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Analysis: P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra built a culture of winning at Minnesota

The program looks to lean on the strong foundation built in previous years to bounce back from a season that left a lot to be desired.
Image by Amaya Battle
PJ Fleck looks at the crowd in the Huntington Bank stands before leading Gophers football out onto the field before they play the Michigan Wolverines on Oct. 7, 2023.

Head football coach P.J. Fleck walked into his toughest challenge in the 2023 season and, although disappointing, the Gophers still finished strong, winning Fleck’s fifth bowl game in just seven years.

Throughout Fleck’s seven seasons, he set impressive standards, having won nine or more games three out of the last four years. This year, he faced one of the toughest schedules in the entire country.

The peak of the season was Fleck’s first victory over bitter rival Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. However, there were various valleys, including multiple late-game losses to Northwestern and Illinois.

“Developmental program” are two words heard around Minneapolis when Fleck speaks to the media. In an injury-riddled season, including crucial players going down at almost every position group, Minnesota was forced to speed up the development of some of its younger players.

Players like Darius Taylor, Maverick Baranowski, Jordan Nubin and Aidan Gousby all stepped into larger roles than intended heading into the year. The underclassmen got their first full season of experience in the Big Ten and look to build on that for next season.

Fleck, during his opening dialogue announcing the class of 2024 on National Signing Day on Dec. 20, 2023, said Minnesota has always been a developmental program during his time in Minneapolis.

“We said from day one we’re always going to be a high school developmental program,” Fleck said.

The sentiment regarding the program’s recruiting still rings true as Fleck announced another massive class of incoming players, highlighted by two players dubbed the best players in their respective states in Koi Perich (Minn.) and Riley Sunram (N.D.).

Fleck makes sure young players develop into stars, whether it is Tyler Nubin, Brevyn Spann-Ford, Jordan Howden or Mohamed Ibrahim. Another name who did not get as much shine for his impactful contributions is center Nathan Boe.

Boe was named a captain for the 2023 season and went on to his sixth season wearing the maroon and gold. Boe said he never imagined he would lead the Gophers out on senior day at Huntington Bank Stadium.

“I can’t thank Coach Fleck enough,” Boe said. “I would have never thought I would have been leading the guys out of the tunnel as a senior. … I think if you stick through something and you grit it out, you’d be shocked at what can happen.”

Boe is a prime example of how the developmental program works. The former Gophers center was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention for his performance in 2023.

In the new era of college football, the transfer portal is now an incredibly useful tool for roster building. According to SportSource, in 2019, just 6.4% of FBS rosters included transfers. As of 2023, that number grew to 20.5%.

Defensive lineman Kyler Baugh transferred to Minnesota after three years at Houston Baptist. Baugh accumulated 41 tackles, including three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his final season at Minnesota.

Baugh said Fleck is not satisfied with a good season and is always working to improve.

“I just feel like Coach Fleck, he never settles for anything,” Baugh said. “If we have a good season, he wants to have an even better season. So he’s going to work even harder than he did the season before.”

Fleck, in his seven seasons leading the Gophers, has the best winning percentage (.595) of any Minnesota head coach since Bernie Bierman (1950). 

Fleck hit a milestone with his bowl game victory over Bowling Green and became just the fifth coach in program history to hit 50 career wins.

Minnesota is still looking to grow as the Big Ten only becomes more challenging next season with the additions of Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.

After losing key players on both sides of the ball, the Gophers will rely on the experience Fleck helped coordinate for the underclassmen this past year going into 2024.

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  • Steve
    Feb 4, 2024 at 7:14 pm

    How do only 20% of college programs have transfers? Every school I’ve ever heard of has them these days, don’t they?

  • CHS
    Feb 1, 2024 at 7:12 pm

    Once again, “Good enough is good enough” for the Fans, Regents and U of M President. I’ll never forget the glory years of 1900 and 1914. Those memories keep us going.

  • Pat
    Jan 31, 2024 at 7:33 pm

    Thank you for a very positive article. We are very lucky to have Coach Fleck here and I sure hope he stays!

  • Wm
    Jan 31, 2024 at 9:42 am

    Well said. Accurate and balanced. Go Gophers

  • SC
    Jan 31, 2024 at 6:12 am

    We have a lot to build on. Go Gophers!