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Minnesota Football: P.J. Fleck wants you to understand the difference between skill and talent

The discourse sparked by Fleck’s “culture versus skill” comment exposes a fundamental misunderstanding

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Nebraska v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck caused quite a stir in his postgame press conference on Saturday when he invoked the “c” word.

The “c” word, of course, is “culture.”

“That was truly culture versus skill,” Fleck said, offering up his own succinct summary of the Gophers’ 30-23 win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “That’s what I saw today. Whatever anyone else wants to say about us or our program or our culture, feel free. We’ve been called every name in the book. But culture versus skill.”

More than a few observers believe this was a callback to three months ago when Nebraska head coach Scott Frost was at the podium for Big Ten Media Days. He was asked if his team had a slogan for the upcoming season and this was his response:

“I’m not into sloganeering. If the players need me to motivate them all the time or come up with a unique slogan to get them to play harder, I probably don’t have the right players. I played for a coach at Nebraska in Coach [Tom] Osborne that didn’t need all the sayings and slogans. He just taught us the right way to do things and we went to work. That’s what we need in our program.”

Obviously, Frost was answering a question that was asked of him and made no specific mention of Fleck or Minnesota, but our friends over at Corn Nation seemed to think his intent was clear:

It’s easy to draw a line from that comment to Fleck’s statement on Saturday, even if the connection was never made explicit. But as Fleck pointed out, much has been said and written about his culture at Minnesota, and not all of it has been complimentary. So it’s not like Frost, whether he intended to or not, is the first to take a shot at his approach to building a program.

But the interpretation of Fleck’s “culture versus skill” statement that I’m most interested in addressing is the one that perceives it as a slight against his own players.

First of all, “skill” is not the same thing as “talent,” and Fleck has actually made this distinction at least once before, most recently in his book that was published in June:

“I believe ‘skill’ is what you’re born with based on genes from your parents and ‘talent’ is the unmeasurable force that allows your skill to develop into something really special based on all the experiences in your life.”

Fleck uses himself as an example, conceding that he was “smaller, shorter, and slower” than most of the other players on the field in his playing days. But that helped him better understand the value of talent, which he describes as “the how, heart, spirit, creativity, unconquerable will, effort, soul, passion, ability to be a great teammate, and refuse-to-lose mentality.”

It’s no secret Nebraska has fared better than Minnesota in recruiting, finishing ahead of them in the recruiting rankings in each season since Fleck was hired. On paper at least, the Cornhuskers have the more skilled players. If you want to argue otherwise, knock yourself out.

But the point Fleck is trying to make isn’t that his players aren’t skilled. It’s that they were recruited not only for their skill but for their talent, which is what makes them such a great fit for the culture he has built at Minnesota. You can recruit the most skilled players in all of college football, but if there isn’t a culture in place that they can lean on in the face of adversity or they aren’t the right fit for that culture, there are going to be days when the team falls apart.

Fleck specifically cited the Gophers’ goal line stand against Nebraska as a perfect example, because culture is “how you connect people, and every play you need all eleven connected.” With the defense backed up to their own goal line and only a yard standing between the Cornhuskers and a go-ahead score, it’s not difficult to understand why he’d see that as a bellwether moment for a “never give up” culture that preaches the importance of togetherness in the face of adversity.

The culture at Minnesota isn’t perfect, but it’s likely the difference between a team that gives up after losing to Bowling Green and a team that bounces back to beat Purdue and Nebraska.