Time for a very special episode of Still Got Hope....
Your boy here has clinical depression and has his whole life. Hasn't kept me from mostly doing what I want and having a very solid career as a blogger; but it's imbued me with a very pessimistic, cynical attitude about almost everything.
I followed PJ Fleck a bit last year as his star rose at Western Michigan. ESPN and others named him the first coach of the Millennial generation and, frankly I had no idea what the hell that was supposed to mean, but okay. Myriad stories about his unorthodox approach to culture and team management kind of went in one eyeball and out the other. I thought he was a bit kooky, but it was fun to watch a MAC team make a run to a NY6 bowl game and give Wisconsin everything they could handle in the Cotton Bowl.
My attitude changed a bit when he came here and our entire brand was transformed into Row the Boat. Don't get me wrong, I was thrilled that we hired him - I can't recall the last time any Gophers team went out and paid for one of the more hotly-recruited names in the country. I was, along with many others, just totally overwhelmed with his, uh, spirit and the, uh, intensity of our new branding.
A few weeks into it and I was pretty tired of hearing about HYPPR, F.A.M.I.L.Y and moving through life at a Prefontaine pace. I get that some people loved it and, since Gopher football didn't have much of a national brand anyway, what harm could it do? Still, it grated on my nerves; it was just a constant stream of half-intelligible axioms mixed in with common-sense stuff about building the program around four pillars: academically, athletically, socially and spiritually. Some of my friends bought it part and parcel. I accepted that it might work for 17-22 year olds, grumbled mostly privately about how annoying it was, while also acknowledging that I wasn't the target market for his message. Even earlier this week I wrote a couple of pieces more or less saying his shtick didn't resonate with me.
Over the last couple of days, though, I've begun to question whether that's true. His piece on Yahoo! Sports today reinforced that notion: while his delivery isn't necessarily my style, his message, the whole ethos of Row the Boat itself, is about dealing with adversity and fighting, alone or collectively, to achieve a greater purpose. While some people are blessed to find that through faith and religion, those of us not of that persuasion can sometimes feel a bit rudderless (sorry - that was really the word I wanted to use and I won't sacrifice my artistic license because of a pun). Finding something, even a mantra that I'd never heard of until a year ago, that ties you in with a purpose, something larger than yourself, can be a powerful thing.
It's easy to point at Fleck and, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm, label him as all sizzle and no steak. That he's a walking hype machine that is in it for himself rather than the program or the state. Six months ago, at the spring game, I thought that myself. Now, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, I think he's legit. He truly believes everything he says about what he wants to do with the program and why establishing his culture is central to doing that.
Some might say that in my state of mind, I'm susceptible to cult thinking and, to some extent, they would probably be right (I have managed to avoid Scientology and various doomsday cults, though, so I still have some powers of agency). There is, no doubt, a bit of a cult feel to what Fleck brings to his programs; but it's a cult oriented around a shared struggle to become better people who serve and give to their communities. Not exactly the sort of behavior we should discourage in today's world.
I think his message has begun to resonate with me because it's ultimately one of hope. An aspiration to be something more than we are that can only be achieved through collective effort. What I cynically thought of as a trite gimmick is about transcending what we have always been and recognizing the most important thing right now is what we do next.
Right or wrong, that's a message I need to believe. I need to believe it for myself. And I need to believe it for this program that I love.