MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Gophers started spring football practices a month ago, head coach P.J. Fleck’s primary on-field concerns were which running backs and linebackers could start to fill vacancies for games this fall.
Oh, how the world has been knocked off its axis since then.
The coronavirus pandemic has since shut down all sports — including the U’s spring scrimmage, which was set for Saturday — and cast doubt on whether the virus will alter or even stop games from being played come September.
Like it has for the rest of us, this life-altering situation has grounded Fleck at home in Edina, where he says he’s preparing for what he calls a “new normal.”
In an interview, Fleck talked about needing adaptation as some of his players’ parents have lost their jobs, the current politicians he admires as he leads his own team, his view on the prospects for playing a season in 2020, and how his family is enjoying its new addition, a Maltipoo puppy named Bella.
You’ve said “new normal” in a few recent interviews. Where does that thinking come from?
Any monumental thing in our country’s history, whether that was a world war, civil war or 9/11, any type of huge, monumental event, if it’s tragic or something we’ve overcome, we’ve gotten better out of it. We’ve learned lessons from it.
That doesn’t mean times are going to get any easier today, but what it does mean is this new normal, when we get to it probably isn’t going to be like the old normal. I think part of that is not taking things for granted. Whether that is our health or our family or or professions. Whether that is going (out) and being social.
Look at college football attendance, it has gone down over the years, people could stay at home with eight TVs.Now, after two weeks, we are complaining about not being able to go to live events. Well, we took that for granted!
We can be better because of this time that we are not allowed to do the things that our freedoms say we can because we are not thinking of just ourselves, we’re not thinking of just our partner … or our friends or family. We used to just think about ourselves and now we can think about everybody. It’s the responsibility and accountability that we all need to focus on of making this all better, by making everyone else better, not just focusing on us.
Are there current leaders you have taken something from?
I think Governor (Tim) Walz has done an amazing job of leading our entire state. He is very open. He is very honest. He is constantly giving updates and he is talking to the state of Minnesota as a Minnesotan, not as a politician. … I think that is really important. In politics, I think that needs to come across. I think he is relaying those messages as a human being. I think that really touches the hearts of all Minnesotans.
I’m a Minnesotan. I’m a member of this state, like everyone else. I want the safety of my family and I want the safety of my children and wife and my players. I want that, too. I’m listening just like everyone else and I’m being educated just like everyone else.
I’m into politics. I like watching politics. I like to be informed. I will flip back and forth to see what other people are saying and even the governor out in New York (Andrew Cuomo), the things he’s dealing with right now. You are watching some of the best leaders that could possibly run our country one day step forward and create action and create this sense of calmness in this time of chaos. I think that is critical in leadership.
How are you trying to lead your team remotely?
I think the biggest thing when you are trying to lead from afar is you have to continue to have that trust. How do you develop trust? That is time, consistency and proof.
Every day I’m making sure that their time for the day is mapped out, if they want to do it that way. They can voluntarily do it with how they want to do it. They are going to get into some type of routine based on what works for them. Then there has to be a consistent message from me. We are still working on our team meetings. We are still doing our position meetings. … We are doing our mental, physical and emotional health training. We are doing our weight room training, our yoga, our drills. We are doing all of that still.
But then there is this recruiting factor, there is time to be able to FaceTime our (recruits), and our coaches are in constant contact with them every day. It’s building that trust even from afar. Knowing that you have that trust is one thing; constantly making it build and grow into the team and making it a connective team is the challenge that you want going forward.
How have you seen your players deal with this mentally?
Their worlds are being turned upside down. I’m not just saying their worlds, their parents’. Most of our players that I’ve talked to, a lot of them have had their parents already laid off. Not only that, they have younger siblings. Not only that, they have to home school their child. They want the value of education. … We have some people that have nine, 10 people in one house because there is nowhere else to go. It’s tragic.
When I say we are going to get to this new norm, the new norm is going to be very difficult for a while. But that is what our player are struggling with. That is why we are keeping up our end of making sure the mental, physical and emotional health is being trained and making sure our team meetings speak to their entire family. (Their family) can be motivated and inspired and help just to get through today by watching our team meeting, which before they never really had access to. Now they do because they can watch it with their son. …
The recruits we talk to, the same thing. Their whole families are involved in this, their whole families are now in their FaceTimes, where before it wasn’t. I feel an obligation and responsibility to help families find a way to get through this. Not just our players.
Have you been working on any plans to give back to the community?
Our players have been great. The NCAA has been great for some players on certain teams in allowing them to do certain things. A lot of our players have been doing those things on their own. We’ve asked them to keep up with the philanthropy, keep up with the nonprofits and keep up with a way to make your lives bigger than yourselves.
A lot of them, that needs to focus on their families, that meets the need for them. There are others that have reached out to other organizations and non-profits and have done that.
(My wife) Heather and I and our team are still very involved in Ronald McDonald House, dropping off a lot of different supplies. Our players have asked to put their heads together and come up with certain ways to be able to help our community and their communities at home. We are very excited about that. We are very excited to be able to help that, and we will continue to do that.
Sports are such an escape for people, so what are your thoughts on if there is going to be a season this fall?
… I think there are all these hypotheticals. I think there is nobody that knows exactly what is going to happen. It’s all opinions. We can run in circles if we say all of our opinions.
But I do think sports are a getaway, but that should never get in the way of health of everybody else, student-athletes, coaches, fans, communities. Nothing comes before the health of people. I think that is the big message coming from our federal government, our state government, our local government, but hopefully we are getting to a point where we can plateau this and then start to see how we can decrease it and then hopefully get it out. Then we can start to move forward on these other parts.
I don’t see how we can say we know what is going to happen. We just have to just continue to get to certain deadlines and then reevaluate and see where we are at.
What’s the story with your new puppy?
This has been in the works for a long time. You’ve got to pick the parents and then it’s got to be conceived. Then you get to see the dog here and there as it gets raised and then finally around the four-month mark you get to bring the dog home. It just so happened that the four-month time worked right into the COVID-19 outbreak.
The dog would probably never see me, not know who I am, if it wasn’t for what we are all going through right now. It’s given me time to help potty train the dog, be around the dog. …
It’s been really something that is in our life that has made us smile, helped us get through uncertain times. … It’s about appreciating the small things, appreciating a two-and-a-half pound dog. … Helping them potty train and making accidents in the house and not get mad at them. Just bringing your family closer together. We can all learn from this. We are excited to have the dog.
… This dog is attached to Healther’s hip. This dog actually thinks Heather is her mother. It’s amazing the attachment these two have after a few weeks.