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P.J. Fleck Won’t Stop Rowing the Boat, and Minnesota Won’t Stop Winning

The Golden Gophers are 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and have an outside chance at making the College Football Playoff. How did their coach transform a MAC rallying cry into a Big Ten revolution?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After the biggest win of his coaching life, surrounded by more University of Minnesota fans than had ever previously stormed a football field, P.J. Fleck spat out a pair of nonsense catchphrases with very different origins.

One phrase, “Ski-U-Mah,” is something that every Minnesota head coach has said. In the 1880s, a Golden Gophers rugby player named John Adams claimed that he watched canoe races on one of the state’s famously numerous lakes and heard Native American racers scream something that sounded like “ski-yoo!” when they won. Instead of asking the canoers what they meant—just a thought—Adams decided that this must be their term for victory. (Of course, he was wrong.) A “mah” was tacked on to the end of this word jumble so that it rhymed with “rah!,” and Minnesota fans have been hollering it ever since. Ski-U-Mah now ranks among the most gibberish catchphrases in college athletics, alongside Illinois’s “Oskee Wow Wow” and Virginia’s “Wa-hoo-wa.”

This is how college traditions are born—people applied bad ideas to sports around the turn of the century, and because the sports associated with those bad ideas are fun, we’ve just been rolling with them ever since. (America invented the blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop, techno, and most genres of popular music, and yet every touchdown scored by a major college program is celebrated with the same peppy songs from roughly 1913 in which fans clap on the upbeats. Unbelievable.)

The other phrase, “Row the Boat,” is something that no Minnesota coach before Fleck has ever said, and that no Minnesota coach after Fleck will likely say. In 2013, Western Michigan hired Fleck, then 33, to become its next head coach. He entered the job with a bunch of catchphrases—in this video, he explains the Nekton Mentality (something about how sharks, which are nektons, never stop eating, even if they’re full), the Prefontaine Pace (about how Steve Prefontaine sprinted even when competing in the 10k), and the Farmers’ Alliance (about how a farmer can only grow “elite” crops if nearby farmers also do their jobs well, due to “cross-pollination”). However, no catchphrase caught on quite like Row the Boat. And while no one asked the Native American canoers what their words meant, Fleck is often asked to clarify the significance of Row the Boat. “It’s a never-give-up mantra,” he said after being hired at WMU. “When you row a boat, you’re rowing. Don’t ever look at me and paddle. That’s completely different.”

The odd thing is, Western Michigan’s sports teams are nicknamed the Broncos. Horses have hooves, and cannot row boats. (This is a crucial plot point in Game of Thrones.) “I had no idea what ‘Row the Boat’ had to do with a Bronco,” former WMU quarterback Zach Terrell recently told The Washington Post. “I didn’t think what he was preaching was authentic.”

However, it turns out Fleck is authentic. “I thought, there is no way this guy is real,” his wife Heather said when recalling their first meeting. “After I sat down and talked to him for five minutes, I was like, oh my gosh, this is just who he is.” At Western Michigan, Fleck’s energy and charisma resonated. The Broncos led the MAC in recruiting every year that he coached there. In 2016, they went 13-0 and won their first conference title since 1988. After that perfect regular season, Fleck left to become the head coach at Minnesota, with one catch—he wanted to take Row the Boat with him, even though WMU had licensed the phrase. Fleck came to an amicable settlement with the school: The Broncos can still use Row the Boat in connection with the 2016 MAC champion team, and Fleck could otherwise bring it to Minnesota in exchange for an annual payment of $10,000 to sponsor a scholarship.

At Minnesota, the weirdest thing of all has now happened: Fleck has the Golden Gophers sitting at 9-0. The team’s fast start initially felt like the product of a backloaded schedule and the Big Ten’s lopsided divisional format—until they took down fourth-ranked Penn State in a convincing 31-26 win Saturday. Suddenly, Minnesota is ranked eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings and seventh in the AP Poll, its first trip into the top 10 of the polls since 1962. If Fleck leads this squad to two more wins, the Gophers will secure their most victories in a season since 1904, when the proto-Gophers beat a local high school 107-0.

It’s mid-November, and Minnesota is in contention for a Big Ten title, and potentially a national title. It just has to keep on rowing.

College football is a sport full of catchphrases—just ones that have existed for hundreds of years. Fleck comes across as strange only because he came up with his own.

At Western Michigan, Fleck’s Row the Boat shtick didn’t feel out of place. WMU is not the most famous college football team called the Broncos, and is one of three directional Michigan schools in the MAC. None are widely known, and the conference lacks any perennial powerhouses. When Fleck made a MAC school pop with effective branding and effusive energy, there was nothing standing in his way. His Row the Boat mantra helped him dominate recruiting and quickly build the best team in the league.

At higher levels of college football, though, schools already have their own catchphrases: Roll Tide, War Eagle, Hook ’Em, Fight On. When Fleck went from the MAC to the Big Ten, he signed on with a program that already had 100-plus years of history. And at Minnesota, history can be complicated. In the early days of the sport, the Golden Gophers were dominant, winning six national championships between the turn of the century and the start of World War II. But the sport soon passed Minnesota by. From 1970 until Fleck’s hiring, Minnesota posted 27 losing seasons and 18 winning ones. The Big Ten was overtaken by THE Ohio State University and Go Blue. Ski-U-Mah fell by the wayside.

As such, Minnesota accepted Fleck’s branding. The Gophers’ official Twitter account frequently ends tweets with both #SkiUMah and #RTB:

Minnesota’s helmets say ROW on the front and “SKI-U-MAH” on the back, and feature an oar-themed logo:

Yet while the school treats “Row the Boat” and “Ski-U-Mah” in equal measure, most people ignore Ski-U-Mah and focus on Fleck’s mantra:

Even Minnesota’s men’s hockey—which should be firmly in Ski-U-Mah territory—is apparently now a Row the Boat team. Here’s a Gophers goal scorer busting out a rowing celly:

Honestly, I can’t believe that this is working. At Western Michigan, Fleck became the best recruiter in the MAC, by a long shot. At Minnesota, the Gophers are ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rolling four-year recruiting rankings, ahead of just Maryland, Northwestern, Illinois, and Rutgers. The Gophers’ quarterback, Tanner Morgan, committed to Fleck at WMU and somehow leveled up to become a quality Big Ten QB. The team’s superstar cornerback, Antoine Winfield Jr., was recruited to Minnesota before Fleck arrived; he chose the Gophers not because of his affinity for boat-rowing, but because Antoine Winfield Sr. was once a Pro Bowler for the Minnesota Vikings. Fleck has landed only three four-star recruits during his tenure at Minnesota. (I’m contractually obligated to mention that one of these three is 6-foot-9, 400-pound offensive lineman Daniel Faalele, an RV who has somehow learned how to excel at football.)

At Western Michigan, Fleck succeeded because his energy and enthusiasm allowed him to attract high-caliber players to a school in a conference that was devoid of apex recruiting predators. At Minnesota, that’s not the case. The only explanation for the Gophers’ stunning success is that he has truly convinced them to play with a Nekton Mentality and a Prefontaine Pace, thus creating a Farmers’ Alliance.

On the one hand, Fleck feels like a budding coaching superstar. Just 38 years old, he’s already turned around two previously middling programs. What if he reshaped an even more prominent program in his image? Imagine the possibilities with five-star recruits rowing the boat.

On the other hand, more prominent programs do not like being reshaped in one person’s image. Michigan fans have become perturbed by a Wolverines team that feels like a Jim Harbaugh cult of personality more than a Big Ten title contender. Tennessee fans weren’t thrilled when Butch Jones fed them a steady diet of bad catchphrases and worse on-field results. (Even the team’s 2017 Champions of Life couldn’t save Jones’s job.)

The truth is, Fleck might be a perfect fit at Minnesota, a school in a power conference willing to allow the Cult of Fleck to take over its host body. The Golden Gopher used to be a rodent; Fleck has made it a Rowdent. And now, Minnesota is a not-unreasonable number of wins away from a title.

Minnesota’s two catchphrases come from different eras and mean different things. Ski-U-Mah indicates fealty to the university—being affiliated with Minnesota football requires one to say these strange words that have been uttered by Gophers coaches and players for about 150 years. Row the Boat, however, is a transient phrase, one that has been cut-and-pasted from one school to another via legal agreement, and presumably could be again were Fleck ever to bounce. It indicates doctrination in the Church of Fleck, which is headquartered in the Twin Cities for the time being.

For now, these two catchphrases are working perfectly in tandem. After all, while those victorious Native American canoers didn’t realize a white guy would bastardize their phrase for his school’s sports teams, they sure as hell knew how to row their boat to glory.