It was a tumultuous offseason for the Minnesota football team. After 10 players were suspended following an accusation of sexual assault, the team threatened to sit out the Holiday Bowl. Former head coach Tracy Claeys supported the boycott, which was eventually dropped. Claeys lost his job shortly after.
In his absence stepped P.J. Fleck, the charismatic former coach of Western Michigan. Fleck earned a reputation for his off-the-wall behavior — if you’ve ever heard ‘Row the boat’ used in a motivational fashion, it’s thanks to him — but is also an accomplished coach. In his final year coaching the Broncos, Fleck led them to a 13-1 record and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl after an undefeated regular season.
His first year at Minnesota has seen the Golden Gophers struggle through conference play. Yet it was apparent after a conversation with senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson at Big Ten Media Days in July that Fleck has already made a positive impact on the program.
The Daily spoke with Richardson about the coaching transition, everyday conversations with Fleck and his impressions of Jim Harbaugh.
TMD: “Can you take us back to the first time you met him, when he was recruiting you (at Western Michigan)?”
SR: “My first impression was, this guy’s good. I was close to just saying yes, because, I mean, he’s very charismatic. He’s a very genuine coach. He says a lot of stuff and has a lot of phrases, but he backs it up all the time.”
TMD: “The previous coaching transition between Coach Kill and Coach Claeys seemed like it would be more seamless. Has it been much different going to Coach Fleck this summer?”
SR: “Yes. There’s just a lot more energy. He brought in a great culture that has helped us not just on the field but also off the field, too, socially. He’s bringing in a lot of other people that are helping us. We just learned how to cook. We learned how to eat dinner the right way — eat with the silverware outside-in. Just little things like that. It’s more than X’s and O’s with him.”
TMD: “How long did it take you to adjust to this — are you still adjusting now?”
SR: “There’s always growth. That’s what the culture brings in. … You’re changing every day, you’re growing every day. That’s what the culture is. I’m still growing right now. Coach has done that to me.”
Q: “Is there anything that he said, that you just kinda like, ‘Did he really say that?’ ”
SR: “I can’t remember anything like that.”
Q: “What’s the funniest thing he’s said?”
SR: “I’m not sure. He has a lot of phrases. It’s like his own dictionary. It’s crazy. I wouldn’t even say that they’re funny. They all make sense and they all back up. It’s very motivational.”
TMD: “Do you find those phrases working themselves into your daily conversations now?”
SR: “Yeah. I will actually say the ‘elite’ thing threw me off. People ask me, ‘How are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘I’m good.’ Just a normal answer. But he was like, ‘But what’s wrong?’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? I just said I’m good.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, you didn’t say you’re elite.’ So it’s like, obviously have to get used to those kind of things, but there’s definitely a difference, and that’s what the culture has brought in.”
Q: “Given what transpired at the end of last season with the controversy and everything like that, did it almost feel like you guys had to go in a completely different direction with a different type of personality?”
SR: “Before I say anything, I want to say that I respect the coaches that I had. But I think it was necessary that we had to have the change. We’re learning things outside of just football. We’re learning socially. We’re learning how to treat women. … Like treat them as if they’re a queen. We’re talking about changing a narrative and not just having a stereotypical student-athlete picture on how football players treat women. We’re changing the narrative to just becoming better men overall.”
TMD: “You guys played Michigan in 2015. It was Harbaugh’s first year. Do you have any impression of Harbaugh as a coach?”
SR: “I think he’s a good coach. He’s a very tough coach to play against. That was a very emotional week because that’s when Coach Kill stepped down. Even though that was a really tough week and we still lost, that was still a really fun game. It was all the way down to the very last play. Going back to your question, he’s a really good coach. I respect him.”
TMD: “His antics are in the news often. Does that draw any similarities to Coach Fleck?”
SR: “I actually never thought about that connection, but yeah, I can definitely see it. How they’re just out there and very energetic coaches.”
TMD: “The way the game ended in 2015, does that provide any extra motivation when you guys play them this year?”
SR: “No, that’s just in the past. We’re going to play them like it’s any other game. We’re going to play them hard, like Coach talks about, changing our best. We’re going to play Buffalo the first game and that’s all we’re focused on.”