Boycott Sochi?

Something Wicked This Way Comes?

The Answer Man: P.J. Fleck

A not-so-brief, really-kind-of-lunatic chat with the youngest head coach in college football's highest echelon

1. The Pyramids Are Widest at the Base, and They’re Still There.

We theorized earlier this summer that we might not be able to look P.J. Fleck in the face without wanting to play for Western Michigan ourselves. So we went to Kalamazoo to find out. It turns out that having no NCAA eligibility nor any tangible shreds of skill at throwing, catching, or running with a football are serious impediments in a quest to become an FBS football player. But no matter, says Fleck.

“We’ll develop you,” he promises. “We’ll develop you.”

Fleck followed up a successful receiving career at Northern Illinois with a two-year stint with the 49ers before taking his first coaching job, a graduate assistantship under Jim Tressel at Ohio State. The thing is that this was seven years ago. Three seasons coaching NIU receivers, two seasons coaching Rutgers receivers, an aborted return to NIU, and one season at Tampa Bay later, Fleck finds himself the youngest head coach of an FBS football team.

He also happens to find himself heading up a division rival of the alma mater he’s left no fewer than three times. And while he’s not the first in his position to chafe against the bonds, real or imagined, of what he saw as a predetermined life path, he’s also not shy about detailing how he hurt people around him shaking free of those bonds. That’s the first thing we noticed about Fleck.

The second is this: In constructing this summer’s 2013 college football watch list, we’ve talked to several rookie head coaches, most of whom expressed some degree of bewilderment or exasperation with the administrative tasks that confront the heads of major college football programs. Fleck stands out as the first newcomer we’ve met who’s not only welcoming the rising sea of minutiae, but marinating in it — from the exact shades of the new FieldTurf end zones, to the Broncos’ new uniforms, to the licensing of his “Row the Boat” merchandise.

Fleck holds up a canoe paddle. “This got sent to us. And we gotta get the nub cut off the end. Cause that’s a paddle. That’s not an oar.”

It’s impossible to overstate the gap between how goofy this looks in print and how readily it makes perfect sense in Fleck’s office. In an alternate universe, he might be a televangelist. Here in Kalamazoo, where there are no grand arenas, he’s raising verbal statues, picking cherry or walnut finishes for the receptionists’ desks, and taking his coaching staff fire walking on a Tuesday night.

“We’re us,” declares (or maybe declaims) Fleck. “We will eventually define us. And that’s who we’ll be.”

2. Designated Talisman: The Oars

Fleck’s “Row the Boat” philosophy, born of a family tragedy, has manifested itself in these very real oars.

And inspiration can be found, well, anywhere.

3. Q&A (&A)

You’ve got to play Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa, Kent State, and Toledo in the first half of your season. How will you use this exposure to attract recruits when you’ll be overwhelmingly favored to lose?

I believe in five things: I believe in the method. I believe in the goal. I believe in our core values. I believe in our characteristics and mentality. Those five things we’ve instilled within our program, and that’s what all these crazy things are around my office. 

[He gestures at a vinyl decal of a human heart on his office wall, and one of a raw steak, and between them the word FAMILY.]

Heart and steak?

“Heart work.” It’s hard work plus purpose, pride, and passion. And then the steak is “a hungry dog’s a dangerous dog.”

This is the most metaphor-laden program ever.

We have what we call Bronconese. We have our own language here. But as long as our characteristics and our mentality are displayed on the field? We’re gonna take care of the football. In the last 10 years, when WMU is just minus in the turnover category, they are 4-62. When they’re even or plus they’re 42-24. The ball is the program, period. If you control the football, you’ve got a chance. 

That’s why they named the game football. It’s after the ball.

Have you ever put your players in actual rowboats to prove a point?

Somebody told me I need to go in the river and row with them, and I was like, that’s murky water with a lot of tides under there. People get swept under and I can’t find ‘em.

And then you’re the guy who drowned your own O-line.

Correct. 

How do you think your age affects your relationships with your players?

I’m gonna be honest with you: I don’t know if it’s my age. I think it’s the personality. I’ve played in this conference, coached in the conference, I was an All-MAC player, I was an Academic All-American, I played in the NFL and coached in the NFL as one of the youngest assistants in the country. If you’re a student-athlete, you can see your future by looking at me. And I’m gonna help you get there.

And I’m still fighting uphill. There’s coaches that won’t talk to me, because they think I haven’t earned it. My dad kills bugs for a living and my mom is a teacher’s aide. There’s not one drop of coaching background in my family. I’ve worked from the ground up like everybody else. I’ve just moved faster.

What was it about Greg Schiano that drew you to Rutgers?

When I first took the job at Rutgers, I called my circle, right? Five out of five said don’t take the job. Because Greg is the most demanding person in college football. Was. He’s probably now the most demanding person in the NFL. He’s the most driven, most detailed, most organized person I’ve ever been around. I never knew I could work that hard. And that guy did something at Rutgers that no one else had done in the history of that program. It was gonna take somebody like Greg Schiano.

The end of your first stint with Schiano turned out to be only days from the start of your second. Why’d you accept — and then turn down — a return to NIU?

I had a few offers. Greg said he was gonna give us a few days, and, well, [NIU head coach] Dave Doeren needed to know. So I took the job at Northern. 

But something wasn’t right. I couldn’t sleep. The drive home, I just stirred. I got there, it just didn’t feel right. I felt like I was putting all my eggs in that basket, that I was trying to make everyone else happy, because here comes the golden boy, back to Northern, he’s gonna be the OC and then eventually become the head coach, and life’s happy, white picket fence. 

And something bothered me about that. I wasn’t happy but everyone else was. So I took the Tampa job. That was the hardest decision I’ve had to make, professionally. And I made Dave very upset. I’ve since talked to Dave about it. He was very cordial with me. He probably said things he didn’t mean. I said things I didn’t mean. 

“Cordial” is a very specific word choice there.

I mean, I basically pissed off the entire community. But the NFL made me so much better as a football coach. I never did it to hurt anybody. I still regret how I handled some of it. I know there’s a lot of people that are very hurt by that, and I understand.

Do you think it would’ve gone worse for you if you’d taken the job initially and then left NIU after a few more years?

The hard part was actually taking the job, it coming out in a press release, and then next day I left. I made a bad decision. I don’t want to be known as just P.J. Fleck the [NIU] player. And here at Western Michigan, I can build something of my own. There, I’m not sure what it would’ve been like. 

And Tampa was — I mean, we bought a house down there. I thought I was gonna be there for a long time.

Houses can be sold. What does a house even mean by way of reassurance?

I have no idea what the future holds for me. I mean, what’s to say they won’t fire me in four years? But trust me, if you know my wife? We built a home. She’s not going anywhere.

I sat with Greg Schiano, and I heard him tell his stories. “I got offered Michigan, I got offered Alabama.” Stayed at Rutgers. Isn’t that amazing? I never thought he’d leave, but there was always an NFL itch for him.

Any NFL-related skin conditions for you?

I’ll scratch it when it itches. Right now the itching is Western Michigan, and I’m scratching like crazy, because it’s a lot of itches.

You’re picked to finish fifth in the division, which isn’t unreasonable for year one. Would that outcome be a disappointment?

I’m not gonna let the numbers define us. I’m not gonna worry about numbers. If we had an 8-4 record, were we truly successful? The more I’d look at it, was the core foundation truly built to last a lifetime? Was that truly built? And if it wasn’t, then it’s gonna be a straw house on sticks.

Tropical Paradise

No.

We’ve gotta develop something, no matter how rough the waters get, how rocky the seas get, we’re gonna row our boat. We’re gonna be able to stay afloat and continue to row in the direction we want to row in. And control the seas. 

Do you still wear cleats to practice?

Every day. Greg did ask me that. He congratulated me on the job, and then he said, look, you’re not gonna wear cleats to practice as a head football coach. I said absolutely! It’s me! I make so many hard cuts in practice to go see somebody or go make a point. I truly believe in coaching them now. By the time that kid gets to the end of his play, sprints back, he’s thought about his girlfriend, his grades, his family issues, and all of a sudden I’m gonna coach him? I’ll probably look different than most on the sideline, in terms of what I wear. 

Does that include one of those rubber horse-head masks, by any chance?

Probably not, but you’ll see a lot of throwback styles on game days. Because I’m not me. I’m a culmination of a lot of people. 

4. Stay Tuned

• Western Michigan football commences: Friday, August 30, at Michigan State.

• Conference play commences: Saturday, September 28, vs. Kent State.

• Required viewing: Fleck recommends the Broncos’ trip to Toledo’s Glass Bowl, Saturday, October 5: “I absolutely love playing at Toledo. Matt Campbell’s done a tremendous job. It’s a hostile place. And when that place gets filled, it is rockin’, and they are not very nice.” 

Filed Under: Michigan, Teams

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Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson