Rising Star Coach P.J. Fleck Proving He's More Than Antics with 8-0 Minnesota

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 8, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - SEPTEMBER 14: Head coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Gophers leads his players onto the field before the game against the Georgia Southern Eagles at TCF Bank Stadium on September 14, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — P.J. Fleck is having an elite morning. Not just good. Not just great. "Elite," he says.

He's dressed elite, too. Not like the football coach at Minnesota, days away from the most important game of his career—drenched in a team hoodie or pullover. But more like a lawyer or a stockbroker.      

His crisp long-sleeve white dress shirt with bright blue buttons snugly hugs his athletic frame. It's complemented by a red and blue striped tie that seems to glow under his office lighting. To cap off the look, he wears fashionable blue dress pants and a brown belt. A trendy watch that pulls the ensemble together.

It's fitting that Fleck is donning this outfit a day before his new seven-year, $33.25 million contract with the school is announced—and one day after Florida State fired head coach Willie Taggart, prompting a slew of rumors surrounding Fleck's future to flow freely.

Not that the contract will stop the rumors entirely. "That energy and his history of winning and putting programs in a positive light without off-field issues is very attractive," one prominent agent tells B/R, noting that there are a handful of programs that won't be scared off by Fleck's $10 million buyout.

But for now, Fleck is committed and isn't going anywhere.

"I mean what I say," he says of the speculation, knowing the news that awaits. "I expect to be here a very long time. When you don't have a right fit, the marriage doesn't last long. We just saw an example of that down south."

Few coaches have ascended college football as swiftly and boisterously as the 38-year-old Fleck has over the past five years. In 2013, his first year as a head coach, Western Michigan finished with a record of 1-11. In 2016, he and the Broncos were 13-1.

After being named the head coach at Minnesota that offseason, Fleck's program finished 5-7 in year one. Now, smack-dab in the middle of year three, the Golden Gophers are 8-0. On Saturday, Minnesota will take on also-unbeaten Penn State in one of the most momentous games the program has ever been a part of.

In all of its history, Minnesota has never had a coach like this. His voice booms with conviction no matter the topic. In one moment, he's explaining the challenge of moving the ball against Penn State's front seven. In the next, he's exploring his love of history and the concept of time.

He injects words like "elite" so naturally and frequently into the conversation, you start to question why you aren't doing the same. He doesn't just ooze optimism and confidence; it's exploding from him at all times. 

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - SEPTEMBER 28: Head coach PJ Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers is seen during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 28, 2019 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

"I'm not for everybody," he acknowledges. "And when you're a leader, you know you're not going to be for everybody. You have to be OK with not being for everybody when you're a leader. And if you are for everybody, you're not leading."

From a distance, it would be easy to believe it's an act. No coach dresses like this on an off day. The person we see in press conferences can't possibly be this way at all hours.

But those close to Fleck, many of whom have been around him since he began coaching, will attest to his authenticity. Like most, perhaps they had their doubts at first. But as the expectations and paychecks have grown, Fleck hasn't changed who he is.

"I thought there was no way he could be like this all the time," says Kirk Ciarrocca, Minnesota's offensive coordinator who first worked with Fleck at Rutgers in 2010. "But after we were around him for about a month, we realized that's who he was. And then I started asking him a lot of questions. What were your parents like? How did they bring you up?

"Cuz I'm curious … how do you end up like this?"

Every item in Fleck's office has meaning, although the painting of John F. Kennedy positioned on the wall over his right shoulder, nestled between the College GameDay and Cotton Bowl wall decor, is particularly noteworthy. 

In the painting, Kennedy's arms are crossed. His head is facing downward toward the ground.

"That was after the Bay of Pigs invasion," Fleck says. "And it obviously didn't go well. As a leader, there are choices you have, and you make them every day. There are times when things go really well and others when they don't. But you can't stop. And every choice you make, you learn from it."

On the wall farthest from his desk, near the entryway, is his leadership wall. Kennedy's face can be found again. He is in one of murals, along with former presidents Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Barack Obama.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Rosa Parks are also featured, as are Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs and others. When he has recruits in his office, Fleck is often curious just how many people on the wall they can name.

Near the ceiling on one side of his office, "I AM DOING ELITE WORK, I WILL NOT COME DOWN" is written in all-caps—spanning from his desk to the entryway. On his desk, a piece of white-colored wood with the message "Positive Attracts Positive" faces toward his guest chairs.

PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 19: Head coach P. J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers signals inches to the referee during the fourth quarter at SHI Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Minnesota defeated Rutgers 42-7. (Photo by Corey Perr
Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Some of the messaging is direct. Some, implied, like the hand-drawn picture of a Great White Shark.

"A goldfish waits to be fed," Fleck says, explaining its meaning to him. "A shark goes and eats anything in the ocean at any moment. It's never full. It's always attacking."

Perhaps the most meaningful items to Fleck in the room, though, are tucked away on a shelf largely out of sight. Four action figures from his childhood stand side by side. The figurines, which include Superman and Captain America, are gifts from his mother. Each year, she sends him one for Christmas.

Life is much different than it used to be for Fleck, who grew up in Sugar Grove, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. But the gifts are a reminder of where he comes from.

"If you asked my mom and dad, I was involved in every activity known to man," he says. "Boy Scouts, pottery class, gymnastics, band, choir and every sport you can imagine. I loved everything. I wanted to do it all. And I think that's part of the energy I have right now."

But the items that unquestionably take up the most space inside his office are footballs. Fleck has a game ball from all 50 of his wins, each labeled with the opponent, score and other memorable tidbits. Depending on the visitor, the balls will be strategically placed in certain sight lines.

He points out the ball marked October 11, 2014. That one changed Fleck's life. In his second year at Western Michigan, the Broncos were down 21 points during the second quarter against Ball State. They came from behind to win 42-38 and went on to win their next five games.

"I don't want people to forget the way that this program made them feel," he says of the game balls. "I don't want them to forget how this program changed their life. And that takes the players doing that, not me. It takes the players living that type of lifestyle."

In the center of the room is his proudest ball from Minnesota to date, although a win on Saturday would alter the hierarchy.

After losing six of eight games in 2018, the Gophers closed the regular season at Wisconsin on November 24. Fleck's team won convincingly, 37-15, securing the Paul Bunyan's Axe rivalry trophy for the first time in 15 years.

In the process, Minnesota became bowl-eligible. It has not lost a game since.

Tanner Morgan never thought he would wind up at the University of Minnesota. The Gophers' starting quarterback, who has accounted for 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions this season, was set on attending Western Michigan as a senior in high school. From the first day he met Fleck, he knew this was the coach he wanted to play for.

The morning Fleck called and told him he was leaving for Minnesota, Morgan flipped his commitment. He knew little about the program. In fact, he had never been to the state.

He knew it was cold. That was about it. But hours later, he committed to Fleck at his new school.

"I was just blown away with how real and passionate he is about life and football," Morgan says. "It was a no-brainer to me. There was no other coach I'd rather play for."

For Fleck, recruiting has always come naturally. The passion won't resonate with every 18-year-old like it did with Morgan, nor does he expect it to. But Fleck doesn't change who he is, whether it helps or hurts his chances of securing a commitment.

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - SEPTEMBER 28: Head coach PJ Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers is seen during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 28, 2019 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

At Western Michigan, Ciarrocca, who served as Fleck's offensive coordinator, identified the unique quality early on. He anticipated that other programs and coaches would proclaim to recruits that Fleck is fake or over-the-top. To counter that, they devised a very simple strategy.

"They can't attack his energy, and they can't attack his messages," Ciarrocca says. "So they attack him. The number one thing we've learned is to get the people around him as much as possible, so they can make their own judgment."

Matt Simon didn't need multiple encounters to know what Fleck was about. In fact, the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator at Minnesota changed his career path not long after Fleck came into his life.

The two first met at Northern Illinois in 2007. Simon was a wide receiver, and Fleck joined the program to coach the wideouts. After spending time as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, this was Fleck's first job as an assistant.

"To be honest, that's why I got into coaching," Simon says. "It was him. At the time, I was a business major, and coaching wasn't even anything I thought I would ever do. But I watched him change us. I always said when I was done playing, I want to be able to do that for other people."

The significance of Saturday's game doesn't show on his face or in his body language. Having a lucrative new long-term contract in place can't hurt, but mostly: This is just the kind of week Fleck has been waiting for.

His style and personality were built for moments like this one. When the hype and optimism are delivered every day, Saturdays of this magnitude feel smaller.

"This is a huge game," he says. "Don't get me wrong. One of the biggest games of my career, of University of Minnesota's existence. But again, it's a game. It's 60 minutes. If we play our style of football, we have a chance. If we get away from our style football, we don't have a chance."

Leading up to the Penn State game, Fleck did not deny the obvious like other coaches might. Instead, he talked through his 8-0 record with his team. They embraced it together.

"You can't ignore those things with young people," he says. "You can't ignore it when you're on the way to success, because you'll always feel that it's not good enough. You've got to celebrate where you've come from to get to where you really want to be."

A win over Penn State would be the defining moment in Fleck's young coaching career. It would validate Minnesota's season in a way some have refused to do, citing the team's favorable schedule as its primary reason for being unbeaten.

That's at least one way to look at it. To Fleck, this is the new normal. Win or lose. The hope is that years from now, games of this stature will be regular occurrences. With the speculation over his future at the school in the rear view, at least for the time being, the next step is to bottle what has transpired over the past two months and carry it forward.

No matter what happens, it will look different. It will sound different. Not because Fleck wants it to be, but because it’s who he is and how he leads. It might not be for you—it’s certainly not for everyone. But given where it’s brought him, there’s no reason to change now.


Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.


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