BEYOND THE SPORTS DESK: Makings of a Golden era

There’s a renewed interest in the University of Minnesota football team around Marshall and the entire state these days.

It’s not just because Marshall High School graduates Blaise Andries and Drew Hmielewski are on the roster either (though that certainly doesn’t hurt).

The more likely reason for the spike in interest around town and across the state is PJ Fleck and the rest of the new coaching staff that was hired in January.

I’m excited about this coaching staff and the energy it’s already brought to the program before even coaching a single game.

For me, it’s not just about Fleck’s energy. What I do love is the “Row the Boat” culture.

Row the Boat, or RTB, is something that goes back to when Fleck’s son died shortly after birth due to a heart condition. It’s describe as a never-give-up mantra that affects every part of your life.

At his introductory press conference in January, Fleck added that the program will be about “more than football.”

The nation caught a glimpse of that this week when PJ Fleck awarded a scholarship to a player on the roster.

Justin Juenemann is a fifth-year walk-on third-string kicker. He has not seen the field in the first four seasons as a Gopher, and likely won’t in his senior year.

The scholarship wasn’t for anything that happened on the football field. It’s largely because of his volunteer work, including visits to University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

“I’ve never seen anyone serve and give more that guy who is not a star player,” Fleck said of Juenemann in the announcement video that went viral on social media. “He could easily just not do it and nobody would ever say anything. And all he does is continue to keep his oar in the water, live that holistic life – academically, athletically, socially, spiritually – and you’re sitting here looking at two examples of what our culture can do, what we can do for other people, what other people can do for us and what we can do for them.”

Really, that’s what everything comes back to for me. The community service; the team functions. Trying to mold these kids into responsible young men. It’s kids like Justin Juenemann who embody what this culture is going to be about under PJ Fleck.

I know everything comes back to wins and losses. That’s always the case in competitive sports. But there are some people I’ve come across who only care about wins and losses, and don’t seem to care about the rest.

“More than football” was one of the things Fleck said he wants he program to be about. I guess some people just don’t like that.

That’s not my stance though. While I do believe this coaching staff can be successful on the field over its tenure at the University of Minnesota, it’s not why I support them as much as I do. I support PJ Fleck because he wants to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Quick success on the field coupled with the RTB culture could be the makings of a golden era for the Golden Gophers, a program that has won 10 games in a season just once since 1905. Last season was only the second time reaching nine wins in the same time frame.

I know many television sets around Marshall will be tuned in to check out a couple of former Marshall Tigers on the field this season in Andries and Hmielewski, but the team’s new culture is what could really set the program apart from many other teams around college football and is worth supporting.


Speaking of Andries, he’s making a positive impression on the coaching staff early in camp.

The 6-foot-5, 313-pound true freshman has mostly played as the second-team right tackle in practice, but did get a chance for some reps with the first team offensive line on Tuesday.

His first snap was a touchdown.

“We want to start working him into the mix,” Fleck said after Tuesday’s practice. “Again, thin offensive line. We’re thin there. We don’t have a lot of tackle depth. He’s a true freshman that looks like he’s ready to go. He’s smart, he’s athletic, he’s tough, he has the size to play in the Big Ten.”