Sitting in his office on a bright Thursday morning in May, new Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck has already been awake for hours. No coffee necessary—just his unmatchable energy and the tunes of country star Kelsea Balerini blaring in the background.
Please keep in mind, it’s not even 8 a.m.
“It’s not like I just suddenly have this energy,” says Fleck, who recently moved his family to Edina. “I’ve had it my entire life. That’ll never go away. It’s in my DNA. You can either run from it or accept it and build a life around that. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Just embrace everything that I’m about.”
Since being hired in January, Fleck has already promised a lot. He isn’t afraid to use words like “national championship” in conversation. Because of that, he’s already developed somewhat of a cult following among a fan base itching for success.
Fleck has also amassed his fair share of detractors. Not everyone is sold on his fiery bravado. “I’ve said it very publicly; I’m not for everybody,” Fleck says. “My goal is to set visions that scare the heck out of me. There are a lot of coaches that underpromise and hope to overdeliver. I don’t believe in that. I believe in overpromising and overdelivering. Nobody is going to put more pressure on what we do and how we do it than I put on myself.”
Long before the 36-year-old Fleck was tasked with revitalizing the Gophers, he was an undersized kid growing up in Sugar Grove, Illinois.
His father always found a way for a young Fleck to play against older competition. “If there was an 12-year-old baseball team, I was the 10-year-old on the team,” Fleck says. “That instilled that underdog mentality in me, in that the only way I was going to be able to succeed wasn’t necessarily based on my skill, it was based on my heart, my will, my unconquerable will.”
Fleck dabbled in almost every sport growing up, though football started to take precedence during his sophomore year at Kaneland High School. “I played on varsity as a freshman in three different sports (football, basketball, and track) and I think that was really important because I was playing against guys that were way bigger, way stronger, way better than me,” Fleck says. “I also got to handle the aspect that not everyone was going to like me. You’re a freshman playing on varsity and there are a lot of people that don’t like that. I had to deal with that, and I think that prepared me for becoming a head coach because that’s when I initially started to realize that not everyone is going to like me.”
Fleck ultimately helped the Knights win back-to-back state championships in 1997 and 1998 before taking his talents to Northern Illinois. He finished his collegiate career with 179 catches for 2,162 yards, and 11 touchdowns, doing most of his damage during his senior campaign.
Fleck went undrafted in the 2004 NFL draft and was signed by the San Francisco 49ers, where his playing career ultimately fizzled out, thanks in large part to a significant shoulder injury.
An Instant Love
Fleck, however, can look back and point to that shoulder injury as a major factor in helping him break into the coaching realm. While he was on the injured reserve during his final season with the 49ers, he actually spent time helping instruct the wide receivers.
“That was kind of the start of it,” Fleck says. “I met with the rookies every morning as a player. These were guys that were trying to take my job, and I met with them and taught them everything I knew. That was the start of me becoming a coach.”
Fleck clearly made an impression in that role, and about 20 seconds after being cut by the 49ers, head coach Mike Nolan offered him a position on his coaching staff.
“There wasn’t even a position open,” Fleck says. “He said, ‘I’m going to create one. You’d be a fabulous coach.’ I went home and I thought about it, and a few days later Jim Tressel called with an opportunity to go to Ohio State. I felt like it was a calling. Not many young coaches who have never coached get to sit there and say, ‘Umm. Who do I want to pick from: the San Francisco 49ers or the Ohio State Buckeyes?”
Fleck ultimately took the position as a graduate assistant with Ohio State and parlayed that into a coaching position with his alma mater, where he spent three seasons.
“It was an instant love for me,” Fleck says. “I knew I was born to do that.”
Fleck was later hired as the wide receivers coach at Rutgers University under head coach Greg Schiano, and when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Schiano as their head coach before the 2012 season, Fleck followed, accepting a position as wide receivers coach.
“I was coaching in the NFL and I was like, ‘OK. Am I going to go down the NFL path and work my way up as a coordinator and then hopefully become a head coach?’” Fleck says. “Then I was given this really unique opportunity at 32 years old to become the youngest coach in Division I” when Western Michigan reached out.
That proved to be too good an opportunity for Fleck to pass up, and he officially became the head coach at Western Michigan on Dec. 17, 2012. He spent the next four seasons turning around Western Michigan’s football program, using his enthusiastic demeanor as the engine.
Fleck especially started to make waves last season as Western Michigan finished its regular 2016 season 13-0, far and away the best season in program history, before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
Building a Culture
Fleck was hired as the new Gophers head football coach less than a week after losing in the Cotton Bowl.
Simply put, it was Fleck’s dream job, and he couldn’t pass it up.
“There were a lot of opportunities in the last few years that we respectfully declined,” Fleck says. “We never felt like that was the right opportunity. We always felt like we would have to go to that place and then jump to another place from there. That’s not the case with the University of Minnesota.”
“It has everything that we have wanted in a Power 5 school that we felt like we could come here and stay for a very long time and build something incredibly special and create a national identity. That’s a really, really powerful thing to be a part of.”
Fleck loves to reference the tradition that’s already in place. After all, the Gophers are No. 7 for national championships in NCAA history, though the most recent national championship came in the 1960s.
“This is a sleeping giant,” Fleck says. “It’s just been sleeping for the last 60 years. We want to be that bridge that connects that. That’s what inspires me. These types of jobs create my energy every day. I don’t know if I fit well with something that’s already built. I don’t fit with that. I love to run into the fire.”
“I’m not here simply to win games,” Fleck adds. “I came here to build a culture. There’s a big difference between winning games and building a culture.”