Is PJ Fleck’s Culture Toxic?

Photo: Jesse Johnson - USA TODAY Sports

PJ Fleck started as a head coach at the University of Minnesota in 2017 and nobody can argue how successful he’s been on the field. He has the best winning percentage (.620) of any Gopher football coach since Bernie Bierman, the legendary coach who walked the sidelines in Dinkytown from 1930-1952.

New report of PJ Fleck’s “toxic” culture arises

But off the field, there have been multiple former players who have contributed to reports of a “toxic culture” within the football program. The latest dropped on Wednesday afternoon, via Front Office Sports, who spoke with several players anonymously about bad experiences while playing for the Gophers, along with long time Fleck hater, former U of M board of trustees member, Michael Hsu.

The FOS article mentions incidents of favoritism, mental abuse and drug tests that were used to suspend some, while letting positive tests pass without discipline for others. It even spoke of a merit system where players could use “Fleck Bank Credits” to avoid certain punishments.

Over the last month, Front Office Sports interviewed several former players and staff members about Fleck’s six seasons as the Gophers’ head coach. They described an environment fraught with intimidation and toxicity and referenced the “Fleck Bank” — a system that allowed players with enough “coins” to get away with positive drug tests, and other violations of team rules. 

AJ Perez – Front Office Sports

Unprompted, the term “cult” was used by multiple former players and former staff members to describe Fleck’s “Row the Boat” culture spelled out in the so-called “Fleck Book” that players are given when they join the team. Fleck said he developed the “Row the Boat” philosophy — one he laid out in a 2021 book of the same name — that was an approach he also used at Western Michigan. 

AJ Perez – Front Office Sports
True, false… or both?

Through some personal reporting behind the scenes, both today after this FOS report dropped and in the past when others have questioned PJ Fleck’s culture, I can corroborate much of what was disclosed. That SOME former and (probably) current players hated their time at the University of Minnesota, where they felt mistreated and disrespected as student athletes.

I talked to one former player who felt like he hit rock bottom, mentally, while at the U of M. He contributed it to Fleck’s culture, that playing time and his football career was always being held over his head, so PJ could keep him towing the company line.

But there is another side to the story, which Front Office Sports touched on slightly (a couple quotes from former CB, Coney Durr), but one that has been magnified since the article released. For every former or current disgruntled players Fleck has coached, there are many more who love and appreciate how PJ runs his program.

Former and current players come to Fleck’s defense

In the last couple hours, about a dozen former and current Gophers have come to the defense of their head coach. Those names include (WR) Chris Autman-Bell, (QB) Athan Kaliakmanis, (S) Tyler Nubin, (OL) Blaise Andries, (CB) Coney Durr, (TE) Brevyn Spann-Ford, (OL) Nathan Boe, (LB) Cody Lindenberg, (OL) Quinn Carroll, (DL) Merrick Jackson, (OL) Danny Striggow and (K), Dragan Kesich.

Clearly, there are just as many PJ Fleck / RTB enthusiasts, within the Gopher Football family, as their are detractors. All experiences matter and accusations of mental abuse or any other type of negligence should be fully investigated, if they haven’t already.

But there is nothing substantial or specific, in the Front Office Sports article, that made my jaw drop or head turn. Overall, it seems like a hit piece that was shopped by some former players who feel they were mistreated and former higher ups at the U of M, who have a vendetta against PJ Fleck.

Fleck’s fingerprints and branding — including “Row,” short for his “Row the Boat” motto — are on the team’s helmets and other gear. The first player got rid of the gear he received during his time there, which took counseling to undo what he experienced as a Gopher. 

“I do have some PTSD,” he said. “Anytime anyone asks me about the U of M, they’re like, ‘Oh, that must have been great.’ And I am just like, ‘Not really at all.’ I don’t like thinking about it at all. I love my new life.

AJ Perez – Front Office Sports

As Fleck and many of his appreciators have pointed out, his culture isn’t for everyone. PJ runs one of the tightest ships in college football and the pressure is immense, as it should be in any top-tier DI sports program. Some appreciate it as a life program that holds everyone responsible for improving at all times, both on and off the field. Others see it as something completely different.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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