Fleck’s goal: Elevate Gophers to ‘Minnesota elite’

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — Since signing a five-year, $18 million contract with the University of Minnesota in early January, it’s been a whirlwind six weeks for P.J. Fleck.

Fleck has hit the ground running after leaving Western Michigan and the Mid-American Conference and heading west to take over the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten.

P.J. Fleck watches a Minnesota women's basketball game against Wisconsin in January.

Sitting in his spacious corner office on the second floor of the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, Fleck talked about how his life has changed, taking over a program during a time of tension and recruiting, among other topics, in a one-on-one interview with The Detroit News.

■ Question: How have you been getting acclimated to Minnesota’s campus, facilities and the city?

■ Answer: “It’s kind of like drinking out of fire hose for the first four or five weeks just because you’re putting together a 2017 class, getting ready for 2018, getting to know your team, putting together a staff, getting to know the area, getting to know boosters, former players. I mean there’s a lot to do when you obviously take over a job but I absolutely love it. The people have been incredibly encouraging and they have a saying here ‘Minnesota nice.’ It’s been Minnesota nice, it really has been. We absolutely love it. We’re going to change that to ‘Minnesota elite’ as we continue to go forward.”

■ Q: Is there a certain “Minnesota nice” moment that stands out?

■ A: “I would say that going to Timberwolves games, going to the Wild game and meeting (Wild owner) Craig (Leipold) and getting to be up in his box and be around those people. I’m just a huge hockey fan, so to be able to do that is really special. I think those types of events really stand out to you because people bend over backwards to provide an opportunity for you to have an elite experience when you don’t expect. It’s been really neat just to show everybody, from people in St. Paul, people in Minneapolis, the entire state of Minnesota, being the only Division 1 football program in the state, everybody is a fan of you and everybody wants you to do well. They want to provide resources to help. Everybody always says, ‘If we can ever help you, let us know.’ You found out at Western Michigan that’s the worst thing you can tell me if you don’t mean it. I’d say probably the Wild game was a pretty elite experience being able to say ‘Let’s play hockey’ (at puck drop) ... It’s like singing in the seventh-inning stretch at a (Chicago) Cubs game. It’s kind of like that. It was really neat. Those types of things I’ve been able to do a lot in the community and that’s been a lot of fun.”

Q: How do you feel you’ve been received by the community?

■ A: “I think with anything there’s always people that are really excited to see you and then obviously there’s a ton of optimism. Then there’s also people that say, ‘We haven’t done this for so long and this guy is compared to this guy and we heard it before,’ so you always have the balance of both. My job is to be able to enhance the optimists and bring the pessimists along for the journey and show them the process of this and to celebrate all the small little wins we’ll have whether it’s recruiting, whether it’s facilities, whether it’s spring ball, whether it’s depth-chart moves. Celebrate the little increments as we continue to move and show them what our culture is all about and get them to be able to see what ‘Row the Boat’ is all about, but it has way more to do with life than it really does football. So connect those people, all pessimists and optimists, connect them to ‘Row the Boat’ so they can really start affecting their life now because it’s not just about our football program. It’s about how our football program can work inside you and get you to be able to make your life better.”

■ Q: How important was it to bring the “Row the Boat” mantra with you to Minnesota?

■ A: “It’s very personal that I brought it with me. It’s something that I live my life for. It’s something I shared with Western Michigan University to connect that community and connect everyone and not just for the four years I was there. That’s there to connect everybody for the rest of their lives. Whether they choose to use that or not, that’s up to them now because Western Michigan can still use it in terms of thinking about what we had accomplished together and say it and those types of things. But it was made to bring people together and that’s what we’re going to do here at the University of Minnesota. It’s not just the words that can do that. We showed the power of Kalamazoo, Michigan, what you can do if you actually come together. The words of ‘Row the Boat’ don’t necessarily need to be needed anymore because you already have it inside you. Just do that every single day as you move forward to win more and more championships down the road. We’re going to bring that mentality now here to the University of Minnesota and share that with everybody. But again, connecting people who have nothing with football, don’t even like football, connecting them to our culture, connecting them to our how, why we do things, who we’re doing it for I think is very powerful.”

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■ Q: Have any students or people shouting “Row the Boat” at you yet when they see you?

■ A: “Every single person on campus that I see says ‘Row the Boat’ and then Ski-U-Mah (a Minnesota slogan). We’ve attached it to Ski-U-Mah, we’ve encompassed it. We’ve basically meshed those two together but everybody is rowing the boat here already, and we haven’t had it for more than five days already. ... They have oars. We got to know the difference between paddles and oars so we got to work on that. Everybody is getting oars. We have a ton of oars on order through our marketing department. Our whole ‘Row the Boat’ campaign will probably start in about a week or two in terms of getting those oars out to every business here in Dinkytown, in Minneapolis, in St. Paul, getting them out to the capitol for the Democrats, Republicans, getting them out to the children’s hospital, getting them painted and making sure our culture is felt in the community, not just the football community.”

 Q: You arrived at a time of tension after former coach Tracy Claeys was fired two weeks after football team held a boycott after 10 players were suspended for alleged sexual assault (none faced any criminal charges). How’d you stem that tide coming in?

A: “I was just me. I came here to change a culture, meaning I define culture as connecting people. That doesn’t mean this place needs to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. It just needs — what I’ve said is I’m a different head coach so that would be change. I have a unique way of connecting people so that’s what culture change means and that’s what we’re doing. We’re just changing the culture, connecting people and that’s the biggest at the beginning was to be able to bring all these people together that for a period of time where kind of split apart and continue to educate as we move forward.”

■ Q: Has changing that culture been your priority since you got here?

■ A: “Changing the culture in terms of what it means to me, yes. Being able to bring in a new head coach with new theories, new philosophies both football and off the field but also connecting as many people as I possibly can. That’s what great cultural leaders do. They find a way to bring everybody together and like I said, I just wanted to be part of a solution, that’s all.”

■ Q: How have players been responding to you?

■ A: “I met with them right when I got here. The problem was when I got here they weren’t back from break yet, so we had to do Facebook Live. Then once we actually got the guys together we had a big team meetings and I’ve been meeting with individual players. We’ve been meeting as positions with our players, non-football related just life things. You can already tell how connected this football team is becoming in five weeks. It’s pretty awesome to see. We didn’t really see the personality of a team until we played a whiffle ball game, and it’s amazing what even that little change of a culture, that little break once in a while to be able to bring comraderie and to watch them have success outside the football realm or work outside the football realm collectively and cohesively. I think that was a big step forward as we move forward in terms of connecting everybody.”

Former Western Michigan and current Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck was a finalist for the 2016 Paul “Bear” Bryant College Coach of the Year Award, which was won by Clemson’s Dabo Swinney

Q: How hectic was it trying to salvage Minnesota’s 2017 recruiting class with commits leaving and having several Western Michigan commits follow you?

■ A: “You come in and have two weeks to basically work to build a year-long relationship with a young man, but then you also provide opportunities. I didn’t steal anybody. All I did was offer opportunities for anybody at Western Michigan to join the culture here at the University of Minnesota. They didn’t have to if they didn’t want to, but I think a lot of them bought this unseen. A lot of those guys that flipped or came over, they didn’t even see the place so I think that just shows their commitment to the culture and I think that was really powerful for them and what they believe and also for the culture here moving forward. I thought our staff did a tremendous job in that two-week period to build those relationships that usually take a whole year to build.”

■ Q: How is your recruiting approach going to change at Minnesota? Are you going to continue to recruit heavily in Michigan?

■ A: “We’re going to do it at an extremely high level, but we also feel like we can compete on a national level when we talk recruiting. We’re going to continue to keep our seven-, eight-hour radius but then we’re going to expand out to a national recruiting base as well. We’re going to look at the national stage and say we can recruit at a national level here at the University of Minnesota because it’s a sleeping giant. I say sleeping giant because we’ve won seven national championships here. We haven’t won a Big Ten championship in half a century (1967) but we’ve won national championships, and you look at Clemson. They’re in a very similar situation, then they hired Dabo Swinney and next thing you know there’s a culture that now they’re a top-two program in the entire country. Why can’t the University of Minnesota get there? We can get there. We just have to have the right mindset, have the right coach, make the right moves, have the right investment, have the right patience and the right vision. If we all have that, we’ll get there.”

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■ Q: Are you looking forward to competing against Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer on a larger scale in terms of recruiting?

■ A: “I think you got to earn that level. I don’t think you just walk in because you’re at a different level and now all of a sudden you’re beating Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Florida State and USC. I don’t think you just walk in and do that. You got to earn that. You’re not going to get all the five stars right away but I think as you continue to go, if you earn other people’s trust and you start to show products on the field then you start to see that vision accumulate over time and people get here and see it’s truly real. I think that’s one thing when people get around us, they know it’s real. It’s all about them. It’s all about their experience. It’s all about our ‘Row the Boat’ culture. For me, that’s the exciting part but I’m still the youngest Power Five coach in the country. … I’m only four years into this. Urban Meyer, at that time he was at Bowling Green and then just moved to Utah. Same thing. I’m just at the beginning part of my career, and hopefully it continues to move on. Same thing with Nick Saban, same thing with Dabo and the early days of Clemson. You got to start with something and you’ve got to start with winning with players that are just like you that might not have the skill set, but they have the talent. Then as you go through, you’ve got to match the skill with the talent as you continue to go forward and that’s by proving your culture as you go forward.”

■ Q: You brought more than half your staff with you from Western Michigan. How has that continuity helped?

A: “We have a very unique culture. I always say this, we’re not for everybody. We are a very intense, very positive, very optimistic program all the time in all four areas of your life: academically, athletically, socially and spiritually. And if your life is not important to you, you are not a prospect for us. You can’t be. Life is going to be way too hard here because all four areas deserve 100 percent of your attention all the time. That’s part of the elite talent we talk about, not just the elite skill. Skill is what you’re blessed with in terms of your height, your speed, your strength. I’m talking about the unconquerable will, the heart, the spirit, the soul of a man, that’s the talent. If you can match that five-star, four-star, three-star skill and match it with five-star talent, now you got a shot and that’s when you start winning national championships and Big Ten championships. The familiarity with the staff of what we look for and we call them ‘howphers.’ If you recruit to a specific culture and how we do things, then you’re going to have success eventually down the road, and that’s what we’ve done at Western Michigan. It’s got to be the right type of player and right type of person for us.”