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Brandon Veale column: At least Fleck's boat is going somewhere

Once a rival coach and butt of a few social media jokes, Minnesota's coach's philosophy stands out among river of negativity.

Brandon Veale web.jpg
Brandon Veale

Given my roots in the Upper Peninsula, my intersections with the realm of big-time college football are rare.

I interviewed first-year Central Michigan football head coach Brian Kelly in his Mount Pleasant office before a home game vs. Toledo. And I am blocked on Twitter by former Western Michigan and current Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck.

For the record, I am fairly certain the beef between Fleck and I dates back to his time in Kalamazoo, since Western Michigan is Central Michigan's bitter rival. I generally avoid profanity or personal attacks on social media, but when I read in a 2015 Sports Illustrated article that his morning drink of choice is sugar-free Red Bull with ice, five strawberries, banana and whipped cream, double-blended, that seemed a little ripe for mockery. I think some of the Red Bull jokes must have gotten back to him.

As a CMU alum, I witnessed "Row the Boat" 1.0, and it was a little rough around the edges. Somewhere in the dark corners of the Internet, there's a YouTube video of Fleck explaining the "new traditions" WMU would be starting, which included an in-stadium DJ, special hand signals for third-down defensive plays, a "row the boat" dance, and postgame singing of the WMU alma mater and fight song. The latter of the two would be conducted by a player. With an oar.

"He won't have a wand, he'll actually have an oar leading our fight song," said Fleck, who still has his hair and changes shirts from white to black and back in the middle of the video.

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Considering my dad and two of his brothers have directed school bands, the wand part has always been my favorite. That said, Fleck was the coach of Western Michigan. I probably would have made fun of him regardless of his approach.

And then the winning started. WMU annihilated Central and the rest of the MAC in 2016 while I watched from Duluth, and then in January 2017, who comes flying into Minneapolis without a sensible coat for the weather? P.J. Fleck.

But stripped from this rivalry almost none of you have ever heard of, I decided to begin Row the Boat 2.0 with open ears.

"Row the Boat" was first a coping mechanism for Fleck after the loss of a child in infancy due to a heart condition. But after two college football seasons under varying degrees of COVID-19 duress, it hits a little differently.

I'm not a football player, but the basic tenets of it are honest and meaningful: live in the present, keep pushing through adversity, mind your life's direction. It doesn't incite vitriol or make a joke at anyone's expense.

Like all of us, I have reached for just about any handhold possible to get a little closer to being over the top of this pandemic phase in my life. If Rowing the Boat made Fleck's players or Gophers fans better on their way out of the University of Minnesota than they were on the way in, more power to them.

As is being evidenced on an hourly basis, college football is rife with bandwagons getting packed up and shipped out of town under cover of darkness. Lincoln Riley hijacked the Sooner Schooner and rode his wagon west for Southern California. While I wrote this column, Kelly is reported to be leaving a post where he can name all 12 of his opponents every year so he can face down the SEC West at LSU.

I can't remember any of Kelly's slogans, but I do remember video of him yelling until his face turned some shades of red not commonly seen in nature. I remember he insisted on filming a practice in a windstorm that knocked over a scissor lift and killed a student worker. I also remember that his CMU career nearly ended before it began when he insinuated that players who lied to police about a bar fight in which a man was killed "were African-Americans that had been in that culture of violence, and they're taught to look away."

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Fleck speaks openly about growing players "athletically, academically, socially and spiritually." I can't speak to the specifics of that, but it seems a relatively noble goal, especially considering the win-at-all-costs mentality that pervades large corners of the major college sports landscape.

Minnesota had a good-but-not-great 2021 regular season. Winning Paul Bunyan's Axe against Wisconsin in front of the home crowd on Saturday in Minneapolis is the sort of thing that will make great footage for YouTube hype videos, and current projections indicate the 8-4 Gophers will play a bowl game in a fun location like Las Vegas, New York City or Florida. Not bad considering their star running back and his backup were lost for the season due to injury before the midway point.

I doubt anyone in the football program will be satisfied with that, nor should they be. The tape of home losses to Illinois and Bowling Green was rather ghastly, while Big 10 West champion Iowa, perhaps as close to a polar opposite in temperament, keeps eluding the Gophers.

With quarterback Tanner Morgan announcing he'll return for a sixth season and several other top players back, Minnesota should have a solid foundation to pursue further growth in 2022.

Fleck is now under contract through 2028. What that means is only somewhat clear.

But this boat Minnesota has been rowing seems to be going in a positive direction, and if Fleck ever portages over to the Twin Ports, I guess the first drink's on me, whether it's coffee or whatever.

Brandon Veale is sports editor of the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at bveale@duluthnews.com.

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2021-11-10T092625Z_1812534680_MT1USATODAY17129957_RTRMADP_3_NCAA-FOOTBALL-ILLINOIS-AT-MINNESOTA.JPG
Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck looks on prior to the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Huntington Bank Stadium on Nov. 6. Matt Krohn / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

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