Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck goes from runt kid to big man on campus

Rick Stroud
Tampa Bay Times

Tampa, Fla. — Ordinarily, assistant coaches in the NFL don’t wear football cleats to practice. P.J. Fleck doesn’t do ordinary.

If a Buccaneers receiver, tight end or running back beat his man to make a play, or if a defensive back intercepted a pass, Fleck was off to the races, running down the unsuspecting ball carrier from behind with deliberate speed.

If he caught him and stripped the football, it meant wind sprints for the fumbling player after practice.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck

“He was just high energy,” receiver Vincent Jackson said of Fleck, who at age 32, served as the Buccaneers receivers coach in 2012 under Greg Schiano. “In 30 seconds, I felt a vibe with this man and I thought, ‘He’s not here just to be average.’ ”

A couple of weeks ago, Fleck sat in the west club section of Raymond James Stadium. He wore a maroon tie and gray striped jacket.

As he spoke, the Minnesota head coach — and former Western Michigan coach — kept signing his name on souvenir footballs for the Outback Bowl, where his Golden Gophers play Auburn on Wednesday.

Fleck chose to place his autograph on the left side of the bowl logo because “that’s the side people read first,” he explained.

Before penning his name with a black Sharpie, Fleck wrote R.T.B. for Row the Boat, his signature catchphrase. The acronym also has morphed into responsibility, trust and belief.

A self-described “runt,” generously listed at 5-foot-10, the sloganeering Fleck learned about inspirational messages growing up as a smaller kid in Illinois.

“I was one of those kids whose mom packed your lunch,” Fleck said. “I never knew what I was getting. It was in the fridge when I woke up. It was taped together because it was so big because I was a little guy and I was always trying to gain weight, so she always put an inspirational quote inside my lunch box.”

Few coaches have made a bigger impression in the college football world than Fleck, who won nine straight games this year in his third season at Minnesota, including a program-altering 31-26 victory over theretofore unbeaten Penn State. It was the Gophers’ first win over a top-five ranked team in 20 years.

At 32, Fleck was hired as a head coach to bring Western Michigan out of obscurity. He went 1-11 his first season there.

“If it wasn’t for my wife, I’m not sure where Row the Boat would be,” Fleck said. “After 1-11, uh, your Row the Boat didn’t work. Everybody is asking me where is my next slogan coming from? What are you going to use? And I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t use my personal story. She said, ‘You’re going to use it and you’re going to make sure this is what it’s for.’”

The next season, the Broncos won eight games and Fleck was named Mid-American Conference coach of the year. Two years after that, his team went undefeated during the regular season to win the championship and was nationally ranked before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

As the leader of his football family, Fleck has a vision for Minnesota. The Gophers had seven coaches in 14 years before Fleck arrived. It’s one of the reasons he signed a seven-year, $33-million contract extension through 2026.

“Why did we take the job? We had 97 firsts this year that we had never accomplished,” Fleck said. “Close to 60 restorations.”