INDIANAPOLIS — Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck walked to the dais at Big Ten media days armed with a gray manilla folder and a tone he wanted to set.
Written with a black Sharpie on the inside of that folder were 10 topics ranging from drugs to clapping to injuries. Under each category were meticulously scribed sentences also in his handwriting. Fleck, who enters his seventh year with the Gophers, was ready for battle.
And 9 minutes, 40 seconds into his news conference, Fleck sprung into action.
A story published by Front Office Sports on Wednesday quoted several anonymous players accusing Fleck of several offenses. Among them was allowing players who performed enough community service to collect “coins” to be used at the “Fleck Bank” and get out of positive drug tests. Fleck’s environment was described as toxic and intimidating, and the anonymous players labeled his heavy use of acronyms and phrases as “brainwashing.”
Other reported criticisms included his overuse of the word “elite,” forcing players to clap when he entered the room and making one player drink enough protein shakes to change the color of his fecal matter.
In a three-minute response Thursday, Fleck outlined the reasons why he took offense to the story. The coach vigorously defended his program, reputation and team culture. He was even more forceful in a side interview with The Athletic.
“Each year this story, from a source that used to be connected to the university, has been peddling the story pretty much every summer,” Fleck said, “and looking for anybody to grab it and hold on to it.
“They’re baseless allegations, and it’s a similar story every single year told a little bit of a different way.”
Fleck recognizes he isn’t for everyone. He talks fast, runs ahead of his players on game days and rattles off more slogans in 30 seconds than corporate executives on a retreat. But he said he’s the same way in his initial impression with prospects and the program “selects” players rather than recruits them. If players have concerns, they can go to the campus leadership council, the Student Advisory Committee, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office, athletic director Mark Coyle and other outlets.
“Our players, when they’re on campus and playing for us, have six anonymous avenues, that if there’s an issue, you can go without anybody ever finding out,” Fleck said. “We encourage our players to always use those avenues.
“The majority of the players have been dismissed from the team, and then they’re contacted by an outside source, collecting all the information. I think we’re probably going to see a lot more of this type of thing happening with the transfer portal. More and more players leaving and having a platform to say, either baseless allegations or real allegations.”
Fleck’s players have been just as forceful in defending their coach. A ton took to Twitter on Wednesday, especially receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who returns for his seventh season at Minnesota.
“Everything said in those articles, false. Completely false,” Autman-Bell said Thursday. “I’m not saying it to you, but I’m kind of like tired of talking about it because it’s been the same thing for three years now.
“The acronyms and the mantras that everyone makes fun of is what made me a better man to this day. Literally.”
When Fleck took over at Minnesota in early 2017, 10 Gophers were suspended after they were accused of sexual assault. The team held a boycott and nearly didn’t play in the 2016 Holiday Bowl. Coach Tracy Claeys was fired, and Fleck brought a high-energy approach to the program.
Fleck was accused of forcing players to clap when he walks into the room, and he would re-enter if the response was not boisterous enough.
“When I run in there, it’s not about me,” Fleck said. “It is getting everybody energized, make as much noise as we can. We clap, and I blow a whistle, then we start our meeting. I’ve done that for 11 years.”
One player told FOS that Fleck’s constant use of the word “elite” affected his mental health and that he didn’t provide forums to report abuse or other issues.
“You have to think at an elite level, you have to play at an elite level, you have to work at an elite level, not a good level, not an average level,” Fleck said. “I was one of the first advocates of mental health. Six anonymous avenues (at the University of Minnesota). If you don’t like it for whatever reason, you can go and say that to those anonymous sources, and I will never know who you are. We know what’s been reported. To this date, zero claims have been made through these avenues about any of these allegations.”
Fleck was angered when asked about former players accusing him of preferential treatment for certain players who failed drug tests.
“It’s administered by Drug Free Sport,” he said. “We follow all university and NCAA policies. I have zero control of who gets chosen. As for those tests, I can’t reduce or eliminate consequences from those results. If there is a reasonable suspicion case, which we’ve had five in seven years, there is a university policy you have to go through that has to be signed off by a physician, the athletic director, administration and many other signatures. We’ve had starters miss games.”
Fleck calls Minnesota football allegations ‘baseless’
He was equally as upset about claims that he forced players to compete through injuries. Last year star running back Mo Ibrahim dressed but sat out with a sprained ankle in a loss to Purdue. It perhaps cost the Gophers the West Division crown.
“In the return-to-play timelines, doctors, medical staff, trainers — that’s their role,” Fleck said. “I listen to them. I have zero control of that.”
The anonymous players called attention to the “Fleck Bank” where players who spend time serving the community can use “coins” to get out of team infractions. Fleck was accused of allowing those players to get out of failed drug tests. Minnesota safety Tyler Nubin described the “Fleck Bank” used when a player who was late to a team function once has enough equity to get a lighter punishment.
In a long corridor before Fleck went to a podium for another round of interviews, Nubin embraced his coach. Nubin asked Fleck how he was doing, and the coach shrugged. Nubin then wrapped his arms around him.
“That’s why I came over here,” Nubin said.
“I have two degrees,” Autman-Bell said. “I’ve done amazing community service work and I’ve become a man in seven years all because of P.J. Fleck. So whatever everyone else is saying about him, how they feel about him, I love the guy to death and I will forever behind him. I will forever stand for him and his program and his culture. So I’m a P.J. Fleckie, and I’ll always be behind him.”
(Photo: James Black / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)