P.J. Fleck remains one of the most captivating characters in college football. He ambushed the sport’s consciousness last season by leading Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl with an undefeated regular season and a MAC championship. Fleck got hired at Minnesota in January, bringing his high-energy “Row The Boat” philosophy to Minneapolis. The early returns include an adrenaline spike in relevancy to the traditionally milquetoast Gophers program, which includes a 2018 recruiting class ranked in the top 20 by all three major services.
Fleck recently sat down with Sports Illustrated to talk about the Gophers’ cultural overhaul, his post-spring thoughts on their talent, former Western Michigan star Corey Davis’s NFL future and how other Big Ten coaches have received him.
SI:Your program and philosophies are undeniably unique. Not everyone bought in immediately at Western Michigan. How’s the buy-in been so far at Minnesota?
P.J. Fleck: I’m really proud of our football team because I don’t think we have a lot of guys that aren’t in the boat. I give these guys a lot of credit. They haven’t asked a ton of questions, they just rowed, and that’s what we’ve kinda asked them and demanded them to do. Just row and watch what the culture can do for you because everything they’re doing is for the first time. Winter conditioning, first time. How we do it, where we do it, what corner of the end zone we do it, where their position meetings are, everything is new. Spring ball, same thing. Now we’re transitioning into summer where it really becomes a players’ team for a while, and you know, I’m really proud of the transition they’ve had. We’ve had some that probably don’t fit the new culture, but with every cultural change, that happens.
SI: I’m curious after your experience overhauling Western Michigan how long you think cultural overhauls usually take?
PF: I think it takes about two years. We’ve had three head coaches at the University of Minnesota in three years, and I don’t blame a lot of the guys that might be on the fence. There might be seniors and juniors and upperclassmen saying, “I don’t know, I gotta do this again?” It’s not their fault, but that’s the biggest question. I think it takes two years because the upperclassmen that have been through coaching changes before know what the positives are of that, know what the negatives are of that. They’ve got to learn all new systems again. So I think it takes two years to transition, two years of recruiting, two years of development, so players go back through the circuit season winter conditioning, spring ball. Once they get it once and go through it again, I think that whole full circuit, that second full circuit, you see a big change in the culture and moving forward.
SI: Corey Davis ended up as the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft. Walk me back through his development in your program and how you think he’ll do in the NFL.
PF: I think the credit has to go to the development of the culture and what it can do for you. Our credit has to be to our coaching staff, go to Corey, because he was developed. It’s kind of a lost art these days. People just think you can go and recruit somebody. But to be able to change their life, get them to be the best person and player you can possibly be [is different]. One thing I learned about Corey Davis is he has developed into the best player he can possibly be today. Tomorrow, he will be even better. It’s because of the way he worked, his work ethic. The credit goes to guys like Luke Getsy, who now is a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers, and Matt Simon [Minnesota’s current receivers coach] and Kirk Ciarrocca [Minnesota’s offensive coordinator]. The credit has to go to those guys because it shows the development and culture of the program. You can be a two-star, no-offer guy, come in, develop and still be a first rounder. It doesn’t happen to everybody, but Corey deserves all the credit because he had to be able to do all the work. He became the best player he could have possibly become, and that’s a credit to Corey to get the most out of himself academically, athletically socially and spiritually. That’s very difficult to do.
SI: So much of turning around a program is leadership from the players. How’s that developed so far at Minnesota?
PF: We have a saying we brought from Western Michigan: Bad teams, nobody leads; average teams, the coaches lead; and elite teams, players lead. We went from nobody leading at all to having some leaders, and I think that’s the biggest transition we’re making is getting this team to be player-led at some point, whether it’s this year, next year, or five years down the road. That’s what we had at Western Michigan. The minute those players took over and dominated and became the culture, that’s when we had incredible success. I still think we’re a long way away from that, but that’s the biggest part. People always talk about, “O.K., the ‘Row The Boat’ culture or this coaching staff culture,” but we had a discussion with the players the other day. When it becomes your culture, that’s when it changes. It’s not my culture. It’s your culture and that’s the next transition we have on the field. Because it’s not what we do, its how we do it.
SI: Now that spring is over and you’ve seen what you have, what should we expect from Minnesota on the field this year?
PF: We’re a 4–3 scheme, but we don’t have enough 4–3 personnel. We don’t have a freshman, sophomore and we only have one junior defensive tackle on the entire roster. We only have eight total offensive linemen. We don’t have enough defensive linemen to play a 4–3, but we’re very deep at the linebacker position. So what we’re going to do is take some of our best linebackers and turn them into defensive linemen this year and turn it into a 3–4 type scheme, a lot more of a nickel-type base. Antoine Winfield, one of our best players, is going to have to play a more glorified SAM linebacker in space. We’re going to be very creative, which we’ve learned coming from the Greg Schiano pipeline. [Defensive coordinator Robb Smith worked under Schiano at Rutgers and remains close to him.]
SI: What about the offense?
PF: Offensively, we don’t even know who our quarterback will be. We only had four offensive linemen that were really healthy for most of the spring. We don’t have a wideout on our roster that caught more than 18 passes in his career. We don’t have a quarterback that’s played more than one game. What we do have is Kirk Ciarrocca, and he’s really good at making sure the players can have success at what they do. We want them to play fast, whether we’re very complex, very simple, it’s just on how much our players can handle. We do have two very talented running backs [Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks], and we always love our inside zone. That’s what we are, and that will never go away. And we’re gonna rely on our play-action pass. How evolved we get from that is how much our kids can pick up and how much the quarterback can handle.
SI: You’ve got a lot of great momentum on the recruiting trail. You obviously had a lot of success recruiting at Western Michigan to build that program. What’s it been like so far at Minnesota?
PF: When you take over a program, I think the most important recruiting class you have is the first full recruiting class, and the second is the next. For us, the 2018 and 2019 classes are the two most important classes of our tenure at the University of Minnesota. We have to attack 2018 because a lot of those guys are going to have to start, are going to have to play, are going to have to be major impact players as freshmen. That’s why we’re having so much success. People can feel like they can come to the University of Minnesota. We have one of the best facilities in the whole country being built that will open, we have the best public institutions in the country. When people start seeing that, you’re not doing it in a Group of Five school, you’re a Power 5 school in one of the best conferences in the country.
SI: How’s the response been in the state to you and your staff so far?
PF: I’ve been incredibly impressed with the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association. I recruited the area when I was an assistant coach at Northern Illinois, so I know a lot of those guys, Jeff Ferguson [head coach of Totino-Grace High] and Dave Nelson [head coach of Minnetonka High] and all those guys who have been at one school for so long. That’s what I love about this area. It reminds of Frank Lenti [head coach of Mount Carmel High since 1984] in the Chicago area. They’ve been there for so long. The one thing I love about them is we had a coaches clinic and we’re so involved in that as a university, and they were so open and so gracious to accept the new head football coach. We’ve had so much turnover compared to the West side of the Big Ten. We’ve had three coaches in three years. They’ve had to adapt to three different University of Minnesota coaches in three years. Iowa has had the same culture for 40 years. Northwestern has had Randy Walker and then Pat Fitzgerald. Nebraska and Wisconsin have had the same culture. We’ve had three head coaches in three years, and when we talk about culture, we’re talking a sustainable culture for a very long period of time that connects people. That’s what we’re looking forward to doing, and I think our Minnesota High School Coaches Association is involved in that.
SI: What are you most proud of so far?
PF: Instilling to our players the importance of serving and giving every single day. That it’s not about us, it’s about what we do for other people. The more we give, the more we serve, the more we’ll get in return. And that doesn’t mean just to our community, but it does to our university, to each other and to ourselves, and I think that’s really important for our players to understand that. And once we start to form that team and that connectedness, because there’s a big difference between communicating with each other and connecting with each other. We need to get to that connecting part. I think the players that are there we said it, “Those who stay will be champions.” We eventually will be. I can’t say if it will be five years, 10 years, eventually we will be, and that's our vision every single day when we go into the office.
SI: You never shied away from saying that you weren’t the most popular coach in the MAC and you weren’t for everyone. How have you been received so far in the Big Ten?
PF: I’m just there to do my job at an elite level just like James Franklin is at Penn State and Pat Fitzgerald and Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer. Everyone wants to do their job at an elite level. I’m not doing anything that takes anything to a personal level. I’m just working and doing everything I can that gets University of Minnesota on the map nationally through the recruiting part and football part.