MINNEAPOLIS — P.J. Fleck spoke of winning national championships at Minnesota during his opening news conference in January 2017, but even he knows you can’t go that big all the time.
Yet Fleck, a former standout Illinois high school basketball player, also understands you’ve got to shoot your shot. Even if it’s a big one; especially when it’s a big one.
Last November, Minnesota was 5-6 and a 10-point underdog to rival Wisconsin in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Gophers hadn’t beaten the Badgers in 14 years and hadn’t won in Camp Randall Stadium in 24 seasons.
“You have one shot at giving that speech,” Fleck said, “and you just pray that it works.”
Fleck’s pregame speech that day would have seemed bombastic if heard in that moment outside the visiting locker room in Madison, Wisconsin:
“Everything we have done has led up to now. Right now! ... You could become a legend today, boys. ... Put your stamp on history. Put your stamp on a legacy. It’s going to take all of us. All of us! Men, be not afraid. Do. Not. Be. Afraid to be a legend.”
A fired-up Gophers squad took a 17-0 lead, and with four takeaways rolled to a 37-15 victory over the Badgers.
Fleck insists there wasn’t much of a backstory to that speech, already somewhat legendary in its own right. But it was composed with Gophers’ history in mind: historic coaches Bernie Bierman, Murray Warmath and the U’s national championship era pre-1961.
“You’re starting to think of, you know, we need to restore those days,” Fleck said Monday. “And when you haven’t done something for 15 years, people are going to remember it.
“And when you haven’t done it at that place since close to 30 years, they’ll remember that football team — no matter what happens. They won’t remember scores. They won’t remember how many wins we had that year, but they’ll remember us beating Wisconsin.”
If the No. 9 Gophers beat No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday, fans will remember that ‘W’ even more.
That’s because while last year’s win snapped long losing streaks, the Badgers went into that game unranked at 7-4. Besides the rivalry, there wasn’t much more on the line.
Saturday’s game is for the Big Ten West championship, a spot in the conference title game and a potential spot in the Rose Bowl — or the College Football Playoff.
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Everybody knows Fleck has something brewing for his team in the moments before the take the field at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. It will likely have all those grandiose trappings.
The ceiling is higher. Gophers senior receiver Tyler Johnson said the legend speech is “close to the top” but not the best one Fleck has given in his nearly three seasons at Minnesota.
“I feel like that message really can last a lifetime, and it just can go to anybody, just as simple as it sounds: ‘Don’t be afraid to be a legend,’” Johnson said. “Go out there and be remembered. Really, if you live with that mindset every day, positive things will follow.”
Gophers assistant coaches aren’t in the locker room for pregame speeches; they go straight from warmups to the coaches’ box above the field or to the sideline to get set up on the headsets. But they see all the elements to the buildup.
Each season, Fleck has a theme to dip into for inspiration; this season it’s movies, with Batman and Indiana Jones starting things off in nonconfernece play.
“The seeds kind of get planted and then it culminates on the day of the game,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said.
The goal is to have “three fires” lit.
“There is physical, mental and emotional,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “We always talk about having all three fires raging at game time. That is the price you have to be willing to pay during the week to make sure that those three fires are burning at the highest possibility. ... That gives you the best chance to win the game.”
Ciarrocca and Rossi throw some kindling on the blazes during unit meetings on Friday nights.
“I always tell them, ‘I’m not trying to give you a pep talk,’ but it always turns into one,” said Ciarrocca, one of 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
“There is motivational element to it,” Rossi said of his style. “That carries from week to week. A lot of it echoes whatever the team’s (theme) is, but sometimes there is something unique to the defense.”
But inside the Gophers’ football-shaped home locker room, it will be Fleck’s floor.
“I love it when he talks to the team,” Ciarrocca said. “He is such a gifted speaker.”