach James Franklin said. 

The Gophers' 37.6 points per game are not only 15th-best in the country but on pace to make them the second-most productive Minnesota offense since 1946.

Simple but effective: The Gophers scored 31 against Penn State, then No. 2 in total defense. Minnesota scored touchdowns on its first two possessions against a team that hadn't allowed a first-quarter touchdown this season.

Simple but effective: The Gophers have scored at least 28 points in all nine games. Even LSU hasn't done that. 

Morgan is fourth nationally in passing efficiency right behind Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and LSU's Joe Burrow. Morgan is also ahead of Ohio State's Fields in that category.

"Just because you don't make Elite 11 doesn't make you a [bad] quarterback," Morgan said of himself.

It wouldn't be a Fleck story without some typical Fleck motivational tactics. The Penn State game had a movie theme. The film -- "National Treasure" starring Nicholas Cage -- is a historical fiction thriller.

"We had all these clues leading up to this game," Fleck said. "... We had to find a way to be diamonds. Two weeks to prepare, one of the biggest games in Minnesota history, we find all these gems."

Those gems haven't stopped shining yet. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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