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Death To The NCAA

Report: P.J. Fleck Built A “Toxic Culture” Celebrating P.J. Fleck

Head coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers walks off the field against the Purdue Boilermakers at Huntington Bank Stadium on October 1, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Purdue defeated Minnesota 20-10.
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The toxic cultures found within college football have been coming to light over this offseason, as a sport that attracts the most megalomaniacal personalities comes to terms with a labor force that suddenly has things like "options" and "financial incentives" thanks to NIL. The latest program to come under fire is the Minnesota Golden Gophers and their philosophical Ned Flanders-ass coach P.J. Fleck. As first reported by Front Office Sports, former players and staff under Fleck detail a "toxic culture" and "cult-like atmosphere" within the team.

Even beyond the troubling allegations, which include familiar tactics like intimidation and punishment of players, the picture that's painted of Fleck is that of a man who views himself as an enlightened spiritual guru for the cult of football. There were certainly signs of this with his whole "Row The Boat" sloganeering and the subsequent philosophy book of the same name that he "wrote," but it's even worse than imagined:

Players, at least in Fleck’s first few seasons with the Gophers, were tested on what was included in the book and players with some saying there were repercussions — including punishing workouts — for not scoring high enough on those exams.

The pages obtained by FOS include nomenclature common to sports with inspirational quotes, and most are pretty self-explanatory. 

  • “The Pain of Discipline VS. The Pain of Regret”
  • “Your how Creates Your who”
  • “If You’re Juiceless, You’re Useless If You’re Juiceful, You’re Useful”
  • “Roof Over Your Head – Better Off Than 73% of The World”

But some of the nearly 20 acronyms players were tested on were more abstract. 

  • H.Y.P.R.R. — How/Yours/Process/Result/Response 
  • T.H.I.N.K. — Truthful, Helpful, Inspirational, Necessary, Kind
  • F.I.S.T. — Family Invested Same Time “Keep it Tight”
  • S.F./A.M./F.S. — Start Fast, Accelerate Middle, Finish Strong

“Keep in mind, this is all at the same time while trying to go to school and balance [learning] the playbook,” the first player said. 

Front Office Sports

Along with the fanatical fixation on acronyms, like a man learning to text his Gen Z granddaughter for the first time, Fleck reportedly had a penchant for using his name everywhere, such as the "Fleck book," given to players to memorize, and a "Fleck bank"—that took account of players who did their community service, excelled at practice, and maybe allegedly were willing to snitch on teammates not going along with the program—for "Fleck bucks" that could be cashed in for favors.

Some of this is, if not typical, predictable stuff from a college football coach. They tend to champion things like team over the self and the constant push to be "elite." Another word for it is brainwashing, which is bad but also, on some level, to participate in team sports is to allow just a smidge of brainwashing to get through the end goal. Fleck has denied the allegation with the same ferocity he seems to give everything else, but that persona is the very reason these accusations may not seem so far fetched. Based on what's been reported so far, he's pushed the limits on the cult of personality coaching routine. The intense workouts, the rushing of players back from injury, the fixation on player weight, the dogmatic chant of "elite" as a response to things. And then there's this:

“We had to [practice giving Fleck ovations] multiple times — the first time, because some other people in the back were not moving as quick as he wanted,” a third player told FOS.

Two other former players said that Fleck would reenter a room if he didn’t like the ovation he received. 

Now that societies beyond the thrall of SEC football have moved on from treating the college ball coach as demigod, it's almost as if Fleck has taken it upon himself to restore that mantle. Fleck is the classic example of a certain kind of coach that's risen to prominence in the 21st century, one part scammy salesman, another part self-appointed youth pastor prophet. And judging by the $42 million dollar contract extension they've committed to him and all the personal branding he's been allowed to stamp on the team, Minnesota is buying into the act—even after and despite the fact half of Fleck’s initial recruiting class from 2018 elected to transfer, left due to injury, or just plain quit. 

That Fleck's antics have come under the spotlight should not be surprising, especially given the competing coaching controversies underway in Big Ten country at Northwestern and even Michigan. So far the University of Minnesota has brushed off the allegations, and players are coming to Fleck's defense, denying the existence of an alleged cult in a way that sure sounds like you've undergone some form of programming.

Coaches like Fleck are trying to wrestle control in a landscape that is slowly allowing student athletes to have some agency and he won't be the last to have his poisonous tendencies exposed. Either way, to do all that just to go 9-4 (5-4 in the Big Ten) only makes it all the more sickening.

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