During one of the biggest weeks in the history of the Big Ten Conference, loquacious Minnesota Golden Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck was noticeably quiet.
Before the league officially cancelled its fall sports seasons Tuesday, Nebraska’s Scott Frost went rogue, saying the Cornhuskers would pursue games outside the league. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s Ryan Day tweeted he was “swinging hard” for his players, adding “This isn’t over!” But nary a tweet from Fleck.
Once the decision came down, Gophers Athletics Director Mark Coyle and University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel spoke on behalf of the program Tuesday night. Gabel said she “absolutely” supported the decision she helped make.
After Nebraska and Ohio State finally fell in line with the conference’s decision this week, Fleck commented publicly for the first time during a news conference Friday. He said the delay was due to him working through individual meetings with each player on the roster. He didn’t just want their views to just come out in “yeas” or “nays” in a team meeting.
Fleck said it could be an “30 for 30” documentary on ESPN, but not so much for the rich, varying perspectives on a given story.
To end a series of question to players, Fleck asked each of them: ‘What do you think about the Big Ten’s decision?’
Their answers have been unanimous: 30 of the 30 players he has met with as of Friday morning said the Big Ten made the right decision in calling off the season. Fleck still has more than 70 players to meet with.
“Were they disappointed that they didn’t play? Sure!” Fleck said. “Everybody wants to play. We want to coach. They want to play. That’s why we’re all here. Everybody’s competitors.
“But, at the end of the day, when you listen to the student-athletes that I talk to from our football team, the information they relayed back to me about how they know it was a very hard choice. But inevitably at the end of the day, (it was) the right choice for them to keep them safe and healthy, with too much ‘uncertainty,’ as (Big Ten Commissioner) Kevin Warren said.”
Fleck wasn’t asked and didn’t share his direct feedback to Gabel and Gophers Athletics Director Mark Coyle during their meetings on the season’s prospects.
“Leadership makes decisions. We’ve been led in an incredible way with Mark Coyle and President Joan Gabel, an incredible way, with honesty and transparency through the whole thing,” Fleck said. “And for us, our players spoke their mind.”
Gophers linebacker Braelen Oliver tweeted that just because Gophers players weren’t flocking to social media with #WeWantToPlay hashtags — like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields did — that doesn’t mean Gophers didn’t want to suit up.
Minnesota has multiple reasons to want to push on in 2020. After an historic 11-2 season, the Gophers ranked 18th in the debut of the 2020 national coaches poll last week. They had eight returning offensive starters, including all-Big Ten quarterback Tanner Morgan. And while the defense has to replace seven starters, quality options have come up the two-deep roster.
“Everybody is going to talk about what is good for their own program, and I think everybody is starting to see that,” Fleck said. “… That stems from your own beliefs on this at times, but just football, the more time we have to build this football team, the better we are going to be. That was my message at the beginning.”
Fleck said he asked freshmen to stand up in a team meeting so upperclassmen could look at the size of some of the youngsters. He specifically mentioned Jalen Logan-Redding, Jah Joyner and Aireontae Ersey.
On the practice field, older players have been able to see true freshman receivers Daniel Jackson and Doug Emilien impress with their play.
“They might be young, but the more time we have with them, without playing, only helps the depth of this team,” Fleck said. “I’m excited about that.”
With a fall season off the table, ideas have been floated about games resuming in the winter or spring. In the meantime, Minnesota is having players come in for a few hours of work each day.
“There will be a season at some point,” Fleck said.
But for those older players approaching the end of the collegiate road, questions remain as to what their NCAA eligibility could look like if delays continue into next fall.
Fleck acknowledged players might be approached by agents and other schools seeking them to transfer. “I trust our football team, and I know they will make the best decision,” he said. “For not only themselves, but the football team.”
Fleck supported 2019 Big Ten receiver of the year Rashod Bateman opting out of the 2020 season before it was cancelled. The potential first-round NFL draft pick was looking to his own health and how his asthma might be affected by COVID-19’s respiratory symptoms.
But it’s hard not to think about how coronavirus put the momentum of the Gophers program on pause.
With arguably the best receiver in school history gone, it’s only natural to wonder if Morgan is next. As a redshirt junior eligible for the NFL draft after a sterling season a year ago, he is a projected pick in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
But as Gophers players started to speak up after the conference’s decision was made, Morgan kept it positive just like his coach, thanking many at the school for keeping players safe.
“Football will be back. We will be back,” Morgan wrote on Instagram. “The work has only begun. Keep Rowing with us.”