MINNEAPOLIS — The student section emptied first, as the group that had been most energized throughout the day kicked off the celebration en masse. Soon enough, the field at TCF Bank Stadium was filled.
A group of Minnesota players ran toward the Penn State sideline to grab the Governor’s Victory Bell, not among Minnesota’s most cherished rivalry trophies but an especially valuable prize Saturday. The stadium operations crew played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a Minnesota Nice trolling of Penn State, and fans punctuated the celebration by singing their fight song, “The Minnesota Rouser.”
A worker waiting for the service elevator at the south end of the stadium received a message on his walkie-talkie: “This is the biggest party I’ve ever been at.” Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who set a home record with 203 receiving yards, couldn’t recall any specifics about the scene other than the mass of people.
“The field was wild,” Gophers senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “I didn’t know if people were going to storm the field. As soon as I looked up, there were thousands of people. I couldn’t even walk through it.”
They’re not used to this here. Minnesota hadn’t beaten a top-5 team at home since Oct. 22, 1977, when it shut out top-ranked Michigan at the old Memorial Stadium, before any of the current players or students were born. Phillip John Fleck, the coach behind Minnesota’s current renaissance, wouldn’t enter the world for three more years.
But Minnesota fans were ready to celebrate, just like the players were ready to perform in the biggest game in decades. The 17th-ranked Gophers never trailed against No. 4 Penn State and built leads of 24-10 and 31-19 before holding on to win 31-26. They are 9-0 for the first time in 115 years, 6-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1961, and a step closer to their first West Division title.
And, just maybe, much more.
After Fleck agreed to a new seven-year, $33.25 million contract last week, he is looking forward to more historic Saturdays at TCF Bank Stadium and the long-term sustainability other Big Ten programs have enjoyed, including Minnesota’s top rivals, Wisconsin and Iowa. In the meantime, the Golden Gophers will chase a Big Ten championship and a College Football Playoff spot, unthinkable goals to anyone outside the program just a few months ago.
“That’s our goal, to change the narrative,” said safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who intercepted two passes in Saturday’s victory. “I think we did that today.”
The celebration continued in the stadium tunnel. Senior defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway, clearly not fatigued despite starting the game, gave a friend a piggyback ride. As Coughlin walked by, he yelled, “That’s how we do it!” As Bateman and fellow wideout Tyler Johnson entered the locker room, an older man at the door said, “Way to play your hearts out.” Inside, shouts of “Shake and bake!” could be heard. Fleck entered the locker room like he often does after big wins, by crowd-surfing.
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck crowd-surfs in the locker room after his team’s win over Penn State.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said quarterback Tanner Morgan, who showed his big-game viability with a virtually flawless performance (18-of-20 passing, 339 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions). “Just really exciting for our fans to be able to experience that with us, really exciting for our program to take the next right step.”
It was a day when Minnesota could finally come together. It’s why Fleck acknowledged so many former players in the locker room and dedicated the game ball to the entire state, hoping university president Joan Gabel could eventually pass along the actual ball to Gov. Tim Walz.
“We took the job for [the former players],” Fleck said. “We have no ties to Minnesota. We took it to bring one of the most historical football programs in the country back to them.”
Fleck isn’t a lifelong Minnesotan. He grew up in the far west suburbs of Chicago and played college ball at nearby Northern Illinois. But when mulling the Minnesota job, he saw a program with distant history — seven national titles, but none since 1960; 18 conference titles, but none since 1967 — but little to unite it in the present.
He saw a community a bit beaten down by decades of disappointment.
“It’s been so long, but that’s what’s so fun about hope,” Fleck said in his stadium office about two hours after Saturday’s game. “I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. Everybody always said, ‘The lovable losers,’ and then all of a sudden, they did it. They got the right people, they got the right GM, they got the right manager, and then they found a way to put the right team together to do it.
“It’s going to happen here, and we just want to do everything we can to get our shot at it. What you saw today is the hope for the future, to say it’s not just what used to be, it’s what’s going to be.”
Decompressing from the day, Fleck traded his Gophers game gear for a Minnesota Timberwolves hoodie, compliments of Wolves coach Ryan Saunders, who played basketball for the Gophers and wore maroon Friday night against the Golden State Warriors to support his alma mater. Fleck sat with his wife, Heather, and two of his former Western Michigan players, quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Michael Henry. Their party would continue Saturday night at Fleck’s home (“A lot of board games,” Fleck said, winking at the group).
Like many coaches, Fleck doesn’t linger on results when another game looms. He credits Heather for creating scrapbooks of every key moment they’ve shared, in football and life.
“As a coach, you lose a little bit of your humanity because you just go, go, go, go, go,” he said. “You lose your human side at times. You lose the feeling of being able to celebrate the moments.”
What Fleck never loses is an appreciation for history, including the kind Minnesota is making this season. On Sundays this season, he has given players history lessons. This week’s edition will spotlight years like 1904, 1940 (the last time Minnesota won 11 consecutive games) and 1961, and what was going on back then.
“We take the things that they’ve never done before, or haven’t done in 50, 100 years, and we put this video together and show them,” Fleck said. “And then we stand up, we high-five each other, we tell each other how good we are, coaches hug, we play music, we whoop and holler, light show and then, boom, it ends. We do this thing where we put this vest on, zip it up, and that is our leather vest.
“No matter what hits us, it bounces off from that point forward.”
The history lessons and leather vests are part of Fleck’s seemingly endless supply of motivational methods, woven into Minnesota’s “Row the Boat” culture. His approach has drawn skepticism, including when he brought it to a pragmatic state and major media market. Fleck knows he’s a different type of coach, but what is also clearly different is the results.
“Maybe we’re just ahead of the game,” Fleck said during an emotional end to his postgame news conference. “We’ve got to think that way, because the way we do it is so unique and so different, and it’s not for everybody, and I get that. But let’s step outside of our box. It’s 2019.”
Later, in his office, Fleck predicted more programs and coaches will follow Minnesota’s holistic approach.
“It’s just bigger than football,” he said, “and when you have that, that’s the things that can happen on the field, because it takes special people to be the messengers of that. This is what we’ve been like, and people are always doubting that, but we feel this is the way of the future.”