The phone call ended after midnight, leaving P.J. Fleck only a few hours to cram for his job interview before hopping a flight to Chicago. Sleep wasn't an option on this night in early January 2017.
Fleck and his wife, Heather, sank into two chairs in front of the fireplace in the bedroom of their Michigan home. They logged on to their computers and went to work analyzing every piece of information available about the Gophers football program, the university, the Twin Cities and anything else that might help fill in the puzzle.
They worked through the night. Fleck doesn't believe in making pro-con lists. He prefers information. Facts.
He didn't seek much input from coaching acquaintances who might have insight or opinions about the job. He did that before taking the Western Michigan job and felt overwhelmed by the feedback. He kept this one largely a secret.
A few people told him not to go to Minnesota. Wait for something better, he heard. That made him want it even more, the challenge of it.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle had expressed interest in Fleck when he ran Syracuse's athletic department and was in the market for a football coach. He put Fleck at the top of his list after he fired Tracy Claeys following the 2016 season.
Coyle wanted to move expeditiously and stealthily. He called Fleck late one night to arrange an interview. Chicago. Lunch. Tomorrow.
Four university officials joined Coyle: then-president Eric Kaler and three of Coyle's top executives — John Cunningham, Rhonda McFarland and Julie Manning. A booster loaned them a private plane.
They met at Gibsons, an upscale steakhouse with dark wood paneling and servers who bring out raw cuts to show customers. The restaurant is attached to the DoubleTree hotel across the interstate from O'Hare's runways. Private room, in the back.
Coyle felt the program needed a "shot of energy and sense of urgency" in making a coaching change. He referred to it as shaking the tree. By the end of the interview, he felt like he was clutching the tree in gale-force winds.
Fleck walked into the room carrying a basket filled with binders that had the Gophers logo on the front cover and "Minnesota Gophers" on the spine.
He handed each person a binder. Then he laid out his vision in a Fleckian TED Talk.
He had pages detailing his recruiting class at Western Michigan and current and future Gophers recruiting targets. His presentation included a roster breakdown that analyzed which Gophers players were graduating, which ones were returning and holes that needed to be filled. He had sections devoted to his "Row the Boat" culture, his emphasis on academics and community service, and how Year 1 would represent a "dig" in building his program.
And don't be shocked, Fleck told them, if they see a receipt on his expense report for a pirate suit.
"For like the first 15 minutes as we're talking to him, I'm like, 'What the heck is he going to do with a pirate suit?' " Coyle recalled this week.
Hey, it's Fleck, master of motivational slogans and spotlight-grabbing tricks, so anything is possible.
• • •
As for everything else in Fleck's presentation that day, Coyle sees it now, all unfolding before his eyes.
"He has hit every benchmark," Coyle said. "Everything he said he was going to do … check, check, check."
There are still more boxes to check, but the slingshot effect of this historic season has mirrored Fleck's proposed timeline.
The Gophers are 9-0 and ranked No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings entering Saturday's game at Iowa. This is an unprecedented position for the program since the glory days of the 1960s and earlier dynasties. But it squares exactly with a plan that Fleck shared upon taking the job.
Fleck invited a group of reporters to his office for a meet-and-greet a few days after his hiring. It was an informal gathering to hear his thoughts on a wide range of topics.
He noted that Year 1 might entail a regression after nine victories in 2016 as he introduced his way of running a program, otherwise known as his culture. Year 2 would rely heavily on freshmen in a full-fledged youth movement. And Year 3 would show a jump in performance.
"There is a certain way that I felt it had to be done," Fleck said in his office two days after his team upset No. 4 Penn State in the program's most important victory in a half-century. "As I mapped my way through it, I said this is exactly how it's going to look and exactly how we're going to do it."
As he discussed his road map with Coyle's interview team, Fleck warned them that he's different, that his "Row the Boat" mantra and unrelenting energy and positivity would make the university a target for criticism and derision. Especially if things went south early.
He shared with them criticism he faced at Western Michigan. Being unique invites pushback, he said, predicting that it will come like a "tsunami."
"If this isn't exactly what you want," he stressed that day, "please don't hire me. Whether it works or doesn't work, this is how we're going to do it and I need your 100 percent support because it's just unique in every area, not just the football part."
• • •
Fleck espouses a holistic approach to coaching, maintaining that X's and O's represent only a fraction of his responsibility. He focuses on development of each player's entire well-being. He is quick to remind that his style and personality isn't for everyone.
At 38, Fleck is on the edge of the millennial generation. He's decidedly new-school in buzzwords and big-picture leadership, but he's a throwback in discipline.
He demands that players sit in the first two rows of classrooms, wear collared shirts and meet frequently with their professors. Hats and headphones are prohibited in buildings. And no riding elevators, unless it's a high-rise building.
"He's old-fashioned values packaged in high-def," Coyle said.
Fleck encountered initial skepticism within his own locker room. Some players transferred. Others were slow to warm to his personality. He had to re-recruit players he inherited.
"I think it takes 18 total months to really grasp who is all in," he said.
Fleck was willing to sacrifice wins his first season as a trade-off for setting expectations. He benched, suspended or demoted players on the depth chart for breaking rules or not aligning with standards.
"You can never compromise down the road for what you want right now," Fleck said.
• • •
The program passed a significant mile marker last season with a victory at Wisconsin to reclaim Paul Bunyan's Axe. Every new coach needs a statement win to bring validity to their approach. Proof is a powerful tool.
Gophers senior defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere can't remember an exact light-switch moment when every teammate bought in completely. He felt a shift sometime that first winter.
"When you see it and feel it, you get this feeling like you're taken aback," he said. "It's like, 'OK, now what's next? We got what we've been looking for, now what's going to happen?' "
This. Right now. Penn State upset, 9-0, visions of the Rose Bowl, a chance to leave an indelible legacy. The next mile marker.
"You have a vision and you go execute the vision," Fleck said. "And if the vision doesn't come to fruition, usually coaches get fired pretty quickly."
That vision was the subject of another late-night phone conversation between Fleck and Coyle as they finalized his hiring. Coyle was in his kitchen with wife, Krystan, by his side. Fleck was at home with Heather.
Fleck needed 100% assurance that the school would allow him to be himself and operate the program in his own unique way.
"If you come here, we embrace everything about you," Coyle told him. "You be you and we'll support you and we'll build this thing together."
A few hours later, a plane with university officials on board flew to Kalamazoo, Mich., to pick up their new football coach.
Alas, Coyle did commit one faux pas during the interview process, which he and Fleck joked about as they left the fancy steakhouse.
"You didn't even buy me lunch," Fleck said.
Their conversation was so intense and fast-paced that they forgot to eat.