Big Ten Q&A: Minnesota head football coach P.J. Fleck
P.J. Fleck is a man in motion, always on the go as he tries to put his stamp on Minnesota and take the program to the top of the Big Ten West. Don’t bet against him.
Fleck is in the midst of his first spring practice in Dinkytown. And, he has work to do. Among his chief tasks are developing the quarterback spot on offense and rebuilding the secondary on defense. The offensive line also is thin this spring, as there may be just five blockers available for the spring game.
Fleck is undeterred. He has been overcoming long odds all his life. The 36-year-old was the runt of the litter as a wideout at Northern Illinois but ended up helping turn the program around. And, Fleck hasn’t stopped surprising, having a cup of coffee in the NFL before turning heads as an assistant at NIU, Rutgers and with the Buccaneers before making Western Michigan a national story by guiding the Broncos to the Cotton Bowl.
I caught up with Fleck during his busy schedule to talk about a variety of subjects.
Q: When do you start your day?
A: I get up about 4:30. I get a workout in. I usually run at noon. Depending on the day, we begin in the morning with a leadership council meeting where I have the players in once a week around 6 o’clock. And we have a staff meeting. And then we go to work. I have meetings all day with different people, talking about things ranging from uniform stuff to recruiting to media, and I also talk with boosters. I am full to noon and give myself 30 minutes and it starts back over. I’m usually going out to lunch with someone each day and going to dinner with someone each night. And also going to the Wild game, the Timberwolves game or one of our games at Minnesota with different sports. We also are holding Junior Days and spring practice. Always a lot going on.
Q: When do you get home?
A: It depends. I’m probably in bed about 11:30. It goes so fast. Each day is full of just so much to do, accomplish and change.
Q: Who have been your Influences?
A: I will give you three. Joe Novak gave me my first opportunity as a player and a coach (at Northern Illinois). He taught me how to see inside of a person and not necessarily their outside. That’s what we were able to build at Western Michigan. We didn’t have the biggest players or most talented players, at times. But we had the internal makeup, the unconquerable will, heart, spirit and soul. That is what Joe Novak taught me. I was 5-foot-9, 160 pounds and ran a 4.8 40 and Joe Novak offered me a full-ride scholarship to help turnaround a program on a 26-game losing streak. That meant a lot to me. And he gave me my first opportunity in coaching full-time. I wouldn’t be a head coach if not for him.
Then, Greg Schiano. He taught me how to be a man. That is one of the biggest things I learned from him. He is very difficult to work for because he forces you to change every day. He forces you to be better than the day before. Human nature, that’s not how it is. We want to be comfortable. We want to be recognized. We always want to be told how great we are. He forced me to demand the most out of myself. I already thought I was doing that until I worked for Greg Schiano. I learned I can give and do more and serve more. And he believed in me. I went through a lot of tough situations in those two years at Rutgers. It gave me leather skin and the ability to be a head coach. To be a head coach, you have to have leather skin. Ninety percent of your job has nothing to do with football. You are the trash man. Everyone gives you trash and problems all day. You have to be tough to be the head coach. He made me tough. He was the first coach to make me tough.
And Mike Nolan. He taught me how to work with class. He wore a coat and tie on the sideline. His dad did the same thing. Him and Jim Tressel are why I wear a tie on the sideline.
I am a sixth grade social studies elementary education teacher and somehow I am running this major corporation as a head football coach. Somehow, some way. I still don’t know how I got here. I pinch myself each day. It is a dream come true. I am honored and humbled to be in this spot. And it wouldn’t be without the help of many. If not, I would be just some average guy.
Q: What is the origin of your famed “row the boat” mantra?
A: Feb. 9, 2011, I lost my second son to a heart condition. When you lose a child, you go two ways. You can either build a wall up and never go back because it’s very tragic. Or you can celebrate it and use it to fuel and inspire and motivate and make the lives of other people better. That is what I chose to do with it.
“Row the Boat” is really a reflection of my son Colton’s life. It’s a never give up attitude. The oar is the energy you bring to your life. It’s the only thing that moves the boat, it’s the symbol of strength. The boat is the sacrifice, what are you willing to give up for something you never had. And the third part is the compass. Whoever you surround yourself with is eventually who you will become. When you row a boat, you can’t see the direction you are going, your back is to the future. But you can row in the present and can control weather your row is in the water or not. And you look at the past, what you can’t change but you can learn from.
Q: Can Minnesota win the Big Ten West some day?
A: We work on winning the day. That’s all we work on. We have to be better than we were the day before every day. We have visions and we have dreams of winning the Big Ten West. Whenever we are ready to do that, we will accomplish that. That is why I came here. I didn’t come here for second place. I didn’t come here to try to do it. I came here to get it done. We did the same things at Western Michigan. Everyone takes my energy for promise right away. That isn’t what I’m here to do. I’m here to build a culture of sustainability, a championship culture just like Barry Alvarez did at Wisconsin. It’s why they have had so much success the last 25 years, because of Barry’s culture. And he’s still in charge of it. That is what we want to be able to create. We have to establish that, connect the bridge from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s to today. That is what I here to do. Not to change tradition but to create a culture of connecting people to do things we’ve never done before.
Q: I have to ask: Have you had a Juicy Lucy yet?
A: Not yet. Unless it’s brought to me in the office. I am busy.
Email Tom Dienhart using the form below.