COLLEGE FOOTBALL: For Gophers, pregame children’s book produces ‘best version of us’ vs. Badgers
The Gophers’ two recent rivalry wins over Wisconsin also have come with memorable pregame speeches from coach P.J. Fleck.
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Minnesota Gophers won Paul Bunyan’s Axe at Camp Randall Stadium in 2018, the visiting locker room became a toxic cloud as players unloaded Axe Body Spray containers given to them as gag gifts from head coach P.J. Fleck.
“That was a real bomb right there,” Minnesota defensive end Boye Mafe recalled with laugh last month. “Plus, it was a small locker room. It got real stuffy. We couldn’t breathe for a second.”
When Minnesota beat Wisconsin to reclaim the Axe at Huntington Bank Stadium last weekend, the home locker room was filled with a different aroma as players puffed on cigars to celebrate winning the rivalry trophy for the second time in four years.
The Gophers capped an up-and-down season on a high note to get to 8-4 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten. On Sunday, Minnesota will learn its bowl destination and opponent. The three most likely spots are the Music City Bowl in Nashville, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix or the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Gophers’ two recent rivalry wins over Wisconsin also have come with memorable pregame speeches from Fleck. In 2018, he screamed, “Don’t be afraid to be a legend!”
Last Saturday, it started off calmly with Fleck saying, “Just go be you,” a reference to the children’s book the head coach read to the team in their hotel on Friday night. That’s another tradition, coming on the heels of Fleck reading them “Everybody Poops” before a game against Illinois last year.
“Be You!” the children’s book by Peter H. Reynolds starts off with, “My wish for you — no matter where your journey leads — is for you to always … be you.” And Reynolds’ themes include: be adventurous, be connected, be different, be brave and be persistent.
“Keep going, never stop,” Reynolds wrote, repeating the phrase three times on that page. That’s what the Gophers have tried to do in their rivalry against Wisconsin.
Losing to the Badgers 38-17 in 2019 and again 20-17 in overtime in 2020 emphasized their focus on being “Axe Tough.” They try to reinforce it with inside-run periods of practice.
In a video posted by the program, Fleck’s speech then started to heat up: “We prepare all year to be Axe Tough in every moment. How do you create memories? How do you create dreams coming true, men? All you gotta do is BE YOU!”
The Gophers defense was especially tough, solidifying their reputation as one of the best defenses in the nation. They held Badgers tailback Braelen Allen to 2.8 yards per carry, four yards fewer than his nation-leading average. The freshman phenom finished with 17 carries for 47 yards for Wisconsin.
Minnesota linebacker Jack Gibbens, who still had remnants of eye black on his face postgame, commented on how physical the game was against the Badgers. “My kind of football,” the Gophers’ leading tackler said with a smile.
The Gophers held Wisconsin in check in the first half until Badgers safety Scott Nelson’s interception return for a touchdown put Minnesota in a 10-6 hole at the half.
“We had chances, we just didn’t make the play,” Fleck said. “Second half, it was just ‘be you.’ Whole message this morning, halftime was ‘be you.’ ”
Quarterback Tanner Morgan said, “That is a common phrase that me and coach talk about a lot, actually. It’s to be yourself, and to me the way I think about it is, be exactly who God created me to be. I’m very honored and blessed to be in this position that I’m in. To hold anything back is pointless.”
Morgan opened up his game in the second half, completing all four of his passes for 110 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown to Chris Autman-Bell to take the lead for good late in the third quarter.
Fleck said on the eve of game-day that members of the program shared stories of who they are. Then they went out and proved it.
Before the cigar smoke filled the air, Fleck told his team: “That was the best version of us.”