Yesterday Minnesota Golden Gophers football went live with a new website revealing their new uniform colors and branding for the 2018 season, promising to embrace the past while creating a new future of Gopher football. Their embrace of the past, however, is lukewarm at best, hilariously misguided at worst.
[A disclaimer: I’m not a Minnesota Gophers fan, having traded that in a decade ago for considerably more purple garb. However, I remain a Minnesotan, and a Gopher hockey and Minnesota pro sports fan. Do with that what you will.]
Since his hiring in January 2017, new Gophers football coach PJ Fleck has taken to changing the culture of the program: importing his “Row the Boat” slogan from Western Michigan, encouraging everyone to use the word “elite” to describe all facets of their lives, and redefining players’ mindsets in terms of “nekton mentality,” “H.Y.P.R.R.” (“How Yours Process Result Response”), and “F.A.M.I.L.Y.” (“forget about me, I love you”).
It’s exhausting, for most, but Fleck’s brand has permeated Minnesota football and vaulted the Gophers up the 2018 and 2019 recruiting rankings.
As I looked through the videos and descriptions on hyprrelite.com, a couple references, seemingly to historical events, caught my eye. While I was initially incredibly excited that Fleck and the “H.Y.P.R.R. Elite” brand had actually embraced real bits of Minnesota’s past, I was soon disappointed.
As I watched the video and a bunch of Fleck’s buzzwords and slogans (which I listed above) went flying by, one leaped out at me in part because I am currently writing a lecture on the late 19th century in American history for my classes at Marquette. Sandwiched between “nekton mentality” and “energy” was a little logo of an ear of corn and the words “Farmers Alliance” emblazoned above tilled fields.
For a moment, I was ready to crown PJ Fleck the historian’s football coach.[That award currently goes to Mike Leach and his love of pirates.]
To back up, the Farmers’ Alliance was a movement of farmers’ groups which began in 1875 in Texas and quickly spread across the nation, responding to agricultural crises of inadequate credit for farmers and high railroad rates, to name a couple. There was never a singular unified Farmers’ Alliance; rather, the movement was made up of a number of state chapters which grew from an educational organization to a cooperative movement. Farmers’ Alliances set up their own cooperative stores, shared new theories of agricultural sciences, and advocated for those in need in their midsts.
This wasn’t, however, quite what Fleck’s “farmers alliance” meant. From a Star Tribune piece in March 2017:
Explaining the “farmer’s alliance,” Fleck gave an example of two neighbors: one rich with the finest seed, equipment and fertilizer, and the other struggling to survive. If winds blow the struggling farmer’s seeds onto the rich farmer’s land, Fleck said, neither crop will prosper. “That’s why farmers are selfless,” he said.
When he talks about the “farmer’s alliance,” Fleck uses it in practical terms–getting a buddy out of a party where a fight breaks out, for example.
The actual Farmers’ Alliance, though, did so much more in Minnesota.
(We won’t get into the triteness of “that’s why farmers are selfless” and the capitalism of American agriculture — read Jon Lauck’s American Agriculture and the Problem of Monopoly if you’d like a thorough political history.)
From its inception in 1886 to many of its members merging into the Populist (People’s) Party in 1892, the Minnesota branch of the Farmers’ Alliance demonstrated cooperative- and reform-minded politics which were not just selfless, but included a vision for transforming Minnesota’s political economy. Molly Huber’s contribution to MNopedia on the Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance, as well as John Hicks’ still-instructive 1922 article “The Origin and Early History of the Farmers’ Alliance in Minnesota” (JSTOR) show us that Minnesota’s Farmers’ Alliance was so much more than a merely pragmatic organization.
With leaders like Ignatius Donnelly–the pride of Nininger–setting out on lecturing circuits and serving in the state legislature while members of the Farmers’ Alliance, the Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance helped win passage of an 1887 law strengthening the state’s railroad regulatory commission, allied with the Knights of Labor to push for regulation of heavy industry, and ran a gubernatorial candidate in 1890. It did more than just help a buddy in need one time, it sought an enduring reform of a political and economic system it deemed unjust.
Minnesota’s contribution to the national Farmers’ Alliance movements did not end there, though. When disaffected farming activists met in Omaha during June 1892 to nominate a presidential candidate, their new political party–the People’s Party, better known as the Populists–enumerated its demands in the Omaha Platform. Its author? Ignatius Donnelly. A Minnesotan and a Farmers’ Alliance member, transforming American history with these ideas of cooperation.
Fleck’s not wrong–per se–when he pushes this idea of the Farmers’ Alliance. But words have meaning, and his use strips, ironically, the very Minnesotan-ness from “Farmers’ Alliance.” It’s a lot to ask a football coach–who briefly did teach sixth-grade social studies–to incorporate the Omaha Platform into a team meeting, but it seems a wasted opportunity to emphasize how uniquely cooperative and community-oriented the idea of a “farmer’s alliance” was, especially in Minnesota.
Anthracite or Taconite
I’ll put this out there first: I hate the color gray in college football. It’s not a primary (or even a secondary!) color in Northwestern’s palette, so stop using it.
Beyond that, the new “H.Y.P.R.R. Elite” branding at Minnesota incorporates, for some reason, the color gray into its palette, branding it “Anthracite.” While this isn’t necessarily unique to Minnesota, Fleck and the “H.Y.P.R.R. Elite” brand are missing out on a much bigger chance to rebrand “Anthracite” as something unique to Minnesota.Why not, for as much as Fleck and the Gophers like embracing the past, call on an actual gray that put Minnesota on the map?
If the cooperative politics of the Farmers’ Alliance weren’t enough for them, Fleck and the folks behind the “H.Y.P.R.R. Elite” brand should head a couple hours north on I-35 and see the true cooperative spirit of the Iron Range. Here, as immigrants from Eastern Europe, Finland, and elsewhere descended into the iron ore mines of northeastern Minnesota, they too showed a cooperative spirit, striking for safer working conditions, better pay, and an eight-hour day in 1907 and again, more famously, in 1916.
These miners on the Mesabi Range mined millions of tons of taconite, which was processed into pellets and shipped south and east to Duluth-Superior and Silver Bay, then by lake freighter (yes, like the Edmund Fitzgerald) to steel-making plants on the Lower Great Lakes.
Yet the new “H.Y.P.R.R. Elite” brand instead, likely keeping with whatever the uniform/advertising industry’s standard is, calls the gray in Minnesota’s uniforms “Anthacite.”
Go out and find anthracite coal in Minnesota. I’ll wait.
Northern Minnesota and cities like Duluth were built on the backs of miners on the Iron Range, and that, to me, is a past worth embracing. Instead, this “embracing the past” slogan looks like just that–a slogan–without actually embracing the colorful history of Minnesota. In fact, Minnesota United FC has already done this, referencing how their gray uniform color represents the Iron Range.
“Taconite,” rather than “Anthracite,” would not only allow for a historical reference that highlights the uniqueness of Minnesota, but, I’m sure, could somehow be branded into a metaphor for steely toughness or whatever else Fleck can think of. He’s the master motivator; I’m not.
Realizing that brands and, well, actual facts are two things often at odds, Fleck’s use of Farmers’ Alliance and “Anthracite” is a missed opportunity for the culture of Minnesota football and, I contend, should rub fans of Minnesota football with any historical consciousness the wrong way.None of this is to claim that Fleck and Gopher football are willingly misusing the history of the Farmers’ Alliance or internationally overlooking the once-vibrant mining economy of the Iron Range. But it is, however, important to consider how the “H.Y.P.R.R. Elite” brand’s claim to be “embracing the past” is, in fact, rather cynically done, with little actual “history” of Minnesota and its football tradition beyond the “Dart Gold” of the 1980s and 90s.
That Fleck’s “embrace” of the past is brand-driven, on its own, is hardly surprising. That’s college football.
But with the on-field results having yet to win over skeptical Minnesotans weary of sexual assault scandals and still having flashbacks to Tim Brewster, even a little historical literacy driving this brand may go a long way. Fleck’s motivational tactics and these “H.Y.P.R.R. Elite” jerseys have components which, with a little tweaking, would reflect Minnesota and its rich history of cooperative politics, blue-collar industriousness, and, yes, even successful college football.