The dictionary definition of culture, as it relates to an athletics program, is “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group,” but culture is one of those buzzwords that seems to have been overused to the point that all real meaning has been bludgeoned out of it.
It’s a word that has been used quite frequently in recent days in conversations about the football program at the University of Iowa. Hawkeye alumnus James Daniels first spoke out on Twitter on June 3, stating his belief that a “long overdue” cultural change “for both Iowa football and the state of Iowa” would be brought about if the entire Iowa football team were to kneel during the national anthem prior to kickoffs. He was of course referring to the method of protest first brought to the fore by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest systemic racism and police brutality.
Daniels’ initial Tweet inspired a number of other former Iowa football players to speak out about the culture of the football program and its treatment of Black players. Since then, head coach Kirk Ferentz has placed head strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle on administrative leave pending an external investigation of allegations that he has verbally abused players with racist and insensitive comments. Ferentz has also vowed to open a dialogue with both former and current players and make changes to address their concerns.
I don’t think this is an issue that is by any means exclusive to Iowa, and my intention is not to rub the Hawkeyes’ noses in it. I applaud the players for speaking out, and I think it is important to recognize that most of them are voicing their concerns out of love for the program. They want it to be better and realize that an opportunity has opened up to make their voices heard. I sincerely hope that the players are able to effect real change at Iowa, and that it becomes a place where Black players can feel comfortable and free to express themselves.
And I won’t sit here and pretend to know that the culture at Minnesota is perfect. I am certainly encouraged by the fact that head coach P.J. Fleck has supported his Black players in speaking out in response to the death of George Floyd, but I don’t know for certain what their experience has been like within the walls of the Athletes Village.
But the conversation around culture has rekindled my desire to answer a question I’ve pondered myself at one point or another: What exactly is P.J. Fleck’s culture at Minnesota? He drew heat at his introductory press conference when he stated bluntly, “What I am here to do is change a culture,” but Fleck hasn’t shied away from it in the three seasons he has been at the helm. In fact, he’ll be the first person to tell you, “I’m not for everybody.”
Everyone knows about the “Row the Boat” mantra, and the on-field results speak for themselves, with Fleck leading the Gophers’ to their first 11-win season in 116 years last fall. But culture is about more than wins and losses. It starts off the field and then translates to their play on the field.
I found that an illuminating entry point into the culture is H.Y.P.R.R.
The “How” represents the people, otherwise known as “How-phers.” Fleck can recognize a “How-pher” based on how they do something. He expects them to have an “unconquerable will,” a chip on their shoulder, and a big heart. Most importantly, they need to be committed to excelling academically, athletically, socially, and spiritually.
Perhaps the best example of this is quarterback Tanner Morgan. Even Fleck agrees: “Tanner Morgan is me. He even looks like me.” Much like Fleck when he was in college, Morgan is undersized for his position, which led to a dearth of recruiting interest. He was ready to take his talents to the MAC before Fleck was hired at Minnesota. Now he holds the school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season.
And if you are looking for evidence of an unconquerable will, consider that Morgan was beat out for the starting quarterback spot by a true freshman two years ago. Yet he didn’t transfer out. And he is ever the perfectionist, telling Fleck, “I gotta be better,” after a Purdue game in which he completed 21 of 22 passes to set a single-game Big Ten record for completion percentage.
As for the big heart:
My heart is deeply saddened. What happened is unacceptable. My prayers go out to George Floyd, his family, and our entire country. This is truly unacceptable, and should have never happened. I love the state of MN deeply and know this is not what it stands for. John 16:33— Tanner Morgan (@T_morg2) May 28, 2020
The “Yours” is your vision, and Fleck emphasizes the “your” in “your vision.” It has to be yours, and not someone else’s. You have to be bought in. But the requisite that Fleck requires of his players’ vision is that it must be one of serving and giving to others.
If you’ve followed the program at all, this aspect of the culture should require the least amount of explanation. Fleck and his players have spent countless hours visiting patients at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. He has invited fall practice attendees to bring donations for the Diaper Bank of Minnesota and hosted his annual Turkey Drive in November.
The benefits are obvious, both on and off the field. Not only is the program making positive contributions within the community, but the student-athletes are also putting selflessness into practice. They can experience firsthand what it means to put others before yourself and translate that to the field, allowing them to operate as a team rather than a group of individuals.
The “Process” is the actual work. You have your people. You have your vision. Now you have to get to work. That ranges from watching game film and working hard in practice — which Fleck has described as “organized chaos” — to getting your school work done and showing up to class.
Part of Fleck’s process is connecting with the people in the Athletes Village as much as possible. He told an assembled crowd of around 5,000 coaches at the AFCA Convention in January that he walks the building 10 to 12 times every day, getting face time with his players and anyone who works within the program, from the trainers to the cafeteria staff. Team meetings are held daily, and the leadership council meets weekly.
But for Fleck, connecting with his players is about more than face time. He once explained to AFCA Insider how uses empathy to show players that he has their best interests at heart:
“I think sympathy – having the exact same experience as someone else – you can put yourself in their shoes,” says Fleck. “That’s a great way to connect, but in college football, it’s more about empathy, where you have an understanding, but you haven’t walked one step in your players’ shoes. As long as you try to understand, and steer resources toward players’ needs, then I think players respect that. Not everyone can say they’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, but if you try to imagine it and start building relationships based on that, that’s where people from all walks of life can still connect.”
The “Result” is the actual data and information.
It is interesting to me that the “Result” is not the last step, and it is an intentional choice on Fleck’s part, as he has said that society focuses on the result. In the case of football, wins and losses. But he is much more interested in how the team played, win or lose.
One lesson Fleck learned at Western Michigan — where he finished his first season as a head coach with a record of 1-11 — that he carried with him to Minnesota was: “Never sacrifice what you really want for what you want right now.” As long as you follow your process, eventually the results will turn in your favor. Fleck’s tenures at both Western Michigan and Minnesota (so far) would seem to lend credence to that approach.
The “Response” is — you guessed it — how you respond to the data and information. As the final step in the process, it is even more important than the result. Fleck wants his players to continue to grow higher and change their best on a daily basis, and he looks at failing as growth.
Minnesota defensive back Jordan Howden comes to mind. As a true freshman, Howden was forced into a starting role when Antoine Winfield Jr. was lost for the season due to injury. To be blunt, he got torched. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi later lamented that Howden got thrown out there before he was ready. But according to Rossi, Howden also “worked really hard,” and credited him with putting a lot of time in the weight room and watching film.
And a year after a disappointing freshman season, Howden’s father got to see his son grace the front page of the Star Tribune’s sports section:
Woke up this morning to get me some breakfast at the hotel in Minnesota. Feeling good from the big win yesterday, I grabbed the Star Tribune and looked at the front page of the sports section and seen my son Jordan Howden Man this is so epic #23〽️ @jhowden5229 pic.twitter.com/eWolGobeze— Mr.HOWDEN (@cassidydec28) November 10, 2019
It can be difficult to describe a program’s culture without regurgitating a bunch of buzzwords, but hopefully I’ve provided enough substantive examples to give readers a better understanding of what Fleck has brought to Minnesota. I certainly feel like I have a better grasp of it after taking this deep dive — and I look forward to seeing how sustainable it is in the years to come.