P.J. Fleck is certain he can bring Minnesota out of the cold

From ESPN - August 13, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS -- The question comes in many ways. Some use more explicit words, some come with softer phrasing. All, though, sound similar.

"What the hell is wrong with P.J. Fleck?"

But colleagues, supporters, doubters and reporters in the Twin Cities, home to a historically frigid college football scene, begin most conversations about Minnesota's new coach with some variation of another, more important question: Is he for real?

And that's an expected reaction to the 5-foot-10, triple-espresso-shot-of-a-coach who said he "eats difficult conversations for breakfast," enjoyed "running into the fire, not away from the fire" and planned to "change the culture" of a program without a Rose Bowl appearance in more than 50 years -- all during his introductory news conference after leaving Western Michigan, where he finished 13-1 last season.

At the time, his new team had not yet learned the full ramifications of a sexual assault investigation involving multiple players. Yet there was the 36-year-old extrovert on a dais in Minneapolis, urging his new fan base to "Row the Boat," a motivating phrase he started using after his newborn son died of a heart condition while Fleck was a coach at Rutgers.

Fleck and Minnesota actually had to work out an agreement to allow him to use the phrase with the Golden Gophers. Fleck will give Western Michigan at least $50,000 through five payments of $10,000 to endow a scholarship for a football player.

"I think the first thing you notice is Hurricane Fleck just came through," said Nadine Babu, a longtime fan who attended the coach's first news conference in January and runs, the team's largest message board. "It seems like he's prepared himself for a role like this all of his life."

In a brief stretch, Fleck has forced Minnesota football into the national dialogue with his "Row the Boat" catchphrase, energetic interviews and his reality show on ESPNU, "Being P.J. Fleck."

But he does not know what he will face in the Twin Cities. Yet.

You have to live here to understand the layered vibe around Minnesota football.

The program last won a share of the Big Ten title in 1967, the final season of the "glory years" portion of its Wikipedia page. Struggling coaches have spent the past five decades encouraging pessimism and apathy through multiple generations of fans who want to win big but brace for the worst.

Last year's promising campaign was the squad's first nine-win season since 2003.

"People have been incredibly warm and open to change," Fleck said during Big Ten media day in Chicago last month. "When you have not won a championship in 50 years, that can take a toll on a program. That can take a toll on a fan base. That can take a toll on how you believe. And then also what it breeds is comparisons. And it's almost like the movie 'Major League.' 'Oh, we will blow it in the ninth.'"

That's what Fleck is fighting in Minneapolis.

His Joel Osteen-meets-Vince Lombardi persona aims to entice hungry supporters.

But they have drowned in the platitudes and promises of former coaches, so they are cautious. Lou Holtz wooed a desperate fan base before he bolted for Notre Dame in the 1980s after two seasons. Glen Mason reneged on a deal to accept Georgia's head-coaching job prior to his stint with Minnesota.

He later said, "Not a day goes by that I do not think about that Georgia job and the bad decision I made."

He was still Minnesota's head coach at the time.

But when Fleck talks about "comparisons," he's referencing one man.

A decade ago, Tim Brewster walked into a news conference in Minneapolis and talked about a bright future and renewed vision.

Brewster, then a tight ends coach with the Denver Broncos who had no prior head-coaching experience, spoke in the third person.

"The No. 1 thing everyone says about Tim Brewster is that he's a great salesman," said Brewster, now an assistant at Florida State. "Well, I tell you what: You are not going to be a great salesman if you do not have a great product."

He then said he would recruit the best kids in the state, players who would help the team reach the Rose Bowl.

"Our expectation is to win a Big Ten championship now," Brewster said then. "We are not interested in any rebuilding process."

He finished 1-11 his first year and lost every Big Ten game.

Minnesota fired Brewster in 2010, midway through the third year of his tenure.

"It's absolutely not fair to [Fleck], but I can see how he's compared to [Brewster]," said Babu, a longtime fan.

Fleck is not Brewster.

He's a proven leader who finished 1-11 in his first season with Western Michigan in 2013. Four years later, the Broncos went 13-1.

The Tennessee Titans picked WMU wide receiver Corey Davis with the fifth pick in the NFL draft. Fleck can coach and develop talent.

And by now, it's clear, his positivity -- a significant element of his success -- is constant.

"He had to overcome a lot," said Randee Drew, Fleck's teammate at Northern Illinois. "He was not tall. He had to be scrappy. I think when you first meet him, you think he's over the top. But that really is him."

Can he use those traits to convince the masses to join the Church of Fleck in a region that has not had a lot to celebrate since the Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1991? That's his mission.

"Can you imagine when the Twins win the World Series, the Timberwolves -- and we are young, we just got Jimmy Butler -- win the NBA Finals, they are able to win an NBA championship, the Wild get over the Chicago [Blackhawks] hump and we win the Stanley Cup?" Fleck asked.

"And you can go on and on. The Vikings, they win a Super Bowl, and then the Gophers win a Big Ten championship? Can you imagine what the city would look like? Can you imagine that? That is why I came here. Because yes, I know people are [saying], 'That will never happen.' But that's why I came."

The Big Ten's football media day, like the rest, offered more pageantry than substance.


Continue reading at ESPN »