Gophers

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, left, talks with wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell (7) after a defensive pass interference call on Illinois in a game Saturday, Oct. 5, in Minneapolis. Bruce Kluckhohn / AP Photo

MINNEAPOLIS -- A tall, slender bookshelf packed with leadership-themed titles stands in a corner of P.J. Fleck’s corner office in the Larson Football Performance Center at the University of Minnesota.

The books are stacked every which way, with Fleck pulling them off the shelves to mark up passages at his nearby desk.

Book recommendations go out to his assistant coaches, and the 35 players who sit on the program’s “leadership council” have a bit of a book club centered on a new release from one of Fleck’s favorite authors.

It’s Jon Gordon’s “The Power of a Positive Team” and the contents from book’s 146 pages run parallel in many ways to the way Fleck is leading the Gophers football program.

Fleck has repeatedly talked about the “four walls” around the program, trying to cultivate a positive culture and influence his players’ mind-sets. That includes not letting the his players and coaches get too high, especially approaching Saturday’s game in Piscataway, N.J., where the 20th-ranked Gophers (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) take on struggling Rutgers (1-5, 0-4).

Gordon’s intro says “this book is meant for teams to read together,” and that is what Minnesota players are doing; they also discus what they’ve read in Thursday morning meetings. Fleck leads a more lecture-like session one week and then hands over the following week’s “lab” session to the staff at the athletic department’s “Leadership U.”

“We are able to put what we learn into the fact of, ‘Is it going to help our team now?” said Gophers starting quarterback Tanner Morgan, a member of the leadership council since he came on campus in winter 2017.

Gordon’s book shares how teams should have a “North Star,” which, as expected, is a landmark for everyone to focus on and head toward together.

As Minnesota has stacked up increasingly convincing wins this season, Fleck’s favorite cliche is “we’re 0-0” going into each game. It’s often followed by some form of “we want to be 1-0 in the Rutgers championship season.”

Opposite the book case in Fleck’s office is a sitting area, where a coffee table holds a mini telescope and microscope. This, too, is a theme in “The Power of a Positive Team.”

The telescope is used to get a better look at team’s long-range big-picture goals, and there’s a reason “championship” is included Fleck’s broken-record statements. The microscope represents drilling down for a closer look at short-term items that need addressing.

Gordon stresses his message isn’t about promoting some sort of Pollyanna positivity, which glosses over real-problem negatives. Postgame, Fleck often talks about players “putting on leather vests, zipping them up” to be able to handle criticisms that come with unvarnished film sessions on Sundays. That imagery is like motorcycle riders who puts on leather to protect them from road rash in a potential crash.

Gordon’s book cites examples at companies such as Ford, Apple and Southwest Airlines, and mentions work with national championship-winning Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who he has worked with for six years, as well as Olympic beach volleyball duo Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, and on down to high school and small college coaches.

But one story that has resonated with Fleck is that of Dr. James Gills, who has completed multiple double triathlons. That’s where one triathlon is followed by a 24-hour break and then another race.

Gills said, “I’ve learned to talk to myself instead of listen to myself. … If I listen to myself, I hear all the reasons why I should give up. I hear that I’m too tired, too old, too weak to make it. But if I talk to myself, I can give myself the encouragement and words I need to hear to keep running and finish the race.”

Fleck said, “Just think of the mental fortitude, the positivity, the thoughts that go through your head, and the negativity and the doubt that just comes crashing down on you, and most people just give into it. We don’t want our leaders to give into it at all, no matter what comes our way.”

The Gophers have played better throughout Big Ten play, winning 38-31 at Purdue, then 40-17 versus Illinois and 34-7 against Nebraska. Players credit raising the intensity level in practice, and Fleck was poised to pounce if that level slipped this week.

Fleck told his staff he “couldn’t wait” to say afterward that it “wasn’t good enough.”

But “I couldn’t say it,” Fleck admitted Tuesday. “They handle it like professionals. But they’re still kids. We want them to enjoy it as well, but also know (we’re) 0-0.”

Another one of Gordon’s messages is not to forget to enjoy victories. “Make sure you celebrate and raise your hands in the air when you and your team have reached your destination!” Gordon wrote.

That was the scene inside TCF Bank Stadium’s locker room last Saturday after the Gophers beat the Cornhuskers, just as it was in previous victories. Maybe no celebration was more raucous than when John Legend joined in after the double-overtime win at Fresno State.

“You celebrate when you do something and you accomplish something,” Fleck said. “Some people skip over that, and then all of a sudden, you lose your passion and your fire for it. Saturday in our locker room … we have a blast after a game. … And then on Sunday … we all stand up, we all have this certain process we go through and then it’s over.”

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