The house fits P.J. Fleck’s outsized personality, with six bedrooms and nearly 6,000 square feet. It is white with black trim, soaring roofs and modern decor. A construction crew has been busy adding an elaborate swimming pool. The whole place was built to entertain.
P.J. and Heather Fleck love their Edina home, which they purchased after the Gophers hired P.J. as football coach in January with a five-year, $18 million contract. But it’s not just the outward appearance. It’s what has happened inside those walls that has brought the most joy.
Four years after one of the low points of Fleck’s life — when he went 1-11 at Western Michigan while going through a divorce and grieving the 2011 death of a newborn son — he is proud of the life his blended family has built in Minnesota.
Besides laying groundwork for his program and recruiting at a turbocharged pace, the 36-year-old has reanchored himself at home, with the Gophers set to open training camp Tuesday.
His family has four children — three from P.J.’s first marriage, one from Heather’s first marriage. Her 9-year-old son, Gavin, still shares time with her ex-husband in Kalamazoo, Mich. Fleck’s three kids — Carter (age 7), Paisley (4) and Harper (3) — still share time with his ex-wife in St. Louis.
But the four kids gathered in Minnesota for the summer and will return for holidays and alternating weekend visits during the school year.
Heather — Mrs. Fleck since February 2016 — makes a triangle trip to gather all four children each time, catching flights to Michigan and Missouri before returning home. No matter where the kids are, they call or FaceTime the parent they’re not visiting every day.
“When you have a blended family, it can go multiple different ways,” Fleck said. “But the focus is on the kids, period. Tracie [his ex-wife] and her soon-to-be-husband feel the same way. Heather’s done an amazing job of connecting our entire family.”
One day last week, Fleck’s garage doors opened, and the four children launched into activities. Gavin hopped on a four-wheeler and headed for the trail. Paisley and Harper cruised the driveway in their battery-operated mini-Range Rover.
Meanwhile, Fleck crouched down next to his silver Corvette Z06, adjusting Carter’s dirt bike seat.
“You should be all set, dude,” Fleck said, finishing with an Allen wrench. “How is it?”
“It’s awesome!” Carter said, pedaling.
“Awesome!” Fleck said.
Once the bike rides and four-wheeler treks ended, the action moved to the basketball hoop for a spirited game of PIG.
The Flecks have rules for their family competitions: No do-overs, no pouting and everyone shakes hands or bumps fists at the end.
“We have a 9-year-old boy and a 7-year-old boy, and they’re incredibly competitive,” Fleck said. “They want to impress us.”
“They all want to impress Dad!” Heather interjected.
“Well me, I guess,” Fleck said. “So yesterday, we played baseball and you could tell with two outs, one of our sons was down by three runs and was completely almost giving up.
“We had to have a talk about giving up at that point. We had to take that moment to teach. That’s why I take runs away if you pout. And if you pout during PIG, you get an extra letter.”
In this game, Fleck fell into a hole, getting P-I before anyone else had a letter. But he rallied all the way back to win, eliminating the four other competitors: the two boys, Heather and a visitor. After the handshake, the boys went out of their way to thank the visitor for playing.
“I’ve seen a lot of people that come from divorced families where it’s a nightmare for the kids,” Heather said. “I’ve become friends with P.J.’s ex-wife, and we work really well together. P.J. and my ex-husband work really well together, and it just works.”
• • •
Fleck has picked up the pieces since 2013, his first season as a head coach. He arrived at Western Michigan as the youngest coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision and canvassed Kalamazoo with his mantra: “Row the Boat.”
Two years earlier, when he was the wide receivers coach at Rutgers, Fleck and Tracie lost their newborn son, Colt, to a heart condition. Fleck decided no matter how hard life got, he would stick his oar in the water and row, in Colt’s honor.
Western Michigan trademarked “Row the Boat” only to see Fleck’s first team win one game — over Massachusetts.
“That was one of the hardest years of my life,” Fleck said. “Because you believe in something so much, and you brought this personal story to the public. And everybody’s drilling holes in the boat, hitting you in the head with an oar.”
It put Fleck’s ever-positive demeanor to a test. He’d failed before, but not like this. He was a standout in football, basketball and track at Kaneland High School in the western Chicago suburb of Sugar Grove, Ill.
He was a two-time captain at Northern Illinois. At 5-9 and 190 pounds, he was an NFL longshot but spent two seasons as a wide receiver with the 49ers, mostly on the practice squad, before quickly climbing the coaching ranks.
Suddenly struggling, personally and professionally, he reached out to mentors such as Mike Nolan and Jim Tressel. Nolan was the 49ers coach in Fleck’s second NFL season. Tressel gave Fleck his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006.
Nolan believes Fleck did some of the best coaching in 2013, getting Western Michigan’s youngest players to buy into his system while recruiting the top-ranked class in the Mid-American Conference. It was another sign of Fleck’s perseverance.
“One of the best parts about P.J’s story is all the personal life challenges that he has had,” Nolan said. “He’s got four children, he’s been married twice, he went through a divorce, he’s had a child die. He has a lot of life experiences that a ton of 36-year-olds don’t even come close to.”
• • •
Western Michigan’s turnaround came swiftly. The Broncos went 8-5 each of the next two seasons and started last year 13-0 before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
In mid-July, P.J. and Heather had a chance to reunite with Western Michigan players and fans at the wedding of P.J.’s former quarterback. Zach Terrell was a freshman on the 1-11 team who blossomed into a senior with the best touchdown/interception ratio (33/4) in the country last season.
The pastor spoke to Terrell and his bride about “rowing the boat” together in marriage, and both best men made Fleck references during their speeches.
“Obviously, Coach Fleck is a tremendous football coach,” Terrell said. “But to me, he’s more of a mentor, a role model, even like a friend. I look at how he developed me, not just as an athlete but as a student, and more importantly, as a person.”
• • •
Two days after the Cotton Bowl, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle fired Tracy Claeys, coming off a 9-4 season, the team’s most wins since 2003. Coyle introduced Fleck as the replacement just two days later.
Fleck said Minnesota had long been on his wish list.
“It was the opportunity to create something that hasn’t happened in 50 years,” Fleck said, referring to the Gophers’ last Big Ten title, in 1967.
But Fleck also wasn’t sure he was ready to leave Western Michigan, which had been trying to sign him to another contract extension. Fleck said the Gophers job “scared the heck out of me.” Heather remembers it well.
“There’s not many times that I see him afraid of anything,” she said. “He’s kind of a Superman in my eyes. But it’s just something I’ve always said to him: ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.’ ”
• • •
Fleck doesn’t cite a win total when listing his dreams for the 2017 season. He said some fans might think: “ ‘We hired a new football coach, we should win 10 games. They won nine last year. It should be simple, right?’ ”
“That is not the case,” he said. “We’re not here to change tradition, we’re just here to bring a different culture. But when you change a culture, that takes a long time.”
Fleck noted he is the Gophers’ third coach in three seasons, following Jerry Kill and Claeys, and the sixth since 2006, going back to Tim Brewster, Glen Mason and even interim coach Jeff Horton.
“I mean, Iowa’s had two coaches, one culture in 40 years,” Fleck said. “Cultural sustainability is what develops championships.”
Recruiting holds the key, of course. The Gophers got off to a fast start for the Class of 2018, ranking in the top 10 nationally into April, and are pushing to finish in the top 25.
“That first year [at Western Michigan], we won in recruiting, and we played 17 or 18 freshmen that year. Those were the same guys that went to the Cotton Bowl as upperclassmen.
“And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re developing the players that we have. And then we’re going to add the ’18 and ’19 class, and those guys are going to be the ones who lead us into the future, to the new era of Gopher football.”
Tressel went 2-9 his first year at Youngstown State before winning four national championships there and another at Ohio State in 2002. Now the president at Youngstown State, he was asked what the key will be for Fleck at Minnesota.
“P.J.’s going to have to be patient,” he said. “I think the league is going to be on a little bit of an uptick. It won’t be easy. He’s a guy that wants to be good yesterday, but he’ll handle everything that comes his way.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever been around anyone with quite the energy level that he has, and that enthusiasm is infectious.”
• • •
Fleck lives just a few houses down the road from Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino. He said he actually likes the 22-minute commute to the football facility.
“I need 22 minutes to calm down,” he said. “Because when I get back, Heather does not care that I’m the University of Minnesota head football coach.
“I could drive a truck, I could be a teacher, I could do a lot of things, but she wants me to come home and be an elite husband and an elite dad.”
Soon after he said this, 3-year-old Harper walked over to him. Fleck asked what she wanted to be when she grows up.
“A butterfly,” Harper said.
“See,” Fleck said, smiling. “When you come home through that door, it doesn’t matter if you’ve won or lost, when your kids say something like that.”