New 'elite' Gophers football coach 'understands our generation'

MINNEAPOLIS--College football programs are known to pump loud music into practices, but new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck put a bigger spin on it when he was coach at Western Michigan. He had a DJ booth inserted into the Broncos' Waldo Stadium to play...

New Minnesota Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck walks the sidelines during a game last year. File photo Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
New Minnesota Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck walks the sidelines during a game last year. File photo Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS-College football programs are known to pump loud music into practices, but new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck put a bigger spin on it when he was coach at Western Michigan. He had a DJ booth inserted into the Broncos' Waldo Stadium to play during games.

During his four-year run at Western Michigan, Fleck sometimes had a DJ mixing Kanye West and Drake jams into practice, with an occasional Toby Keith tune mixed in for country folk. Fleck, mic'd up, would cut the music at times when he needed to coach his players.

Recruits took notice.

"He understands our generation better than any coach in the country, I think," said Nate Umlor, a Allentown, Mich., tight end and part of Fleck's first recruiting class at Minnesota.

As of Friday, Umlor and 18 others were slated to sign national letters of intent, all of them influenced by Fleck, who has been the Gophers coach for less than a month. Add three players who enrolled early, and Minnesota is set to welcome 22 players to the fold, and can add a few more before national signing day on Wednesday.


Since Fleck took over for Tracy Claeys on Jan. 6, the Gophers recruiting class rank has improved from 72nd to 52nd, according to 247sports' composite ranking from four recruiting services.

As the youngest coach within the Power Five conferences - ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC - Fleck has an advantage in relating to high school kids. At age 36, he and his players are cast as millennials, born after 1980.

During Fleck's opening press conference at TCF Bank Stadium, he said he can't teach young players about rivalries with, for instance, yesteryear's basketball matchups. Fleck wasn't born when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started their rivalry in the 1979 NCAA basketball title game; he was 2 years old when Michael Jordan won his NCAA championship in 1982.

"If you're going to teach a rivalry, you can't teach Jordan and Bird anymore," Fleck explained. "They think Jordan is the guy that makes the sneakers, right? You have to use Kanye and Drake."

Fleck has a reputation for being a fountain of youthful energy. East Ridge kicker Grant Ryerse and running back Dominik London, members of Minnesota's 2017 class, confirmed that when their future college coach visited their school last week.

"My first impression was he popped out from behind the door all energetic," Ryerse said. "He was in my face in a really good way. I really liked that, the energy that everyone talks about. He has it behind closed doors, too, which I think is awesome."


Fleck spouted catch phrases and buzzwords during his introductory news conference. Instead of being "good," "great" or "wonderful," he said he wanted his players to be "elite." Thirteen times he used "elite" to describe what he envisions for the program.


He carried forward "row the boat," his personal mantra which became Western Michigan's calling card, and incorporated "Ski-U-Mah," Minnesota's rah-rah slogan.

Trenton Guthrie, an outside linebacker from Pinckney, Mich., gave an oral commitment to Fleck when he was at Western Michigan and followed him to Minnesota, enrolling this month.

When the Pioneer Press asked how things were going for him at the start of an interview this week, Guthrie replied, "I'm elite." At the end, he concluded with, "Ski-U-Mah, Row the Boat."

In between, Guthrie shared the emphasis Fleck places on language. He said the coaching staff is investing in a book with the working title of "Gopher 101." Guthrie hasn't seen it yet, but he believes it will have new vocabulary words for players to learn.

With the Western Michigan Broncos, Fleck taught "Bronconese," a dialect of about 150 to 200 words and phrases he felt defined the program that went from 1-11 in his first year in 2013 to 13-1 last year.

"This is us. This is who we are," Fleck told in 2015. "We have a lot of words now. From the outside perspective looking in, you're going to say, 'Gosh, he has a lot of words and phrases.' We do, but our players know the definitions of them. They get tested on them."

"He always spices things up," Guthrie said. "He keeps football fun."



When it comes to Fleck jargon, Guthrie, Umlor and Ryerse have some personal favorites.

How - Umlor uses this one a lot. "It's how you do something, something you sacrifice," he explained. "When you play football, you are going to 'outhow' that person, and we are going to outwant it."

Guthrie added, "We call ourselves the Howfers now, like Gophers."

Prefontaine pace - This is based on the late Olympic distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who narrowly missed on a medal in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich.

"He would go as fast as he can," Umlor explained. "If he won, he won. If he didn't, he didn't. But he knew if he lost, he had given it his all. That is one of my favorites."

Start fast, finish strong - "It's a motto for life," Guthrie said. "If you are in class doing homework, if you are running sprints or are in the weight room. ... There is an 'accelerate through the middle' in there, but it sounds better as SFFS."

Nekton - Aquatic organisms that can swim independently of a water's current.

"A great white shark is nekton ... because they can go against the current and jump 50 feet out of the water, eat a seal and become parallel with the water," Umlor declared. "The meaning is, he doesn't let his situation dictate what he's going to do."



Umlor said he would use "elite" more back home in Michigan, but his neighbors and friends just don't get it.

"I catch way too many people off guard in my hometown," Umlor said. "They will say, 'What are you talking about?' I don't feel like explaining it."

That will change when Umlor arrives in Dinkytown.

"People ask you how you're doing when you're walking down the street, I'm going to say, 'I'm doing elite,' " he said. "It's the best you can be."

Ryerse and London have heard "row the boat" many a times in the halls of East Ridge High.

"That is pretty nice to hear," Ryerse said. "You will hear teachers say it, too, so it's kind of funny."



For all the talking Fleck does, Umlor was sold on him when he wasn't saying a word. Before his junior season, Umlor visited Western Michigan's campus in Kalamazoo days before the Broncos' 2015 preseason camp.

"From the first time I met him, I knew he was someone that I wanted to play for," Umlor said. "When I first met him, he didn't talk anything about football. He said, 'Tell me about yourself and how you came to be who you are.' "

Umlor shared - and shared and shared - how faith, family and football are his passions.

"He said, 'Nate, if I didn't think your story was interesting, I would have stopped you,' " Umlor recalled. "I thought it was interesting, and since then I thought he was going to be my coach."

The night before Fleck took the U job, he reached out to Umlor to see if the 6-foot-6, 245-pound tight end would join him.

"It was one of the hardest decisions that I've ever had to make, initially," Umlor said. "I had never been there and I didn't know who was going to go with him staff-wise."

But Fleck sold Umlor on his vision for Minnesota's program, and Umlor committed to Minnesota on Jan. 8. He visited the U campus last week.

"It was phenomenal, and it was better than I thought it was going to be," Umlor said. "There are elite people all over the place."

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