Under PJ Fleck, Gophers Will Never Lack Motivation

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Bowling Green at Minnesota
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers capped off PJ Fleck’s 7th season with yet another bowl game victory, pinning a daisy to an otherwise smelly season. Yes, they started a super senior backup QB and they’ve struggled with Bowling Green recently, but I was pretty sure none of that would matter, in the end.

Which it didn’t. The Gophers led wire to wire and fended off every mini run the Falcons threw their way. When it ended in a 30-24 Minnesota win, count me as one person who was unsurprised. In fact, it wouldn’t shock me if PJ Fleck’s teams won every ‘meaningless’ bowl game he coaches for the rest of his career.

Fleck’s Minnesota Gophers always care

Why? Because no coach in the country is better than our head coach at rallying their troops toward a goal with questionable significance (like the Quick Lane Bowl). If a Fleck-coached team is playing in a game, whether it’s a college football National Championship or an inter-squad Spring Game, nobody on that field is going to care more than his players.

“Our kids, our staff, our administration, everybody takes it really seriously. It’s a gift to play in a bowl game. No matter what, it’s a reward. We have football players on this team. They want to play football games. The more they play, the better they do.”

Related: Bowling Green Coach Mocks Minnesota’s Pass Attack After Gophers Run Over Falcons

And when it comes to college football bowl games in 2023, it’s safe to say that is not the approach every program takes. After missing out on the CFB Playoff field, undefeated Florida State has 23 players skipping the Orange Bowl on Saturday. The Gophers had two that skipped the Quick Lane Bowl. Tyler Nubin and Brevyn Spann-Ford are both preparing for the NFL Draft.

Why did a 5-7 non-eligible bowl team care more about a lowly Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, Michigan than the Seminoles do a New Years 6 bowl, the likes of which Minnesota hasn’t reached in over 5 decades? Because Florida State’s coach, Mike Norvell put so much importance on a CFP birth that he couldn’t refocus his team and make them care about a lesser bowl.

PJ Fleck has plenty of flaws, but that would never happen with one of his teams. Every game, no matter the circumstances, is its own ‘One-Game Championship Season’, a phrase you can hear PJ say just about anytime a microphone is in his face.

His message isn’t new to sports or to life. While I was working for a massive world news/media company in the minneapolis suburbs around 2018, we did one of those all-day moral booster seminars where we spent at least 3 hours of it focusing on “being here now”.

PJ Fleck teaches same life lessons, with different approach

Fleck is using the same message, just packaging it into a motivational football tool. Simply put: with all the distractions going on in life today, it’s easy to lose focus on controlling what you can control in the moment, like focus and engagement into the task at hand.

Related: Gophers Football Receiving ‘Substantive NIL Packages’ Recently; Basketball Still Behind

It’s a simple concept but difficult to practice soundly day-to-day, hour-to-hour, even minute-by-minute. Which is why the Minnesota Gophers head football coach takes such an exaggerated approach to tackling one of the most complex and under-the-radar skills of leading a group of over 100 people.

Everyone has individual distractions they are dealing with in their own personal lives. How do you get that many people to, as much as humanly possible, put those distractions aside and focus on a team goal, no matter how insignificant that goal might be to the outside world? By making it a really big deal.

Take his ‘Row The Boat’ mantra, for example. Many people despise it, but he adopted the saying when he and his first wife were grieving the death of their infant son (heart condition) back in 2011. There’s a lot more to it but, essentially, it’s a motivational euphemism meant to help those who buy in deal with life’s roller-coaster ride.

When you row a boat, it’s difficult to see what is ahead of you because your back is turned. That’s a metaphor for life, because we cannot see the future. Much like when you row a boat, all you can see and everything you know is behind you or in the past.

So, as PJ Fleck often says. All you can do is put your oar back in the water, focus on where you are now, what you can control and see in the moment. Do not let your past or what you’ve seen cripple what you’re trying to accomplish. Instead, use it to be better in the moment and learn from past mistakes.

Again, anyone who has gotten good advice from a coach, teacher, parent or other mentor has heard some version of life advice much like this. ‘You can only control what you can control’ or ‘you can’t fix the past, you can only learn from it’, etc.

But as I mentioned earlier, it’s Fleck’s commitment and over emphasis of these well-founded life lessons that make his approach different than other coaches. It doesn’t always work, because some people find his exaggerated approach too much to handle.

PJ knows and accepts that. What he also knows is sports are founded in motivational life lessons and, more often than not, his style works. And for those who do buy-in, it seems to install a sense of pride, loyalty and confidence that other coaching approaches do not always produce.

Which brings us back full-circle to Fleck’s success in bowl games. In a day and age when many schools and coaches are getting caught up in the weakening status of these end of season exhibition games, winners often boil down to which team cares more.

And no team will ever care more, no matter the prize, than Fleck’s.

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