Coach P. J. Fleck Brings Energy to Everything He Does. And He's Not Going to Stop
By Joey Johnston
He's nonstop energy, a hyperkinetic personality, a force of nature. When it comes to Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, whose Golden Gophers (10-2) face the Auburn Tigers (9-3) in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, everyone seemingly has the same question.
Is Fleck always like this - talking rat-a-tat-tat, back-slapping, motivating, dreaming, scheming, barely sleeping? Is it even possible?
"If only I had a dollar for every time I was asked that,'' said Fleck's wife, Heather. "He doesn't have quiet time. He has no off-switch. I can turn him down a little bit. I'll say, 'Hey Coach, you're at 12 right now. I need you at 8.' It's like living with the Energizer Bunny.''
"He has the most incredible energy and passion while being the most authentic person I've ever been around,'' Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle said. "There's so much excitement and juice. His infectious energy has ignited our football program, our campus and our entire state. It has been really fun.''
Fleck is part-Knute Rockne, part-Rudy. He's an inspirational leader who is constantly fueled by a lifetime of people telling him he wasn't big enough, smart enough, old enough or good enough.
Whether it's his too-small receiver stints with Northern Illinois and the NFL's San Francisco 49ers or skeptics deriding his glass-half-full turnaround projects at Western Michigan and Minnesota, Fleck was surrounded by people waiting for him to be blind-sided by reality. Instead, Fleck keeps gaining traction.
The Gophers have won 10 games for the first time since 1905, while capturing seven Big Ten Conference victories for the first time ever.
Fleck, 39, is real.
And he's really, really good.
"I really don't believe in bad days anymore, but I believe in hard days,'' Fleck said. "There are always learning experiences, ways to shape someone else's life. No matter what you're going through, someone always has it harder than you.
"When you have that type of perspective - throw 'Row the Boat' in there and a never-give-up mantra - you can accomplish anything.''
Fleck, in his third year at Minnesota, has guided one of the best records in the football program's 137-season history. Eighty-five players achieved a grade-point average of 3.0 or above. There were more than 1,200 hours of community service.
And, Fleck said, the Gophers have just began.
"Minnesota football is a sleeping giant,'' he said.
Sort of like Fleck himself.
Sit back and watch as he tells his personal story.
"I've been through a lot in my career,'' Fleck said. "My dad kills bugs for a living. My mom is a teacher's aide. Nobody in my family coached. I got an 18 on the ACT three straight times. I was a sixth-grade social studies teacher (before coaching).
"But I got myself around incredible people and worked really hard. This is who I've been my entire life. I've always been an overachiever, a runt, the guy who had to work myself in. That's where I take the most pride, teaching young assistants that if you outwork yourself today, if you become a better version of yourself, that you're going to accomplish extraordinary things.''
Fleck's Outback Bowl opponent, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, is a big fan.
"I got a chance to meet him when he first became a head coach and I just like his style,'' Malzahn said. "It's different. I'm a little different, too. P.J. is a positive guy and his teams take on his personality.''
As usual with Fleck, it's about more than just football.
There are his positive-thinking slogans, of course, a reflection of the inspiration quotes his mother used to stuff inside his school lunchbox.
There's his game-day attire. He wears a tie, a nod to a pair of his mentors, Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Mike Nolan (49ers). "People can say I bring attention to myself, but it's really to bring attention to other people,'' Fleck said. "They taught me when you do something important, you dress up. Game day is really important.''
Then there was Minnesota's invitation to the Outback Bowl. With most programs, such matters are routine formalities. Fleck had each of his players write thank-you notes to the Outback Bowl staff.
"This is not (just) a football program,'' Fleck said. "This is an educational program, a life program. Academically, athletically, socially and spiritually, we're going to touch their lives.
"We were selected to come here. Selected! They were selected, so they were going to write thank-you notes. They couldn't be generic. We wanted them very specific with some substance to them. We're thankful to be here.''
Welcome to the world of P.J. Fleck.
It's wild and wonderful. And it never stops.