Early Critics Don’t Bother P.J. Fleck
P.J. Fleck knows there are a lot of supportive Gophers football fans. Some talk to the new Gophers coach about getting Minnesota to the Rose Bowl before they die. Other fans buy “Row the Boat” t-shirts, or give him paddles to show they’re behind a program that has little to brag about since Minnesota’s last Big Ten championship in 1967.
And then there are the cynics—fans and media who say already they don’t like him. It’s a group who took a couple of looks at the 36-year-old coach after his arrival in Dinkytown last January and decided he’s a phony. Nope, they’re not buying into the energetic coach who talks frequently about changing the culture of Gophers football and winning championships.
“Elite.” That’s what Fleck says his vision is for Gophers football. The price to achieve that status must be paid every day until the goal is accomplished. Then the culture must be sustained to have ongoing success. Fleck lives and breathes that. He believes Gophers football can’t go to the Rose Bowl, play in the College Football Playoffs and restore greatness to a program that long ago lost its way unless he is true to himself and his beliefs.
The critics think Fleck should go about his business in a quiet, unassuming manner. They put him down for being so outgoing and passionate, and having lofty ambitions for the program, including expansion of TCF Bank Stadium by 30,000 seats within a few years. Instead of a helping hand, the Fleck naysayers would enjoy seeing his “boat” sink early and often.
Fleck sat in his office this week and talked to Sports Headliners about the fan and media environment he inherited when he took over the Gophers job. Fleck said he isn’t surprised by the varied welcome he’s received. He knows the carousel of coaches who have tried to win here and he recognizes that critics and skeptics abound in one of the nation’s largest metro areas. He characterizes himself as a coach who is a builder and welcomes challenges. The landscape of the Gophers program and all it encompasses is something he wanted.
“I came here to bring the positivity,” he said. “I am one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet. I don’t care what people say about me negatively, that will never affect me as a person.”
Fleck willingly accepts that he should be judged by how he coaches, how his players perform on the field and in the classroom. Difficult for Fleck to understand, though, is how people judge him already as a human being and who they think he is without knowing him at all. Some of that judgment, he said, is done in the media to stir controversy and fill radio air time.
“The reason I took this job is because I could be the real me,” Fleck said. “…I’ve been this way my entire life. The ‘King of the Too’s.’ Too small, too short, too young, too inexperienced, too energetic, too much personality. That’s my entire life (those labels)—and (yet) everything I’ve said I was going to do, I’ve accomplished.”
Fleck was, in his words, a “minus two stars” recruit coming out of high school in suburban Chicago. At Northern Illinois the 5-10 Fleck became the team’s leading receiver, was Academic All-American, All-Mid-American Conference and team captain. Although he was an undrafted NFL free agent, Fleck was in the pros for two years before embarking on a coaching career that led to an appointment as head coach at Western Michigan at age 31. The Broncos were 1-11 his first season but by year four the team was undefeated going into last January’s Cotton Bowl game against Wisconsin. Last year Western Michigan won its first MAC championship since 1988.
Fleck has been gung-ho about life since he was barely out of diapers. “I’ve been this way since I was three years old, with the amount of energy,” he said. “(When) you are different, people will talk about you, but that’s okay. Don’t be a public figure if you don’t want people to talk about you.”
Fleck has thought a lot about who he is, his values, beliefs and how he relates to people. “We’re here to fuel people with energy,” he said. “There are two types of people in the world. There are people that give energy, and there are people that take energy away.
“I want our players to give energy to our community. Give energy to people that don’t have it. Give energy and spirit and hope and positivity to other people.”
Fleck looks at the culture of the Gophers’ neighborhood rivals, Iowa and Wisconsin, and sees a different history than Minnesota’s. Iowa has had only two head football coaches since 1979. Barry Alvarez, the miracle worker who brought Badgers football back to life in the early 1990s, is still in Madison preserving the winning culture as the Wisconsin athletic director.
The Gophers now have their third head coach in three years, and five different leaders since 2000. Successful programs have sustainability, Fleck preaches. It’s a key part of a culture that includes day-by-day commitment from the players. That’s why, Fleck said, team meetings start by the players giving ovations to the coaches.
“They go nuts,” Fleck said. “I blow a whistle twice, they say, ‘Row.’ They clap, and then they sit down.”
Fleck calls recruiting the “lifeblood” of a football program and the right players will help build the culture he wants at Minnesota. That culture focuses on four areas: academics, athletics, social and spiritual. Those are priorities and players have to show during the recruiting process that Fleck and his staff believe they are the right fit for the Gophers and they can help make the program elite.
During the months since Fleck’s arrival, the Gophers’ recruiting success has drawn local and national attention. The composite rankings by 247Sports of the nation’s football programs have had the Gophers flirting with the top 10, although it’s now at No. 17. Minnesota hasn’t been known for high recruiting rankings in the past, and skeptics might ask if the Gophers are adhering to NCAA rules, but Fleck assures they are.
“Everything we do, we run through our compliance office,” Fleck said. “You don’t have to break any rules to have success, and we refuse to do that.”
Fleck doesn’t judge his recruits by the rankings and offered no predictions where the Gophers might finish in the final composite national rankings for the class of 2018. He is a lot more interested in identifying players he believes have the talent and makeup to fit his culture.
The 2017 recruiting class was put together in a few weeks because of Fleck being hired so late and National Signing Day taking place in early February. Fleck looks forward to seeing what his recruiting classes of 2018 and 2019 look like in a few years. The expectation is those classes and the ones that follow will set the foundation for championships but Fleck won’t predict when. “There is no time frame,” he said.
While Fleck is not committing to a date, he trusts his plan and process in building the culture and results he wants. “It’s my job to be able to teach people to enjoy and love and respect the process of becoming a champion,” Fleck said. “That’s how you understand what it took to get there.”
Fleck was once a grade school teacher and he embraces the role of instructor. “I love what I do. I love the (coaching) profession and I love what it does for people. I love to connect people (in building a culture). I love to serve. I love to give. When those are your passions, you really don’t have time for tired.”
Because of his outspoken optimism, Fleck draws comparisons with former Gophers coach Tim Brewster who talked early on in his tenure about Rose Bowls and championships, and then produced a 15-30 career record. The comparisons are unfair because Brewster had never been a head coach at the pro or college levels. Nor had he been an offensive or defensive coordinator in major college football. He wasn’t as prepared as Fleck to be a Big Ten head coach.
Fleck came to Minnesota as one of the most talked about young names in college coaching. In four years at Western Michigan he completely turned the program around and drew national press including from Sports Illustrated. College football insiders speculated about him landing high profile jobs, perhaps even at Notre Dame within a year or two.
Instead, he’s at work in Minneapolis and is trying to bridge his program with the glory eras of long ago when the Gophers won six national championships and Big Ten titles in every decade except one from 1900-1970. The hardest thing so far, he said, is to change the attitude here about the Gophers.
Fleck said there are “cynical people out there that hate my guts already. There are a lot of them.” Fleck, though, doesn’t attack the critics and skeptics, even the most nasty of them, and acknowledges he hasn’t won any games yet.
“I don’t blame them. My job is to continue to show why I came here,” Fleck said. “But that doesn’t happen four years from now if I don’t win today. Winning doesn’t happen unless we win in recruiting today. We win in developing our players today. We win in the leadership council at 6 a.m. today. If we don’t win in those areas—academically, athletically, socially, spiritually—daily, then how can we win championships?”
It doesn’t seem like too much to ask the naysayers and everyone else to give Fleck a couple of years to show what he, his staff and players can do. “I am not going to give up,” Fleck said. “That’s why I came here.”
Not everyone has to “row the boat.” How about just being open-minded? (At least until after the opening game against Buffalo on August 31?)