I’ve noticed that despite the many differences between practicing law and writing about football, some of the complaints are the same among those both arenas. When I was a lawyer, fatigue and “hurrying up to wait” were two of the most common gripes among my fellow barristers. Imagine rushing around all morning to get the kids to school, get yourself to a courthouse, get through security, and rush in for a trial only to find the morning docket is so crowded that your 9:00 AM trial doesn’t start until after lunch. Frustrating, but that much more frustrating when you’ve been up all night, tossing and turning because trials are always nerve-wracking and maybe you’d be better off doing something else with your life… like sportstriting, but I digress.
Anyway, the same feelings can be shared among the crowds at an event like Big Ten Media Days. You’re waiting for the next speaker, you’re a bit tired, maybe you were up late writing or doing other work, and you weren’t able to sleep that well. Look, it’s not the toughest job in the world, I get that. I’ve worked summers as an exterminator. Now, crawling on your stomach in a crawl space to dig a trench to pour in some insecticide? That’s hard work. Waiting at 8 AM for the first speaker for a football conference and trying to wake up? It’s not exactly trench-digging. But you’re still sleepy.
“Good morning. I’m not sure if this was by design to make me go first by waking everybody up.”
It was no surprise that Fleck was a hot commodity this past offseason. Under his tutelage, the football program at Western Michigan went from a team on the lower rung of the MAC to playing in a “New Year’s Six” bowl. In his first season in Kalamazoo, the Broncos went 1-11, with their only win coming against Massachusetts when the Minutemen botched a two-point conversion late in the game and Western Michigan held on for a one-point victory. But the following season, the Broncos finished 8-5, ending the year with a loss in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. In 2015, Western Michigan tackled a brutal non-conference schedule, taking on Michigan State and Ohio State, but they again finished 8-5, ending the season with the school’s first-ever bowl win, a victory over Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas bowl.
Last year, Fleck and the Broncos made a magical run, starting the year undefeated and cracking the Top 25 for the first time in school history in Week 7 (they cracked the Coaches Poll Top 25 the week prior). They even hosted ESPN’s College Gameday, a game they won over Buffalo. After finishing the regular season undefeated, they won the MAC title in a narrow game over Ohio, and secured a Cotton Bowl berth in the process. While the Broncos fell behind early and lost to Wisconsin, the year was very strong for the team. But given the turnaround for the program (Fleck left school with a 30-22 record, impressive when half the losses came in his first year on campus) it was no surprise that he was linked with a number of schools. But within 48 hours, Fleck was on his way to Minnesota. Why? At the time he said this:
“Why Minnesota?” Fleck said at his introductory news conference in Minneapolis. “Why not?
“We (Athletic Director Mark Coyle and Fleck) both share a vision of winning a national championship, we share a vision of winning the Big Ten West, we share a vision of winning the Big Ten and having Rose Bowls. And I’m not afraid to say that, because that’s the way I live my life.”
That infectious optimism, that excitement, is a staple of Fleck’s coaching career. Many know the story of “Row the boat,” the slogan that Fleck instilled at Western Michigan. It dates back to 2011, and when Fleck and his wife lost their son to a heart condition:
“As you hold your son as he passes away, your whole life changes. What you believe in, how you’ve believed in it, what you’ve done to that point, where you’re going to go and how you’re going to live your life all changes. But Row the Boat is really my second son’s life as I continue to live his life for him. It’s his life.
“It’s a never-give-up mantra that has to do strictly with life or adversity or handling success, never giving up, and it means a few things. When you row a boat, you’re rowing, don’t ever look at me and paddle. That’s completely different. We’re rowing. Your back is to the future, which is something you cannot control, nor can you see. You have to trust the person in front of you, that you’re looking at, that they’re doing their job and rowing at the same speed, same efficiency as you are. But that’s the future, you can’t control that. You don’t know if there’s rocks, waterfalls, stormy seas, you don’t know what’s ahead of you. You’re rowing in the present, which is the only thing you can actually control, and the only thing you can actually have an impact on. You either choose to take your oars and put them back in the boat and stop, or you put them back in the water and continue to go. But you’re looking at the past, which is the only thing you can actually learn from. But you can’t change.”
It’s a slogan that Fleck has brought to Minnesota, and he spoke on this topic again today:
“Yeah, the thing about row the boat, I think we’re very lucky, we’re very honored to be able to have a slogan behind our brand and our image that means way more than football; that even football fans of football can enjoy and then people who maybe aren’t necessarily fans of football can still truly connect with our culture of what row the boat means.”
But when you peek behind the slogan, and witness the results at Western Michigan and what Fleck hopes to instill in Minnesota and the Big Ten, it’s apparent that the energy, the excitement, and the passion Fleck brings to the field, the locker room, and beyond is one that can inspire young men and everyone associated with a program. Sure, Fleck can drop in cultural references – like when he referenced the Kardashians in response to a question about the upcoming reality show “Being P.J. Fleck” on ESPN – but the way he speaks about his players, his own path to becoming a coach, and those who inspired him, demonstrates that he’s leader of college athletes in one of the most prestigious college football conferences. As Fleck put it:
And I just want everybody in here to understand how honored I am to be the head football coach at the University of Minnesota. I think I speak for our entire coaching staff, the ability and the honor it is to coach in the Big Ten, one of the most prestigious conferences academically, athletically, socially and spiritually in the country is really a dream come true for a lot of our guys.
One of the main reasons we ended up leaving Western Michigan was to be able to have our assistant coaches have a lot of their dreams come true as well to be able to coach at I think the most prestigious league in all of college football.
It’s a wonderful challenge here at the University of Minnesota, one we look forward to attacking as we go forward. We’re not shying away from what we haven’t necessarily accomplished in terms of championship feel of 50 years without a championship, but we want to be that bridge. We want to be that bridge that connects the past with the present and also the future moving forward.
Fleck inherits a team that won nine games last year, but that came with one of the easier schedules in college football. This year the Golden Gophers get trips to Michigan and Northwestern at the end of their season. And while they could start fast with five winnable games, a mid-season stretch with Michigan State, Illinois, and a trip to Iowa sets them for a tough stretch run. They close out the season with a trip to Ann Arbor, home against Nebraska, a trip to play the Wildcats, and then close out the season against Wisconsin in Minnesota. That final stretch will go a long way toward determining just what kind of impact this young coach can make in his first year.
But if Fleck can wake up a room of tired sportswriters and motivate them on a Tuesday morning in July, then maybe that late-season stretch won’t be as tough a task.