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Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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Former Players, Staff Reveal Troubling Allegations of Toxic Culture Under P.J. Fleck

  • Several players interviewed described a cult-like atmosphere since Fleck arrived at the school.
  • Minnesota athletic department says claims workouts were used as punishments are 'not true.'
P.J. Fleck
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – P.J. Fleck’s arrival at the University of Minnesota drew national media attention to Golden Gophers football, fueled by the young head coach’s seemingly boundless energy, love of mantras, and success at Western Michigan. 

“We have a certain culture, and people want to know about that culture just like any successful business out there — people want to know, how did you do that? What’s your story?” Fleck said in the first episode of a four-part ESPNU series chronicling his first season at Minnesota in 2017.

Over the last month, Front Office Sports interviewed several former players and staff members about Fleck’s six seasons as the Gophers’ head coach. They described an environment fraught with intimidation and toxicity and referenced the “Fleck Bank” — a system that allowed players with enough “coins” to get away with positive drug tests, and other violations of team rules. 

The Fleck Bank tracked community service — including visiting patients at the University of Minnesota Medical Center with Fleck — and was a way to keep tabs on players’ studying habits, multiple former players said. Two former players said those who provided information on other players were given Fleck Bank credits.

Unprompted, the term “cult” was used by multiple former players and former staff members to describe Fleck’s “Row the Boat” culture spelled out in the so-called “Fleck Book” that players are given when they join the team. Fleck said he developed the “Row the Boat” philosophy — one he laid out in a 2021 book of the same name — that was an approach he also used at Western Michigan. 

The former players and staff members were granted anonymity by FOS over fears of retaliation since they remain in the sport in some form. The players — some of whom were starters — were all under scholarship, and they played for Fleck from 2017 through 2021.

Athletic director Mark Coyle defended Fleck in a statement to FOS. 

“P.J. and our program are unique,” Coyle said. “They put themselves out there in new and different ways — but always in a first-class manner — and after nearly seven years, it is clear to me, that is what makes P.J. and our program so successful.

“I always encourage all of our student-athletes, including every member of our football team, to reach out to me directly if they encounter any issues. To date, I have not heard from a single football student-athlete about the allegations raised.”

Through FOS’ interviews, “Row the Boat” was more than just another way to say “never give up” as they described it as the underpinnings of the program’s troubled culture. 

“You almost wondered who was a rat and who wasn’t a rat,” the first player told FOS. “You always felt like you had to keep [your] guard up. They told us we could seek help with a mental health counselor, and get some therapy sessions. But our schedules were so busy that it was like, when would you do that?”

“Some of Fleck’s recruits tested positive, but he looked past it because they had coins in the Fleck Bank from doing community service or staying around to pray with him,” said the second player. “He wanted you to be family, and he wanted you to do whatever he wanted you to do.”

A first strike for a street drug doesn’t trigger an automatic suspension, although a player is required to undergo a medical evaluation, and a review panel would convene a meeting with the player and a member of the coaching staff. Coaches, however, “may enforce a more restrictive team policy or team rule,” according to the University of Minnesota athletic department’s drug policy.

A statement to FOS by the University of Minnesota athletic department stated the school’s “drug testing policy is applied equitable and universally across all programs and any implication otherwise is false.”

But two other players confirmed that some players faced no repercussions for positive tests while they were at the school.

Fleck, 42, does have his admirers, including former players like defensive back Coney Durr. 

“It’s not for everybody,” said Durr, who — between an injury redshirt and the extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic — was at Minnesota for six seasons, five under Fleck. “You have to be ready to go through that. It’s a program, and over time you get acclimated to what’s going on. There is a lot of terminology he uses that is a little different. It can be like a foreign language.

“It’s not some program where you’re just gonna come in, clock in your hours, work out, practice and go home. It’s gonna be a little more. There are a little more requirements, and a little more effort not only on the field, but off the field.”

Two other players who were holdovers from the prior regime told FOS that indoctrination started right after Fleck was hired as head coach in January 2017. 

Dan Nichol, Minnesota’s head football strength and conditioning coach who followed Fleck over from Western Michigan and interned at Iowa under disgraced strength coach Chris Doyle, gathered the team together after Fleck was hired, one of the former players said. The instruction was simple: Clap whenever Fleck entered the locker room. 

“We had to [practice giving Fleck ovations] multiple times — the first time, because some other people in the back were not moving as quick as he wanted,” a third player told FOS.

Two other former players said that Fleck would reenter a room if he didn’t like the ovation he received. 

After that first team meeting in 2017, players received a three-ring binder they were required to memorize and on which they were tested. FOS obtained several pages of the binder used by Fleck during his time at Minnesota.

The third player said that one acronym stood out: F.A.M.I.L.Y., short for “Forget About Me, I Love You.”

“He was making us say, forget about yourself as an individual,” the player said. “I was baffled because it’s not anything logical. If you forget about yourself, then who are you?”

Added a fourth player: “It’s based around Fleck’s ego. You have to talk a certain way. You have to be a certain way. … Within that building of the University of Minnesota, it’s very much like brainwashing.”

Players, at least in Fleck’s first few seasons with the Gophers, were tested on what was included in the book and players with some saying there were repercussions — including punishing workouts — for not scoring high enough on those exams.

The pages obtained by FOS include nomenclature common to sports with inspirational quotes, and most are pretty self-explanatory. 

  • “The Pain of Discipline VS. The Pain of Regret”
  • “Your how Creates Your who”
  • “If You’re Juiceless, You’re Useless If You’re Juiceful, You’re Useful”
  • “Roof Over Your Head – Better Off Than 73% of The World”

But some of the nearly 20 acronyms players were tested on were more abstract. 

  • H.Y.P.R.R. — How/Yours/Process/Result/Response 
  • T.H.I.N.K. — Truthful, Helpful, Inspirational, Necessary, Kind
  • F.I.S.T. — Family Invested Same Time “Keep it Tight”
  • S.F./A.M./F.S. — Start Fast, Accelerate Middle, Finish Strong

“Keep in mind, this is all at the same time while trying to go to school and balance [learning] the playbook,” the first player said. 

Are you ‘Elite’?

There was only one acceptable answer when Fleck and other staff members asked, “How are you doing?”

“I’m elite.”

“It was sickening because I wasn’t OK,” the first player said, “I wasn’t in a good mental spot. I was struggling. I was fighting every day just to get by or find hope. It’s not natural to say when someone asks how you’re doing to say, ‘I am elite.’ When I said, ‘I’m good,’ [Fleck] would respond, ‘Oh, you’re not elite?’ He would either get all frustrated and walk off, or I’d be told, ‘You’re supposed to say elite.’ Inside, I was not feeling anywhere near that.”

From the outside, the first player admits that having to respond to a coach a certain way may not seem all that big of a deal. But the first player and other former players told FOS — including those not quoted directly in this story — that the clapping, binder, and dogmatic use of “elite” were the underpinnings of a culture that fostered mistrust among teammates and a fear of speaking out.. 

  • Fleck, Nichol, and others on the coaching staff were obsessed with players’ weight, according to multiple former players. “I had a teammate who was supposed to gain weight, and he would have to drink three protein shakes in front of [Nichol and his staff] before he could leave. He started [defecating] pink liquid,” the first player said.
  • Former players said they felt rushed to return from injury or didn’t have their injuries treated appropriately. “Those [athletic] trainers did a lot of things because Fleck forced their hand in that medical room,” the fourth player said. “Whether that would be getting guys back earlier than they should have been or minimizing the seriousness of some pretty horrendous injuries, a lot of the trainers [treating players under Fleck] did a lot of things that they maybe shouldn’t have done — even if they didn’t agree with it — because of Fleck.”

“It’s disturbing, but not surprising,” said Michael Hsu, who served as a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents from March 2015 to March 2021. “My fear has been there were a lot of these types of incidents. I assumed they were doing everything they could do to hide things to not let these things get out. I fear that there is a lot of intimidation involved with the athletes to make sure they keep quiet.”

Hsu said he raised concerns while he was on the board about athletics and the overall “culture of non-compliance at the university,” as he described it in an interview in October 2020. In response to Hsu’s comments, then-board chair Ken Powell and then-vice chair Steve Sviggum responded in a November 2020 letter to Hsu.

“That charge is untrue,” wrote Powell and Sviggum, neither of whom are currently on the Board of Regents. “It ignores years of positive external and internal audit results and high-integrity work behind those results.”

But a year later, Hsu took notice of a WCCO-TV story where three players described how their time as Gophers were cut short by career-threatening — and in once case, career-ending — injuries suffered in practices under Fleck. 

The CBS affiliate reported that half of Fleck’s first recruiting class of 2018 transferred, were forced out of the sport due to injury, or just quit. The story detailed how, despite nursing injuries, Fleck and his staff continued to push players. 

In a statement to WCCO-TV, a university spokesperson said the claims contained in the story were investigated and, “no finding of any rule violation or other misconduct was found.”

“In the game of college football, some dirty ass s–t goes on,” said Durr, who was on the team at the time of the WCCO report and started 42 games for Fleck. “It’s a lot of work. I talked to so many guys in different schools, and they do their best to go by the book and there’s no bulls–t there either.

“We always did things by the book. I was on a leadership council and I was a captain. It’s a great program and I highly recommend it to people who want to improve their life — on and off the field.”

‘Are you sure you are hurt?’

After an athletic department medical staff member raised concerns about student-athlete treatment and training practices, the U.S. Council for Athletes’ Health (USCAH) conducted a review. FOS obtained the final report, which was never made public until now. 

The 37-page report generated in September 2018 doesn’t single out any of the sports programs within the Minnesota athletic department, but stated “interview data indicates there have been incidents where exercise has been used as punishment for student-athletes.”

“[Athletes] had to run stairs at 6:00 with plates over their head for minor drinking. Run by strength coach but coach directed,” an unnamed staff member told USCAH investigators. 

Another employee of the athletic department stated when asked about using strenuous workouts as punishments: “Do you feel uncomfortable with the coach requests? Yes — with the previous coach. Not now with current coaches.”

The second player told FOS the workouts as punishments included “400-yard bear crawls [on hands and knees moving up and down the practice field] or having to do burpees until you threw up.”

The report stated that “it appears there have been very few situations where physical or verbal punishment workouts have occurred,” and “indications are that the majority of physical workout punishment sessions took place as a result of team rule violations.”

“Regardless of the number of incidents of exercise punishment that have occurred, the practice must be ended immediately,” the report stated. “Significant safety issues are always the concern when physical workouts are used as a form of punishment.”

In 2019, the NCAA reinforced their guidelines on workouts as punishments — described as “punitive workouts [that] are motivated by anger or frustration” — that stated such measures “should never be used.” The guidance was issued in the aftermath of the 2018 death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair during a strenuous workout in the summer heat. 

When it comes to the treatment of injured players, the report hit on the independent care of athletes, and the influence coaches may have exerted in athlete care.

“As long as you are making progress, coaches follow the medical recommendations,” said one unnamed athlete. “The way the coaches make you feel — you would rather play hurt than put up with the conversations with the coach. ‘Are you sure you are hurt?’”

But the report also stated “Minnesota’s athletic medicine team members — athletic trainers and team physicians — clearly articulated they are provided the opportunity to perform independently and autonomously as they provide medical care for the student-athletes.”

“This review, as well as additional engagements with outside subject matter experts, further improved our ability to support the health, safety and wellbeing of all student-athletes, including stronger oversight of athletic performance coaches through direct reporting lines to the executive associate [athletic director] for health and performance,” the athletic department said in the statement to FOS. 

The report also called for the Minnesota athletic department to develop better policies for oxygen deprivation training, massage therapy, and in “developing formal processes for education and compliance analysis regarding student-athlete health and safety.”

A player with an undetected heart condition went down during one of the workouts run by Fleck, and was forced to medically retire as a result, the first player said. FOS confirmed the incident with another source with the promise to not reveal the player’s name for privacy reasons. 

“Luckily, he’s OK now,” the first player said. “But they kind of ran him out of there.”

In its statement, the athletic department stated “claims that practices or workouts have been used by the football program as punishment” — which also came from interviews with multiple former employees of the athletic department — ”are simply not true.”

“We are investing more in student-athlete well-being than we have at any time in our department’s history,” the athletic department continued in its statement. “We are committing more resources to breaking down stigmas and supporting mental health. We are devoting more time to education and training, ranging from nutrition to life skills to career development. We have built out staff to support this work and continue to launch new programming, informed directly by our student-athletes based on what they need to be healthy and successful.”

‘A Time of Crisis’

Those interviewed said one major reason that many of these allegations are coming to light for the first time is the University of Minnesota athletic department has been hesitant to investigate claims over fears of another scandal. 

Coyle, the university’s athletic director, was hired in May 2016 in the aftermath of his predecessor, Norwood Teague, who resigned in August 2015 over allegations he sexually harassed two university employees.

“Make no mistake, the hiring of Mark Coyle signifies that the University of Minnesota has the highest expectations for excellence in competition and in the classroom, while also running a department that exemplifies unblemished character and citizenship as representatives of the University,” then-president Eric Kaler said.

With Tracy Claeys’ firing after one full season as head coach after the 2016 season, Coyle managed to do something he couldn’t in his stint as Syracuse AD: hire Fleck, who turned the Western Michigan program around, culminating in a Cotton Bowl appearance in his fourth and final season. 

Coyle said in the statement to FOS that he hired Fleck “to take over this program as it was emerging from a time of crisis.” Just weeks before Fleck’s January 2017 hire, Claeys supported a threatened boycott by his team ahead of the Holiday Bowl — one called after 10 players were suspended over violations of the university’s student code.

“I was disturbed at how they couched [Fleck’s hire] as if he was going to change the culture,” Hsu told FOS. “When they hired P.J. Fleck, the last thing we wanted was another scandal.”

Those 10 players were linked to an alleged sexual assault that led to no charges after prosecutors were unable to substantiate the claims made by the then-22-year-old woman in September 2016. 

“Our shared objective at that time was to shape our program into one that would produce results in the classroom and in our community in a way that would support success on the field,” Coyle said in the statement to FOS. “Since his first days as our head coach in 2017, that’s exactly what P.J. and his staff have delivered. 

“P.J. has coached thousands of Division I student-athletes in his career, and we see many of those men and their families around our program today. They often reflect on P.J.’s leadership and how it shaped them as football players and as young men. The results we see in our program today speak for themselves.”

Issues within the University of Minnesota athletic department have become public before.

  • From 1993 through 1998, an investigation showed the Gophers men’s basketball team committed academic misconduct. Head coach Clem Haskins took a buyout after the 1998-99 season. An NCAA investigation released in 2000 concluded the “violations were significant, widespread, and intentional.” The Gophers were placed on probation for four years and were docked scholarships.
  • Wrestling coach J Robinson, who worked at the school for three decades, was fired by Coyle in September 2016 after he attempted to conceal a Xanax distribution ring led by a dozen of his wrestlers. “Coaches cannot decide to conceal knowledge of misconduct and attempt to handle matters on their own,” Coyle said in a statement.
  • After a USA Today investigation into Marlene Stollings led to her ouster as Texas Tech women’s basketball coach in 2020, the toxic environment fostered during Stollings’ tenure (2014-18) at Minnesota came to light. Two players who played for Stollings at Minnesota told the Star Tribune that they raised concerns — including players being urged to play through injuries and having their scholarships regularly threatened — with a consultant hired by the athletic department.

“The fact that Fleck has been able to keep the program from getting that kind of publicity is really why he’s been able to stick,” Hsu said. 

A bigger issue looms

Hsu said while he was on the Board of Regents that the school’s administration kept telling him “there was nothing to worry about in athletics.” But when news broke earlier this month that Northwestern players alleged a toxic hazing culture within the school’s football program that led to the ouster of head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Hsu hoped it’d lead to a reexamination of Minnesota’s athletic department. 

“The fact we now know what happened at Northwestern and how deep those problems ran, yet at the same time I don’t know if Minnesota thoroughly investigated [prior allegations made against Fleck] is frustrating,” Hsu said. “We need to know what they knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it.”

Toxicity within sports, however, isn’t just a problem in the Big Ten, where — now minus Fitzgerald — Fleck is in the middle of the pack regarding compensation for the conference’s football coaches. 

Fleck agreed to a seven-year, $42 million contract extension in December, which runs through 2029. He went 44-27 over his first six seasons as head coach of the Gophers with four bowl wins — and more importantly, three wins over rival Wisconsin to secure Paul Bunyan’s Axe. 

Fleck’s fingerprints and branding — including “Row,” short for his “Row the Boat” motto — are on the team’s helmets and other gear. The first player got rid of the gear he received during his time there, which took counseling to undo what he experienced as a Gopher. 

“I do have some PTSD,” he said. “Anytime anyone asks me about the U of M, they’re like, ‘Oh, that must have been great.’ And I am just like, ‘Not really at all.’ I don’t like thinking about it at all. I love my new life.

“Most of my U of M stuff I don’t even wanna touch. I have donated it just because I get sick or frustrated looking at it,” he said. “It should be nice stuff, but even some of the shirts have all of his slogans with misspelled words. [Fleck] is trying to be the next big best thing, but there’s no point or need.”

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