Gophers AD: ‘I have not heard’ about culture problems under football coach P.J. Fleck

By ANDY GREDER PUBLISHED July 26, 2023 at 12:49 p.m. | UPDATED: July 26, 2023 at 4:25 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Gophers football program wasn’t on the schedule for the first half of Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday, but the U’s operation still became a story.
Online news outlet Front Office Sports reported Wednesday that “several” former Gophers football players described an environment of “intimidation and toxicity” within coach P.J. Fleck’s program.
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, left, with athletics director Mark Coyle
New Minnesota Gophers head football coach, P.J. Fleck, left, is given a jersey by Athletics Director Mark Coyle during a news conference at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
After the story was published, several more former U players stood by the program and its head coach, including former defensive tackle Sam Renner. The Maple Grove native sent a lengthy text message to the Pioneer Press, with bullet points and anecdotes defending Fleck and the processes put in question in the article.
“I have always said and will continue to tell people: P.J. Fleck wants what is best for you on the football field as well as off the field,” said Renner, once a walk-on who earned a scholarship at the U and then had NFL opportunities. “That’s what sets him apart from other coaches.”
Citing anonymous players, Front Office Sports wrote that positive drug tests were “looked past” if that player had earned credits in a supposed “Fleck Bank” for the amount of community service he had done, or if he had stayed around to pray with Fleck.
Minnesota is believed to be one of the rarer collegiate programs which conducts strict drug testing for players, including for marijuana, and a few Gophers players are known to have left the program after positive tests.
There are other examples of players, including prominent ones, serving game suspensions for failed drug tests, the Pioneer Press understands. Some of those unnamed players remained at the U.
In a written statement shared Wednesday, University of Minnesota Athletics Director Mark Coyle said he has an open-door policy with players and has received no information of the claims made.
“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,” Coyle said. “To date, I have not heard from a single football student-athlete about the allegations raised in the reporter’s email.”
Fleck and three Gophers players are scheduled to speak on Thursday — along with the second half to the conference’s teams — at the preseason kickoff event at Lucas Oil Stadium.
In his statement Wednesday, Coyle referenced work the football program has done academically, with record-setting grade-point averages and graduation rates, as well as community engagement.
“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,” Coyle said. “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.”
The Front Office Sports article cited former players saying they felt rushed back from injuries or were not treated appropriately.
Renner countered that claim. He gave an example of him rolling his ankle in the 2018 Quick Lane Bowl, saying he could no longer play that day against Georgia Tech at Ford Field.
“P.J. as well as the training staff had asked me if I was able to go back in,” Renner wrote. “I said no and they 100% respected my decision.”
Coyle hired Fleck in 2017 to replace fired coach Tracy Claeys, who led the program when 10 players were embroiled in sexual assault allegations during the 2016 season. Four of those players were expelled.
“P.J. and our program are unique,” Coyle said in his statement. “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.”
The opening of Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday included interim Northwestern head coach David Braun. He stepped into the role after former coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired for player hazing allegations. “I won’t speak to current allegations,” Braun said. “Fully trust that our university is going through a process and will make decisions based on the facts.”
Fleck will take his turn at the podium in Indianapolis on Thursday morning.

Players mentioned in this article

P.J. Fleck

Anthony Coyle

Pat Fitzgerald

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