P.J. Fleck is absolutely convinced he can get Minnesota rowing in the right direction
ESPN Staff Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- The question comes in many ways. Some use more explicit words, some come with softer phrasing. All, though, sound similar.
"What the hell is wrong with P.J. Fleck?"
But colleagues, supporters, doubters and reporters in the Twin Cities, home to a historically frigid college football scene, begin most conversations about Minnesota's new coach with some variation of another, more important question: Is he for real?
And that's an expected reaction to the 5-foot-10, triple-espresso-shot-of-a-coach who said he "eats difficult conversations for breakfast," enjoyed "running into the fire, not away from the fire" and planned to "change the culture" of a program without a Rose Bowl appearance in more than 50 years -- all during his introductory news conference after leaving Western Michigan, where he finished 13-1 last season.
At the time, his new team had not yet learned the full ramifications of a sexual assault investigation involving multiple players. Yet there was the 36-year-old extrovert on a dais in Minneapolis, urging his new fan base to "Row the Boat," a motivating phrase he started using after his newborn son died of a heart condition while Fleck was a coach at Rutgers.
Fleck and Minnesota actually had to work out an agreement to allow him to use the phrase with the Golden Gophers. Fleck will give Western Michigan at least $50,000 through five payments of $10,000 to endow a scholarship for a football player.
"I think the first thing you notice is Hurricane Fleck just came through," said Nadine Babu, a longtime fan who attended the coach's first news conference in January and runs Gopherhole.com, the team's largest message board. "It seems like he's prepared himself for a role like this all of his life."
P.J. Fleck says all the right things. And a lot of it he says with hands and arms flying, a constant movement of energy. But now the hard part: turning energy into wins. AP Photo/G-Jun Yam
In a brief stretch, Fleck has forced Minnesota football into the national dialogue with his "Row the Boat" catchphrase, energetic interviews and his reality show on ESPNU, "Being P.J. Fleck."
But he does not know what he'll face in the Twin Cities. Yet.
You have to live here to understand the layered vibe around Minnesota football.
The program last won a share of the Big Ten title in 1967, the final season of the "glory years" portion of its Wikipedia page. Struggling coaches have spent the past five decades encouraging pessimism and apathy through multiple generations of fans who want to win big but brace for the worst.
Last year's promising campaign was the squad's first nine-win season since 2003.
"People have been incredibly warm and open to change," Fleck said during Big Ten media day in Chicago last month. "When you haven't won a championship in 50 years, that can take a toll on a program. That can take a toll on a fan base. That can take a toll on how you believe. And then also what it breeds is comparisons. And it's almost like the movie 'Major League.' 'Oh, we'll blow it in the ninth.'"
That's what Fleck is fighting in Minneapolis.
His Joel Osteen-meets-Vince Lombardi persona aims to entice hungry supporters.
But they've drowned in the platitudes and promises of former coaches, so they're cautious. Lou Holtz wooed a desperate fan base before he bolted for Notre Dame in the 1980s after two seasons. Glen Mason reneged on a deal to accept Georgia's head-coaching job prior to his stint with Minnesota.
He later said, "Not a day goes by that I don't think about that Georgia job and the bad decision I made."
He was still Minnesota's head coach at the time.
But when Fleck talks about "comparisons," he's referencing one man.
A decade ago, Tim Brewster walked into a news conference in Minneapolis and talked about a bright future and renewed vision.
Brewster, then a tight ends coach with the Denver Broncos who had no prior head-coaching experience, spoke in the third person.
"The No. 1 thing everyone says about Tim Brewster is that he's a great salesman," said Brewster, now an assistant at Florida State. "Well, I tell you what: You're not going to be a great salesman if you don't have a great product."
He then said he would recruit the best kids in the state, players who would help the team reach the Rose Bowl.
"Our expectation is to win a Big Ten championship now," Brewster said then. "We're not interested in any rebuilding process."
He finished 1-11 his first year and lost every Big Ten game.
Minnesota fired Brewster in 2010, midway through the third year of his tenure.
"It's absolutely not fair to [Fleck], but I can see how he's compared to [Brewster]," said Babu, a longtime fan.
Fleck is not Brewster.
He's a proven leader who finished 1-11 in his first season with Western Michigan in 2013. Four years later, the Broncos went 13-1.
The Tennessee Titans picked WMU wide receiver Corey Davis with the fifth pick in the NFL draft. Fleck can coach and develop talent.
And by now, it's clear, his positivity -- a significant element of his success -- is constant.
"He had to overcome a lot," said Randee Drew, Fleck's teammate at Northern Illinois. "He wasn't tall. He had to be scrappy. I think when you first meet him, you think he's over the top. But that really is him."
Can he use those traits to convince the masses to join the Church of Fleck in a region that hasn't had a lot to celebrate since the Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1991? That's his mission.
"Can you imagine when the Twins win the World Series, the Timberwolves -- and we're young, we just got Jimmy Butler -- win the NBA Finals, they're able to win an NBA championship, the Wild get over the Chicago [Blackhawks] hump and we win the Stanley Cup?" Fleck asked.
"And you can go on and on. The Vikings, they win a Super Bowl, and then the Gophers win a Big Ten championship? Can you imagine what the city would look like? Can you imagine that? That is why I came here. Because yes, I know people are [saying], 'That'll never happen.' But that's why I came."
The Big Ten's football media day, like the rest, offered more pageantry than substance.
In late July, the league's coaches were paraded through a Chicago convention center with their spokespersons and the conference-assigned support staff. These coaches spent hours promoting their squads and presenting optimistic outlooks, which the weight of the season could pulverize within the first month.
Thirteen coaches wore tailored suits.
Jim Harbaugh wore khakis, a long-sleeved Jordan Brand shirt, a Michigan cap and his Clark Kent glasses.
Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio had a deep conversation about a Luke Bryan concert Meyer attended over the summer.
The coaches don't attend media days to provide any program-altering insight. And reporters anticipate two days of clichés and catchphrases in the year's most relaxed atmosphere.
But P.J. Fleck couldn't help himself. He would quickly burst into 2 a.m. infomercial mode.
Tucked into a corner at McCormick Place a full 24 hours before his scheduled slot on the dais, Fleck spoke to a group of reporters about the job and his mission.
He waved his hands and fervently defended his vision. He seemed game-ready. Like, ready to play in a game in the convention center lobby if anyone had asked.
"Good morning," Fleck said in his opening remarks the next day. "I'm not sure if this was by design, to make me go first by waking everybody up."
His players love his fiery demeanor and say there is more to him than his energy.
"He actually talks to us and we're actually getting to know him," linebacker Jonathan Celestin said. "And when he's actually out there practicing, running around with receivers ... that actually helps players, like 'Oh, he's actually for us.'
"He's always like that. Every time I see him, sometimes I have to wake up just to make sure I'm on his level. You just have to actually get to know him."
In the early 2000s, Fleck starred as a wide receiver at Northern Illinois, an hour outside Chicago. He finished his career with 179 receptions, 2,162 yards, 11 touchdowns and a relentless optimism some of his teammates did not always understand.
After a 34-18 loss to Bowling Green in 2003 that ruined NIU's chances of a BCS bid, Randee Drew -- a co-captain with Fleck that year -- dragged himself to the postgame interview room. He said the entire squad sulked about the missed opportunity and had no interest in talking about the game.
But Fleck praised his teammates and looked forward as he talked to reporters while sitting next to Drew after the loss.
"He was still so positive," Drew recalled. "That's just him. And I'm over here looking at him like, 'Dude ... really, man?'"
Fleck never changed, Drew said. He remained positive in all situations.
And that's how Fleck has become a marketing machine for Minnesota football.
With that confidence, he has attracted the national spotlight before he has even coached a game at Minnesota.
"I am just me," Fleck said. "Same guy one year at Western Michigan. Go back 10 years and see what I was like. Go back 20 years and see what I was like. I haven't changed a ton. I've always had a ton of energy. I love life."
He's also honest about the job. Yes, he wants to win. Yes, he wants to elevate the program.
But college football is a multibillion-dollar pitch to fans.
And Fleck is here to Make! You! Believe! In! Minnesota! Football!
"I don't think you ever learn to sell a program," Fleck said. "I think you're just, you are yourself. I think a lot of people talk about self-promotion or self-promoters. Isn't every head football coach in Division I, especially in this league, a self-promoter for their program or their culture? I think that's really important to understand because that's what we're paid to do."
And now he has an opportunity to prove he is far more than talk and can grow Minnesota into a relevant, stable contender in the Big Ten.
If he achieves the goal, people in and around Minnesota will wear "Row the Boat" shirts, hats, mittens and parkas to their cabins that decorate small towns around the state.
And if he fails, they'll say, "I told you so," as Fleck joins a group of former coaches who've also fallen short in Minneapolis.
He's aware of the task, the past and the burden.
But he's focused on the potential.
"Just because we're having the attention, that does not equal and promise success, right, in terms of wins and losses, but what it does is ... it does promise that the culture is going to continue to go the way we want it to go," Fleck said. "And when we're ready to win championships, that will happen."
Brewster made similar claims when Minnesota hired him.
On the day the school fired him, his wife refused to open the door to their suburban home as reporters searched for him.
Brewster, a flytrap for attention early in his tenure, had disappeared after enduring a lesson only a Minnesotan would understand. It's one Fleck may come to realize.
This place can be so cold.
< Message edited by SoMnFan -- 8/13/2017 11:07:40 AM >