Fleck's energy rubbing off on upset-minded Minnesota

Andrew Erickson
Minnesota center Jared Weyler celebrates with coach P.J. Fleck during the third quarter against Iowa on Saturday. Fleck has led the Golden Gophers to a 3-2 start this season. [Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune]

Around the Minnesota football facility this week will be several reminders of great upsets in sports history.

Coach P.J. Fleck showed his team videos of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s 1980 win over the Soviet Union, and he had plans to show the Golden Gophers several other videos this week in an attempt to motivate them ahead of their Saturday matchup with No. 3 Ohio State.

“That’s why you play a game,” Fleck told reporters this week. “Doesn’t promise you anything because you watch a bunch of people do it … but it gives you a perspective.”

Said junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson, “It was actually a lot of different games I would say. … It’s just motivation for the team that, yeah, we’re going to play a great football team, but we just have to come in and stay relaxed.”

A common thread among underdog teams pulling off massive upsets is a sense of calm amid a challenging test.

Midway through Fleck's second season at Minnesota, that’s been part of the 37-year-old coach’s message.

“I would say that everybody’s calm and everybody’s not too gassed up,” said Johnson, a Minneapolis native. “Big games are going to happen and you’re going to play great opponents and you’ve just got to always bring your best no matter what because anything can happen.”

Part of Fleck’s message, too, is week-to-week progress. Fifth-year senior center Jared Weyler said his goal entering his final season with the Golden Gophers (3-2) was to “continue to move this program forward.”

“What’s fun is when you see all that hard work pay off through your play and through some of the results that you get,” said Weyler, who is from Centerville, Ohio. “Not necessarily winning and losing but just each and every play you kind of see all that work pay off and it takes a lot of maturity and it takes a lot of toughness.”

Improvement also demands a willingness, Weyler said, to handle adversity. Minnesota has experienced several key injuries — including a recent season-ending foot injury to safety Antoine Winfield Jr. — and will face the Ohio State with 33 freshmen in its two-deep roster.

The Golden Gophers went 5-7 in Fleck’s first year after he took over for a fired Tracy Claeys. Crossing the threshold into bowl eligibility in 2018 will require a young team to step up in a handful of winnable games — including at Nebraska on Oct. 20 and at Illinois on Nov. 3 — left on the schedule.

It’s clear the energetic Fleck is rubbing off on at least some of his players. Weyler, for example, said he is “doing elite,” when asked by a reporter how his week is going so far.

The young Golden Gophers say they won’t fear failure as they progress through the Big Ten schedule.

“It’s just about taking every area of our lives seriously and being the best that we can be in every area of our lives is kind of what this program is centered around,” Weyler said. “We can go out there and give it our all and if we fail we can learn from it and grow and continue to get better.”


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