Fleck, Gophers mastering the art of virtual recruiting
With birds chirping, the trees budding and a bright spring sun shining down on TCF Bank Stadium, it is the kind of day that college football recruiters dream about. But with the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, Minnesota Gophers coach P.J. Fleck is heeding the call of the governor, and staying home.
On a Thursday morning Zoom call with reporters conducted from his house last week, Fleck threw out some of his standard mantras about loyalty, trust, growth and of course, rowing the boat. It is clear that in the past month he has gotten very adept at the art of virtual recruiting for the state’s lone Division I football program. And according to the experts, it is working.
With a few more commitments from three- and four-star prospects last week, the Gophers 2021 class of incoming student athletes was ranked ninth in the nation by Rivals.com, while 24/7 Sports ranked the crop of future Gophers fifth nationally — up there with the likes of perennial powerhouses like Ohio State, Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida.
Like all college coaching staffs these days, the Gophers are recruiting over the phone and video while campuses are shut down, but Fleck doesn’t see it as much different than what was working for them before the pandemic.
“I think if you ask any college coach, there are no secrets. You are who you are. You provide services for student athletes to be able to buy and to pick you, and we haven’t changed,” Fleck said, throwing the credit to his staff of assistant coaches, some of whom have been with him since he first became a head coach at Western Michigan in 2013. “It’s all about our culture. Our coaches are doing a great job creatively right now in the virtual market and finding a way to be just a little bit different, find a way to be able to do more, and do it better for longer. They’re working really hard right now.”
Some highly-touted prospects have committed to Fleck and the Gophers without even physically stepping foot on campus. That’s how effective the Minnesota staff has been in selling the program virtually after one of the best seasons for the Gophers in decades.
After a pair of near-.500 finishes in 2017 (5-7) and 2018 (7-6), Fleck’s Gophers were the talk of college football for much of the fall of 2019. They started the season 9-0, got ESPN’s College Gameday to make its first appearance at the U of M campus and defeated Auburn in the Outback Bowl, finishing the season 11-2, ranked in the top 10 in both national polls.
Those who follow recruiting wondered how that success might impact Fleck’s ability to reach even more players on a national level, and the answers are starting to come in.
Avante Dickerson is a 4-star cornerback from Omaha, Neb. ranked as the 93rd best recruit in the 2021 class, regardless of position, by 24/7 Sports. Dickerson verbally committed to the Gophers on April 17 over a reported offer list that included Nebraska, Baylor, LSU, Michigan and Ohio State. Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis (Antioch, Ill.), athlete Sam Jackson (Naperville, Ill.), and cornerback Steven Ortiz (Goodyear, Ariz.) are other 4-star players through 24/7 Sports who have committed to the Gophers.
Hell-bent on sustaining the success for a program that last shared a conference title in 1967, Fleck has been working non-stop during the stay at home time in Minnesota. Among Gophers fans whose team made its most recent Rose Bowl appearance 19 days prior to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, the level of anticipation for next season could hardly be greater.
If and when the next season will begin is anyone’s guess right now. The official schedule has the Gophers hosting Florida Atlantic on Thursday, Sept. 3, and opening the Big Ten schedule with a home game versus Iowa 15 days later. But myriad plans to delay and/or shorten the season as necessary due to the virus have been discussed, including a conference-only slate of games and even moving college football to the spring of 2021.
Fleck said every idea is on the table, and he is open to all of them, with the caveat that a dozen or more games in the spring of 2021 followed by another dozen games in the fall of 2021 creates concern about the health of the athletes.
“There are a lot of people way smarter than me making the decisions, but we have a lot of ideas and every idea we have has some type of thought process back to, number one and foremost, player safety,” said Fleck, who repeated his public appeal to Minnesotans to stay home, for now.
“I hope the state of Minnesota is staying safe. We’ve got incredible leadership in Gov. Walz and what he’s been directing all of us to do. Let’s continue to follow the local, state and federal government stipulations on what we’re able to do so we can get through this at a faster rate and not only that but come out safer on the other end,” he said. “Normal is gone... but working to some kind of new normal will be critical in the future, and who’s to say that the new normal can’t be better than the old normal. So we’re looking forward to that and looking forward to being back with the football team one of these days, but more importantly keeping people safe.”
(Echo Press sports editor Eric Morken contributed to this article)