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Minnesota Football: Highlights from P.J. Fleck’s post-Big Ten cancellation press conference

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NCAA Football: Penn State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck met with the media this morning to take questions after the Big Ten’s decision earlier this week to cancel the fall season.

Here are the highlights:

On what needs to be emphasized in the planning process for a potential spring season:

P.J. Fleck: “I think that everybody’s talking about that now, whether coaches are putting together tremendous plans. I know there’s been some plans presented, and nothing concrete just yet.

“I know the Big Ten, [commissioner] Kevin Warren, and his office are putting together plans, whether that is winter or spring. There’s going to be a lot of plans out there. But what we need to be able to do at the University of Minnesota, we’re going to follow the Big Ten guidelines and the protocols, and the safety protocols from the doctors and from the medical professionals, and we’re just going to continue to take the next right step here, and that’s all we can continue to do.”

On how he feels about the desire of student-athletes to establish a formal organization to advocate on their behalf:

Fleck: “First of all, we’re in the profession of education and teaching dreams, as I’ve said before, and these student athletes are the ones that have to go do it. We can all talk about what we’re going to do, student-athletes are the one that actually have to go on the field and be in the arenas, and go do the guidelines and the rules that are put in place.

“I think change is inevitable, in every situation possible. I think change is always healthy, it’s always good. It creates conversation. And in this case, we’ll see how it continues to move forward. As we’ve seen in the last five [to] six months, the players’ voice has come forward in a lot of situations, and I think that there’s a narrative that everybody thinks a certain group feels this certain way just because it’s presented that way.

“I’ll give you an instance, I’m meeting with, as we speak — and that’s why my press conference is pushed back a little bit — i’m meeting with every single kid on our football team individually. And I’m about a third of the way through our football team. And it’s interesting because I’ve asked every single one of our players four questions. I do this periodically and the last question was, ‘What do you think about the Big Ten’s decision?’

“I think that’s a very healthy question to ask student athletes because there’s a lot of people out there saying what everyone is thinking or should be thinking and there’s one narrative or one opinion. Every single person that I’ve talked to — 30 for 30, like the ESPN show — right now, 30 for 30, every player has said the Big Ten made the right decision.

“Were they disappointed that they didn’t play? Sure. 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 talked to from our football team, the information that they relayed back to me about how they know it was a very hard choice, but inevitably at the end of the day, the right choice for them to keep them safe and healthy with too much uncertainty as Kevin Warren said.

“And so again, as we continue to move forward. We’re going to take the next right step, the next safest step possible. And I think that’s fair for how we even can control the narrative moving forward of what these last five to six months and everything has meant to college football, as we evaluate everything.”

On how he plans to keep his players motivated in practice:

Fleck: “The big thing is the standard’s the standard. If you choose to be here, which it’s all voluntary, when you walk in here the standard’s are standard. For the coaches, for the players, for everybody. But what we’ve done is analyze where we are in the season, and knowing there will be another season. At some point, they’re going to open those gates, and we’re going to run through. And whatever comes through those gates, we gotta be ready for. So we’ve got to start preparing now, so if there is a winter season or spring season or fall season, we’re ready for it.

“Now, are we playing tomorrow? No. Just like training camp, there is a natural progression of this development, led by the medical professionals. So if you come over to our facility, no, practice doesn’t look like practice. We’re doing an equipment tryout phase, but there’s walk-throughs, position meetings, there’s fundamentals, there’s camaraderie, and practicing everything everybody else is doing. The masks and the social distancing and everything else. So we feel we’ve created an incredibly safe environment for our players to be able to continue to move forward and look forward, because that’s the one thing everybody’s living in now.

“Whether people are disappointed or happy or whatever it is about the decision, the decision is made. The decision’s over. Just like I stood before you a few months ago and said, ‘We’re not going back.’ You can’t go back. That’s what ‘Row the Boat’ is all about. You’re looking at the past. It happened, it’s over, it’s done with. We can learn from it now, as we continue to row into the future. But we know we’re going to get to whatever we’re going to, and we want to be as most efficient and safe as we possibly can be while we’re doing that. So, I give our players a lot of credit. It’s been a lot of fun coaching them during this time, even for our staff.

“The mental health of everybody inside our organization, led by me, is at the forefront of my mind because that’s another topic we need to talk about. Mental health and the well-being. Not just COVID, but these young people are dealing with so many stressors in their life right now. So many. These are student-athletes, and I know everybody wants to talk about them becoming professionals and and everything else, which that’s a topic for another day and I get it. But they’re 18- to 22-year-old young men who are dealing with a world pandemic that no one’s ever dealt with, that’s affecting them in their sport, and in some of the things, some of them only know. It’s affecting their academics. It’s affecting their sick mom or dad with cancer at home. It’s affecting their relationship with them of how much they can be around them. It’s not just about how many kids tested positive, and that’s what everyone keeps talking about. We only had one or two kids test positive, so that’s good. That means guys are doing what they’re supposed to do, but we were thinking bigger than that. We’re thinking about their family members and their grandfathers and their grandmothers, in some cases, a lot of their grandmas and grandpas raised them.

“We’re thinking about everyone in this world, in this nation, and the people close to our kids, because we don’t create a bubble. You do everything you can to create a synthetic bubble, but their kids. You going to tell these parents they can’t see their kid? So we’ve got to create the safest environment possible, make sure we listen to our safety professionals. And as we continue to move forward [with] all these talks, we need to communicate and be open and know that change is inevitable. But the mental health of these kids is incredibly important. And our staff too, they’re dealing with a lot as well. We all are. But that’s why it’s really a world pandemic. Because we’re all affected by it. It doesn’t care who you are.

“And then we’re dealing with the social injustice issue on top of that. So when you think of what’s going on in 2020, the young people 18 to 22, who are not grown men with families yet. Who are not professionals yet. For student-athletes, their safety, well-being, medical health, mental health, emotional health, physical health has to be at the forefront of every decision we make. Period. We’re going to continue to focus on those things, and we’re gonna continue to pour a ton of energy into that. Football is second nature right now.”

On what he has observed from his upperclassmen during this tumultuous period:

Fleck: “I’ve seen maturity. Maturity. Our young men who are older in this program have seen a lot. Seth Green has seen a lot. Micah Dew-Treadway has seen a lot. You look at the older guys. Bryce Witham has seen a lot. And those guys have shown an incredible amount of maturity throughout this whole process. I think when it first came down, communication is everything. The amount that we’re communicating with our team is more than ever. And I’m thankful that we’re doing that, because every new thing brought out from a source of information, allows that gap to get bigger, and people to feed into that.

“We’ve hopefully closed every gap by communicating through it together to process all the information, including eligibility. And I think that’s on the forefront of every sixth year senior’s or fifth year senior’s mind right now. And as we continue to go forward and more and more things come out, like it already has, it looks like it’s trending towards a direction that, listen, take a deep breath, focus on now. And that’s all we can control. And that’s been my message from Day 1 throughout this whole thing. And it’s so difficult for young people just to focus in on now when everybody else is talking about then. But that’s my responsibility is to get them right back in the culture, bring them right back to now, and do everything we can to direct all our energy to what we’re doing right now. And when you start getting involve in all the other stuff, it’s going to spin your brain out, real quick.”

On whether the program’s momentum from the 2019 season has been stifled:

Fleck: “We don’t believe in momentum. I think that’s kind of a made-up word to make an excuse why another team goes on a 20-0 run in basketball. It’s an excuse. Someone’s either playing better offense and worse defense or better defense and worse offense. It’s just a word we all use. It’s kind of make-believe or pixie dust. We don’t necessarily believe in that, in terms of the actual momentum.

“But our message to our team was okay, the pandemic’s a horrific, terrible, humbling virus. Horrible. But when we look at our football team and you look at the football part of it, of where our team is at, and who’s on our roster, and who left. We lost two first team All-Big Ten receivers. The first two on the same team that’s ever happened in the history of the Big Ten, and they’re gone. But there’s 78 percent of our catches from last year that are out there to be caught. The more time we have with our team without playing, everybody’s going to talk about what’s good for their own program. And I think everybody’s starting to kind of see that, about what’s good for this team might not be good for this team. And that kind of stems your own beliefs on this at times, but just football, the more time we have to build this football team, the better we’re going to be. And that was my message at the beginning.

“How do you be positive? You share that with them. I asked our older guys, I said older guys, who have been here five or six years, and freshman, stand up. Everybody look around. And when you look at [true freshman defensive end] Jalen Logan-Redding, he looks different. You look at [true freshman defensive end] Jah Joyner, he looks different. You start looking the offensive line, you start looking at [true freshman] Aireontae [Ersery], he looks different. They watch these guys like [true freshmen wide receivers] Daniel Jackson and Doug Emilien and they’re like, ‘Whoa.’ They might be young, but the more time we have with them without playing only helps the depth of this team. And I’m excited about that.

“Are there guys that are being approached probably by agents? Sure. Are there guys that are being approached by other teams? I don’t know. Maybe. I have no idea. But I trust our football team. And I know they’re going make the best decisions for not only themselves, but our football team. Rashod (Bateman) made the best decision for him. And again, our football team will continue to get better, and those young guys are going to have to be able to step in. The Chris Autman-Bells. The Demetrius Douglases. The Seth Greens. Our tight ends. Clay Geary. Brevyn Spann-Ford. It’s how you respond to everything that comes your way that matters in life.

“And for us, it was like, ‘Guys, look around,’ can we imagine a year from now with these guys? I know we came off 11 wins, but you don’t think we can do that again? Like, do you not feel like we just got deeper? And these freshmen, our recruiting classes are getting better and better and better. We just got our first big time commit for 2022 and it’s 2020.

“I’m always going to look at it half-full. Half full of water. Half full of air. It’s always half full. That just depends on how you want to look at it. Our football program, we’re always going to be able to dissect the information, process the information. Look at the medical information, dissect it all, and then make decisions moving forward, and keep a positive attitude, because I think that’s really powerful.”