Why P.J. Fleck’s latest turnaround changes narrative on him: 'He’s not a quack, he may be a genius'

As the fans poured onto the field at the University of Minnesota last weekend in the euphoric wake of the Gophers’ upset of No. 4 Penn State, a generational scene unfolded. Thousands of maroon-and-gold-clad Minnesota fans melted onto the turf, drinking in a flurry of once-a-century feelings for University of Minnesota football.

Minnesota’s upset improved the Gophers to 9-0 for the first time in 115 years, back when high school teams popped up on the schedule. Minnesota ranks No. 8 in the most recent College Football Playoff standings, rocketing a college football afterthought into the rarest of airs. Minnesota is having a football moment for the first time since Woodstock, forcing us to rethink everything.

“There’s a euphoria and a pause in time that makes everything literally stop,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said by phone on Tuesday night, reflecting on the postgame scene. “There’s nothing wrong in the world at that moment. It takes over your whole body.”

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On the College Football Playoff rankings show on Tuesday, the ESPN talking heads at one point mentioned that Minnesota can afford to lose a game and still reach the playoff. Ponder where that chestnut ranks in the lexicon of unexpected college football conversations. That’s Minnesota, which hasn’t won an outright Big Ten title since 1941, crashing a space reserved for blue-bloods like Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State.

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck has made a career out of somehow taking alternate realities and turning them into current events. Minnesota is tied for the country’s third-longest win streak (11), and the only surprising part about Fleck’s unprecedented success is that anyone is still surprised.

The touchstone upset on Saturday afternoon represented what’s become a hallmark of Fleck’s seven seasons as a head coach – converts flooding to the vast spaces initially occupied by skeptics. Fleck has popped Minnesota football into a time capsule, harkening precedents from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s election, a country with only 45 states and the Wright Brothers taking flight. Along the way, he’s flipped countless skeptics – including this reporter – into believers.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, center, jumps in celebration with defensive back Chris Williamson after a defense stop against Penn State. (AP)
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, center, jumps in celebration with defensive back Chris Williamson after a defense stop against Penn State. (AP)

The victory by Minnesota on Saturday offered not just a historic victory for the program, but evidence of a pattern that can no longer be dismissed. Fleck has turned consecutive backwater football jobs – Western Michigan and Minnesota – into mainstream destinations.

If Fleck were selling real estate, this would be the equivalent of flipping Dakota property at Nantucket prices. If he were pitching stock, he’d have made BlackBerry sound like Apple.

“I stand at attention and respect,” said Texas A&M basketball coach Buzz Williams, long a Fleck admirer. “I have always cheered for the guy everyone thinks is just a quack. He’s not a quack, he may be a genius.

“If you study it enough, you might say, ‘That’s incredibly intuitive. That’s lights years ahead of the way the industry is doing it.’”

Minnesota’s victory offered an inflection point for divisiveness about Fleck, who has long led college coaching in dismissive comments. (One opposing staff member even burnt an oar, Fleck’s program symbol, on the opposing sideline.) It takes a victory like Saturday’s for an industry to realize that perhaps he’s turning the unconventional into modern convention.  

How Fleck wound up at Western Michigan

When Kathy Beauregard hired P.J. Fleck as the head coach at Western Michigan in December of 2012, it was greeted with a resounding befuddlement. He’d been Greg Schiano’s receivers coach in Tampa Bay, and was basically only known in college circles by Rutgers recruiting junkies and die-hard Northern Illinois fans.

But Beauregard’s savvy hire has proven to be this century’s boldest and smartest. When she dug into the psyche of her program in the wake of the firing of Bill Cubit, she found a place that was emotionally disconnected. Two principles guided the hire. She wanted a coach she knew could connect with her son, who was then college-aged. She also called her old MAC colleague, Paul Krebs, the former athletic director at Bowling Green, and asked why he hired an unknown wide receiver coach from Notre Dame for the 2001 season. That, of course, was Urban Meyer. Krebs revealed that Urban Meyer had an uncommon ability to motivate and recruit players.

Western Michigan went 1-11 in Fleck’s debut in 2013. Transfers poured out of the program and, most surprisingly, Fleck stayed defiantly himself. That’s when he showed his knack for converting skeptics to believers, a theme that’s woven through two historic rebuilds that have resulted in unlikely programs tasting the rarest of air.

Fleck debuted the “Row The Boat” philosophy that first season at Western Michigan and didn’t deviate from it. Not when people complained that boats had nothing to do with Broncos, WMU’s mascot. Not when the program looked stuck in a rut.

Fleck believed in “Row The Boat” so strongly because it was so personal. It’s connected back to Fleck’s son, Colt, who died soon after birth on Feb. 9, 2011. Fleck was at Rutgers as an assistant at the time, and decided then to live life for two, to attack with unbending energy and live for both he and Colt.

So he kept the slogan and kept on rowing at WMU, ducking from the derision and recruiting anyone who’d believe. That could be an under-recruited wide receiver named Corey Davis, who developed into the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft. Or it could be students on the WMU campus, as Fleck drove around and handed out Western Michigan T-shirts to all students wearing Notre Dame, Michigan or Michigan State gear.

“P.J. knows what he wants his program to look like,” said Greg Schiano, who Fleck worked for at Rutgers and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The culture, the execution and alignment. Culture is king, and that’s what drives his program.”

P.J. Fleck walks on the sidelines during a college football game in his time as Western Michigan coach. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
P.J. Fleck walks on the sidelines during a college football game in his time as Western Michigan coach. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Converting Fleck skeptics into believers

In February of 2015, I went to Kalamazoo for a National Signing Day story on Western Michigan. Somehow, Fleck had lured the MAC’s top class in the wake of that 1-11 season and he was on the cusp of another historic haul. I’d spoken to him a few times before, the bursts of energy and jargon coming like assaults over the phone. He reminded me of an over-caffeinated basketball assistant.

When I showed up on a snowy winter night, the first thing that struck me about Fleck was his size. He’d starred at wide receiver in college and moonlighted two seasons on the fringes of the NFL. It was striking that this 5-foot-9 guy with a 31-inch waist had played professional football. He looked like a coxswain, sounded like a Peloton instructor and bobbed around like a steel coil of energy.

I spent the next day, from dawn to dusk, with Fleck and one of his assistant coaches – Vinson Reynolds, now at Syracuse – buzzing around metro Detroit. They ducked in and out of high schools, relaying stories of recruits rushing to Fleck to see his Happy Sock collection. The high school coaches believed, flattered by the attention and energy, appreciative of how Fleck’s culture shaped the kids already there. By the end of the day, I was tired, cautiously impressed and more curious. “Here’s the thing about me, you either really like me or hate me,” Fleck said that day.

I stayed in the middle. But I’ve seen Fleck skeptics manifest themselves in different ways. Former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who Fleck worked under at Northern Illinois, chided Fleck for being “about himself” in an interview this summer. Coaches and players have mocked rowing the boat, with Akron going so far as to burn an oar on the sideline. The Zips proceeded to lose 41-0. What few critics mention is the more than $500,000 that Row The Boat-affiliated charities have raised for varying causes, including local children’s hospitals and cancer research.

Those were extreme and insensitive moments, especially considering the oar is tied to Fleck’s infant son’s death. But general skepticism is relatable, as I was among the ranks until later in 2015 when I spent three days embedded with Western Michigan as they prepared to host Michigan State in the season opener.

Two moments turned my skepticism to belief. The first came on the practice field, as Fleck was bouncing around like a fifth-grader at recess. As Fleck’s voice echoed from his aerobics instructor headset through Waldo Stadium, I asked an NFL scout on the sideline what he thought. NFL scouts attend practice for a living. They can discuss the nuances of how coaches run practice with the authority of biblical scholars deconstructing the Old Testament. 

Me: What do you think?

Scout: He reminds me of Urban Meyer in some aspects.

It was a little jarring to hear. And as I bumped into that scout in college press boxes and dive bars at the NFL Combine over the years, I’ve toasted his foresight. There are plenty of differences in Fleck and Meyer, but this struck the scout: “The total conviction to what he does. It starts with recruiting, and then the total belief in what he did.”

That made sense. Recruiting always translates. So does connection. And what got me fully onboard came the next morning in a team meeting. The total belief was clearly reciprocated. I was sitting in the back row when Fleck bounded into the room and greeted the team with his trademark adrenaline shot of energy.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck leads him team onto the field prior to the start of an NCAA college football game. (AP)
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck leads him team onto the field prior to the start of an NCAA college football game. (AP)

Fleck asked how they were doing. They chanted back “ELITE, COACH!” with such conviction I remember viscerally jostling in my chair. It felt like a religious revival meeting, and I bounced up like someone shocked the base of my spine. “Can’t fake that,” I thought. I called the scout this week to again compliment his projection. He chuckled at Fleck’s impact three years later: “Kids at Western Michigan still say elite when you ask them how they’re doing.”

From there, it wasn’t too hard to believe. If Fleck channeled his energy into recruiting – the most important aspect for any program – and connection, the ultimate motivator, it didn’t really matter how unconventional it looked or sounded. And particularly, what anyone else said. After all, even talking about Western Michigan, which never won a bowl game before Fleck’s arrival, was an ultimate compliment.

Soon enough, unconventional became convention. Dabo Swinney brought Clemson to the College Football Playoff title game after the 2015 season with a similar philosophical overlay – recruit hard, sell the program and leave the coordinating to the coordinators. It all looks and sounds different, but the same themes are unfolding at LSU, where Ed Orgeron has the Tigers No. 1 in the country through a blend of recruiting, motivation and vision. Football is changing, and part of the derision toward Fleck was because he was so far ahead of the curve.

“I think it’s very much a trend, and Dabo is incredibly intentional about it,” said a prominent Division I athletic director. “They manage the coaching staff, be a very effective public face and beat the hell out of recruiting.”

Why Fleck’s approach has worked

Minnesota basketball coach Richard Pitino greeted Fleck with similar skepticism when he arrived on campus. Pitino remembers leaving the building one night and running into Fleck, who immediately made Pitino know how he was doing: “ELITE!”

Pitino remembers thinking to himself as he got in his car: “Am I going to have to listen to this every time I see this guy? Not only is it annoying, but it’s grammatically incorrect.”

Pitino’s roots in the Northeast trend him toward cynical. So you can imagine his reaction when Fleck moved in on the same street. But after a few nights smoking cigars and sipping wine at his backyard fire pit, Pitino warmed to Fleck. Richard and Jill Pitino have grown close to P.J. and Heather Fleck, and the Pitinos have gone through familiar phases of understanding the P.J. Fleck experience: Skepticism to acceptance to full embrace.

“You’re not going to like him if you don’t know him yourself,” Pitino said by phone Tuesday. “But that’s the way that he is all the time. He’s relentlessly positive. He’s a lot more real than you’d think he’d be.”

Pitino said there are parts of Fleck’s coaching mindset that overlap with his father, Hall of Famer Rick Pitino.

“They’re both insanely confident in their plan,” Richard Pitino said. “When you start to coach for a while, you realize there’s a million different ways to do it. You have to believe in what you’re doing. That’s what I’ve taken most from P.J., he believes in it and knows how to sell it.”

Long before Fleck became a reality TV star or popped up on the College Football Playoff rankings show, Buzz Williams reached out to Fleck. Williams is a former NAIA manager whose only silver spoons came atop dining hall trays. He reached out to Fleck in 2015, flew up to visit him and the two have remained close.

“I understand guys that only have one chance,” Williams said. “And with their one chance, they’re so convicted by the fact that this is the only way it will work. It’s not a gimmick, it’s literally who he is. It’s how he lives his life.

“He didn’t make it because … of his search-firm relationships. He took this bad job [at Western Michigan] that no one else wanted, and now they’re playing in the Cotton Bowl.”

Williams says he tracks coaches who he considers “pioneers,” those not blessed with connections or a network that makes for a linear path through the business. Williams howled at the skeptics who said Fleck’s success wouldn’t translate from Western Michigan to Minnesota. And he's rolling his eyes at the folks pointing out the Big Ten West is down.

“Just say ‘Much respect,’” Williams said. “That’s the end. No more conversation needed.”

This week, fans began lining up 90 minutes before Fleck’s radio show. They related stories about rowing their own boat, from fighting cancer to enduring the death of a child. Fleck has emerged as a beacon of hope and inspiration in Minnesota, signs the conversation is indeed changing.  

Still, No. 8 Minnesota is a three-point underdog at No. 20 Iowa on Saturday. Skeptics remains, but there’s always room in the boat for converts.

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