Linda Fleck saw the signs when her son, P.J., was still a preschooler in Sugar Grove, Ill., long before he knew the meaning of the word elite.
She warned his kindergarten teacher that he wouldn’t sit still. He became a good student, but any hint of free time required a new activity. On school days, he would sometimes annoy neighbors by shooting baskets in the driveway at 6:45 a.m.
At one point, she asked her pediatrician if there was anything abnormal about her son.
“He laughed and said, ‘Mrs. Fleck, he is a fine, normal, little boy. Just let him be,’ ” she said.
Linda watched on television Friday from Sugar Grove, an hour west of Chicago, when her son sold a radical new vision while being introduced as the new leader of Gophers football.
The youngest head coach in a Power Five conference, P.J. Fleck, 36, pledged to return the program to its glory days of the 1960s, long before he was born. Others have made similar promises, of course, but Fleck took it one step further.
“This has to be more than football,” he said. “We are going to serve and give as much as we possibly can, to each other on our football team, to our community, to other student athletes. It’s not about us anymore. The new era of Gopher football … is about how we can serve and give to other people.”
Showing the oratory skills that have made him a national media magnet — from ESPN, to Sports Illustrated to the Washington Post — Fleck didn’t stop there. He was just getting started.
“We want this to become a national brand, a national movement, where people from all over the country want to come to the University of Minnesota,” Fleck said. “Because it’s different, it has energy, it’s unique, it’s uncommon. And I’m OK with that because that’s me.”
His parents, Linda and Phil, have already seen their son transform one program, at Western Michigan. As they watched him lay groundwork for this next project, Linda thought back to the kindergartner whose ambition burned, even then.
“He really hasn’t changed,” she said. “He’s still full of life, still a great kid. He’s a grown man, of course, but pretty special to us.”
King of the too’s
The Flecks weren’t wealthy. Phil started out climbing telephone poles as a technician and worked his way up with the phone company. Linda spent 29 years as a teacher’s assistant. They have two kids, P.J. and an older sister.
P.J. Fleck said he grew up dreaming of playing in the Big Ten. But at 5-9, he knew he was “king of the too’s — too small, too short, too young, too inexperienced.”
Fleck still helped Kaneland High School win back-to-back state championships in 1997 and ’98. He went on to more success as a receiver and punt returner at Northern Illinois, and spent two years in the NFL, mostly on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad.
By then, he knew he wanted to become a head coach. Early in his 20s, he had a three-ring binder that he started filling with ideas. He stuffed it with camp brochures, practice scripts and notes, updating it each season.
“It was a way to be able to sit there and say, ‘OK, I have a collection of all these ideas, from so many years and so many head coaches that when I do get my shot, I’m going to do it in a way that’ll really fit me,’ ” he said.
‘Same then as he is now’
Fleck kept notes from his 2006 season as a graduate assistant under Jim Tressel at Ohio State. He latched on as the receivers coach at Northern Illinois under his old coach, Joe Novak, in 2007. Then Novak retired, and the Huskies hired Jerry Kill.
It wasn’t the smoothest transition for Fleck. Kill’s staff was a close-knit group that gradually climbed the ranks together. At NIU, they inherited Fleck and defensive line coach Jeff Phelps.
Most of the assistants were so committed to working under Kill, they didn’t harbor their own head coaching goals. In many ways, the 20-something Fleck was their polar opposite. He wore cleats to practice, as he still does. He would leave the other coaches little motivational messages. One day, Kill’s defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys, made it clear he didn’t need motivational notes to get focused.
With Claeys fired last week, some members of his former staff, originally hired by Kill, still aren’t big Fleck fans. Others got along with Fleck fine.
“That was eight or nine years ago, and [Fleck] was the exact same then as he is now,” said Matt Limegrover, an assistant on that staff. “So it’s not an act. What he does, it’s who he is.
“And the one thing that always impressed me about him was, he’s a guy who knew he wanted to become a head coach.”
After leaving Northern Illinois, Fleck spent three years working for Greg Schiano — two at Rutgers, and one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Fleck said Kill taught him “how to care for players.” And Schiano taught him “how to be the most demanding that I could be but also love people at the same time.”
Something else happened to Fleck at Rutgers. His newborn son, Colt, died of a heart condition. It changed Fleck’s life and inspired a mantra that’s still echoing through Kalamazoo, Mich.
Grab an oar
Fleck had just turned 32 when Western Michigan hired him in December 2012.
“I was wrong on one big thing,” Limegrover said. “When he first got that job at Western, I thought he was going to crash and burn. It’s too much, too soon. He’s too in-your-face. I thought he’d have to dial it back.
“I thought he’d learn his lessons and then go back and be really successful the next time he became a head coach. But I was wrong. He just stayed with the plan and got everybody thinking about rowing the boat.”
Fleck had the words “Row the Boat” plastered all over campus. Western Michigan owns the trademark, although Fleck is in discussions to bring the saying to Minnesota.
“It’s a never-give-up mantra,” Fleck told ESPN. “As you hold your son as he takes his last breath, your whole life changes. You’re living your life for someone else.”
That’s just the start of the symbolism for Fleck.
“When you’re rowing a boat, you can’t see where you’re going,” Fleck said. “Your back is toward the future, you can’t control it. You’re rowing in the present, which is the only thing you can control. But you’re looking at the past, which is the only thing you can’t change — but you have to learn from it.”
During his first year at Western Michigan, Fleck divorced his first wife, the mother of his three children and Colt. That season, the Broncos went 1-11.
But the team’s turnaround came quick, as Fleck restocked the roster with the Mid-American Conference’s top recruiting class three years running. A pair of 8-5 seasons led to this year’s 13-0 start. The Broncos reached the Cotton Bowl, where they finally lost last Monday, 24-16 to Wisconsin.
In February, Fleck got remarried. His second wife, Heather, is a Kalamazoo native who has a son from a previous marriage. “If you think I’m energetic and passionate,” Fleck said, “just wait until you meet her.”
Fleck has been the subject of two extended features in Sports Illustrated. Last fall, he helped draw “ESPN College GameDay” to Kalamazoo for its first visit to a MAC school since 2003. He’s been invited to be a guest analyst as part of ESPN’s coverage of Monday’s national championship game.
With his popularity soaring, the Broncos weren’t surprised to see him leave Friday for a Power Five job.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a sad day,” said Malik Rucker, a Twin Cities native and Western Michigan defensive back. “Not many are shocked after the season we had.”
Rucker transferred to WMU from Iowa, drawn by Fleck’s enthusiasm. When Fleck asks his players how they’re doing, he expects them to say, “Elite!” He holds a team meeting each day, usually lasting about 30 minutes, and the purpose is to talk about life, not football.
At one such meeting in Dallas leading up to the Cotton Bowl, Fleck told the players a story about a wealthy man and his son. The son had a 4.0 grade-point average and wanted his father to buy him a truck for his graduation. Instead, the father gave him a book.
The son was so angry, he slammed down the book and never spoke to his father again. Years later, when the father died, the son came home and found that book sitting right where he’d left it. He opened it up and found a key to the truck.
“Coach Fleck’s message from that one was to be grateful for the things we have,” Rucker said.
Selling the Gophers
Fleck made $820,000 at WMU this season and was in negotiations on a lucrative extension. But the Gophers lured him away with a five-year contract that pays an average of $3.6 million per season.
Fleck called this a dream job, but if he succeeds like he did at his last stop, it might be just as tough for Minnesota to keep him. He would owe about $1 million per year remaining on his contract if he leaves for another job.
“He’s not looking to leave,” said Fleck’s agent, Bryan Harlan. “He’ll be here a while. He stayed at Western Michigan for four years, and he could have left after two. Now, could he have another move in him someday? Sure. But I don’t think he wants to bounce around.”
Fleck’s top priority is recruiting, and he went right to work Friday, getting six players who had committed to WMU to flip to the Gophers.
He is selling those players, no doubt, on words similar to the ones he used to end Friday’s news conference.
“As we continue to move forward, we’ve got a lot of years together,” he said. “I appreciate everybody’s time. Ski-U-Mah and Row the Boat.”