CHICAGO — One day last spring, just a few months after he accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota, P.J. Fleck arrived at a dodgeball match with some of his players. Not only was the coach going to compete, he was also dressed for the occasion: short shorts, a tank top, elbow pads, knee pads, a pair of rec specs strapped around his head.
Fleck does nothing halfway.
The man is a human shot of espresso—who rarely drinks coffee. Asked about his caffeination habits after a boisterous 8 a.m. performance at Big Ten Media Days Tuesday in Chicago, he uses coffee as a launching point to explain his philosophy on life. “People ask me [how much coffee I drink] all the time,” Fleck explains. “I understand, just because of my energy. But I love life. I love the challenges. I love the dirty water. I love the mud. I love the filth. I love the crap. I love the success. I love all the lights. I love everything that goes along with it.”
The 36-year-old has more energy in his left pinkie nail than most of us do in our entire bodies. He’s a walking advertisement for the University of Minnesota, and his manner of speaking is as fervent as it is fast. On Tuesday, he debuted a nearly shaved head—the product of a lost bet, an emerging hair “peninsula” and a buzz in a bathroom at Disneyworld—and a perfectly tailored suit in a plaid of brown and Minnesota maroon. Last year’s Group of Five darling has gone dapper, with a tie and pocket square to prove it. He opens his media session by telling his kids to stop hitting each other, because he knows this is all televised, and they’re watching, and at this point, who wouldn’t listen to Fleck if he told them what to do?
Since taking the Minnesota job, the coach has been a master marketer of the Gophers program. He helped the university obtain his trademarked “Row the Boat” mantra from Western Michigan, and a reality show about the team, titled “Being P.J. Fleck,” premieres on ESPNU on Aug. 2. Last weekend, officials at Canterbury Park, a racecourse in a Twin Cities suburb, asked Fleck if he’d row a boat across a small pond in the middle of the track. He (of course) obliged. “My major is business and marketing,” explains senior defensive lineman Steven Richardson. “I had a class a little while ago on promotion and advertising, and he could teach a class.”
As he speaks, Richardson gestures across the room. There’s Fleck, sitting on a Big Ten Network set, bellowing on live television. M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A! Minnesota! Minnesota! The lineman shrugs. “He’s over there screaming right now.”
Fleck certainly doesn’t shy away from promotion, whether it’s of his team or himself. But he’s clear: This isn’t an act. “I don’t try to do all those things,” he says. “That is just my personality and my nature. If you go back and talk to my friends on Carriage Hill Lane, they’ll tell you I was the same guy. It was me against you. They always gave me the left-handed boxing glove… because [it] was fun to beat [me] up. They loved watching me get my butt kicked, because I wouldn’t quit, and eventually I’d just wear you down.”
In 2016, Fleck remarried. His wife, Heather, has had one piece of advice for him since she’s been by his side: Be yourself, Fleck recalls her telling him, just like Jim Harbaugh. “Harbaugh is not for everybody, and I’m not for everybody,” he says—except that so far, he seems to be college football’s favorite phenomenon. Since taking over at Minnesota, it’s been a nonstop quest to build cultural sustainability (his words) for a team that’s seen three coaches in as many years. And if anyone can build a culture, it’s Fleck. Talk to him for 10 minutes, and you start to wonder if maybe you might have some eligibility remaining to walk on to the Gophers. It comes naturally, selling the college football world on what he’s building at Minnesota, but as Fleck said Tuesday, the “honeymoon stage” is ending. Still, he’s going to squeeze every ounce of charm he can get out of it.
“I think it's every head coach's job and responsibility to bring attention to their institution,” he says. “That’s not self-promoting, but I think every head football coach in America is self-promoting at some point. We’re all selling ourselves and showing what we’re like and recruiting our cultures and developing our cultures. You’re the front porch of the institution.”
“He’s always trying to make sure that Minnesota is a brand that everybody will know in the nation,” senior linebacker Jonathan Celestin adds. “It’s not just about him. It’s about us.”
Inside the team, players talk of an atmosphere that encourages them to speak up and speak out. Richardson said that under the mellower Tracy Claeys, he defaulted to his natural, more reserved state of being. “[Fleck] helped me become a better leader,” he says. “I was a very quiet player. I don’t want to say I was selfish, but it was kind of selfish. I was one of the better players, but I was quiet. I wasn’t giving my teammates all the pointers that they could have. But with this culture that he’s brought in, it’s helped me step out of my shell.”
In his opening statement Tuesday, Fleck introduced the three players he brought with him to Chicago. He didn’t mention a thing about any of their on-field talents. Rodney Smith? He’s a guy people enjoy spending time with. Richardson has a skinny waist to go with his massive torso; it’s hard for him to find a good suit. And Celestin, his father just passed away. That they’re good at football is a fact Fleck seems to overlook, or concede we all know—or maybe in this case it’s just irrelevant. Here, he’s building personality. He’s already built a roster.
Fleck is aware he’s putting on a show. He talks as if he could keep going for hours, about topics ranging from a claim that he couldn’t read in third grade to the Kardashians to his love of ancient Rome. He’s a novelty to everyone but himself. “What seems different for you,” he explains, “does not seem different for me.” And though he expressed he might have picked a different name for his reality show, it seems ESPN aced it. This isn’t so much Fleck selling Minnesota or Fleck drumming up press. It’s merely Fleck… being P.J. Fleck.
Talk to the coach long enough, and he’ll bring up spirituality. He wants his men to be healthy spiritually, he says, and to care for them in that way. But he isn’t talking religion, specifically. He points out that he coaches players of every religion, from Muslims to Catholics to Jews. Some embrace organized religion; others don’t. He just wants them to consider something bigger. “If you don’t believe in religion,” he says, “believe in this football team.”
And there you have it, the gospel of the football coach in elbow pads, the boat-rowing, barely caffeinated force that’s just hit the Big Ten.