It was Spring 2004, and the wide receiver for the NIU Huskies football team had tried to postpone that classroom immersion – he was training for his shot at the NFL, after all – but Professor Pamela Farris put her foot down.
Her words to Fleck were to the point.
“She said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re finishing school,’ ” says Fleck, who earned his B.S.Ed. in Elementary Education that May, “and if you knew Pam Farris, you know that you did what she said.”
And so began a period when Fleck rented two apartments, the one he still had in DeKalb and the one in Oak Brook where he actually slept.
Each morning, the future head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers rose at 4 a.m. for his first workout of the day. By 5:20 a.m., he was driving to DeKalb to begin a full day of student-teaching around 6:45 a.m.
When school dismissed in the afternoon, Fleck hopped back in the car, returning to Oak Brook for his afternoon workout. He followed that with planning for the next school day – and the next school week – before a final nighttime workout and five hours of sleep before it all began again.
That schedule “tested my commitment,” he says, but his perseverance throughout those months confirmed to him that he could return whatever life punted his way.
“I’m going to be prepared if I go to the NFL, and then I’m also going to be prepared if I’m going to be an educator and teach,” Fleck remembers thinking. “That’s why I feel like I can handle anything – because of what I went through as a student-teacher.”
Fleck would go on to accomplish both, of course.
He signed as a free agent in 2004 with the San Francisco 49ers and played pro ball for two seasons in the City by the Bay, and, throughout a coaching career that began in 2006 at Ohio State, he has taught the skills of football and life to hundreds of young men.
Now Fleck, named the NIU College of Education’s Spring 2021 Educator in Residence, will talk about “Winning in Football, Winning in Life” during a free, online keynote address from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 3. → RSVP online!
Launched in Spring 2019, the Educator in Residence program invites successful alumni to give back to NIU and the College of Education by sharing practical tips and tools to prepare students for life after graduation.
“We are thrilled and honored to welcome P.J. Fleck, one of our most well-known alumni, as our Educator in Residence this spring. I am a firm believer that teaching is coaching, and that coaching is teaching, and P.J. certainly has endorsed and exemplified that in his career,” Dean Laurie Elish-Piper says. “As dean, I am proud that he got his start here, and as someone always striving to improve myself and the lives of those around me, I am eager to hear his advice on how we all can become ‘elite.’ ”
Fleck will explore critical concepts of people, vision, process, result and response to illustrate how he continually builds on his Elementary Education degree to motivate, develop and support college athletes as they focus on teamwork and mutual goals.
His job is challenging but rewarding.
“I have 130 players between the ages of 17 and 23. They come from all demographics, all financial backgrounds, all ethnic backgrounds, all religious backgrounds. I’ve got to teach 130 players a culture, a program, a standard – in 130 different ways every day,” Fleck says.
“We have people who have 4.0s. We have people who have 2.0s. You put them all together in this room, and it’s like a community,” he adds, “and that’s what I think educational classrooms are – they’re a community.”
Coaches and teachers, he says, “get to determine what that community’s like. You get to create the energy, and the purpose, and the passion, and the time spent on making sure people get it, or you could be like other people and say, ‘Eh, it’s just not worth it.’ But these are human beings – they’re all worth it – and it’s up to us as educators to find a way to have them get it.”
Mistakes are essential to the process, Fleck adds.
“You’re not going to be perfect. You’re not going to make all the right decisions. We actually define failing as ‘growth’ and failure as ‘quit,’ ” he says.
“Failing is OK, and I’m here to get everyone to fail. I’m here to push the standard – push the envelope – and when you do reach something, I’m here to make it even the next standard harder for you to reach,” he adds, “and so there’s this constant movement of growth by every single individual as an individual, and there’s this constant movement and growth through failing and succeeding as team.”
He’s navigated calm and choppy waters since joining the coaching ranks but remains steadfast to his now-famous mantra of “Row the Boat” – a philosophy that helped him heal from the passing of his second son, Colt, who died from a heart defect shortly after he was born Feb. 9, 2011.
Between 2006 and his arrival as head coach of the Western Michigan Broncos in 2013, Fleck changed employers several times, working for Ohio State, Rutgers and his alma mater NIU on the college side, and in the pros for the now-Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
During his first season in Kalamazoo, the Broncos went 1-11.
Three years later, however, Fleck and the team finished the 2016 season with a No. 12 ranking, a 13-1 record, a conference championship and a berth in the Cotton Bowl.
In Minnesota, where he was named head football coach Jan. 6, 2017, he has led the Gophers to unprecedented heights. In 2019, the team won 11 games for the first time since 1904, securing seven Big Ten victories for the first time in school history, beating two Top 10 teams, winning a Jan. 1 bowl game (the first since 1962) and ending the season ranked No. 10.
“They always say that you’re never ready to be a head coach. You think you’re ready to be a head coach until you are a head coach,” he says. “It’s the same thing with student-teaching. You’re never really ready to teach until you teach, and the greatest form of mastery of something is teaching.”
Although Fleck’s official title is “head coach,” it’s only one of many tags he applies to himself regarding the young athletes in his care.
Parent. Dad. Uncle. Teacher. Educator. Disciplinarian. Life coach. Mental health specialist. Emotional support system.
Years before this life, however, back in his suburban hometown of Sugar Grove, he described himself with four words: “Kind of a runt.”
Make no mistake, however, about the motivation lurking in those four words.
“I was always the ‘King of the Toos’ – too small, too short, too young. That’s kind of the story of my childhood,” Fleck says. “I was a very, very active child. I was involved in everything, to the point where my mom took me back to the pediatrician numerous times, saying, ‘There’s something wrong with this child. He has too much energy. He cries all the time. He just won’t settle down.’ ”
What did bring focus was competition, whether on the playground, at the local YMCA or even in a pottery class with his older sister.
“Baseball. Football. Basketball. Soccer. Any sport to get me out of the house,” he says. “I loved all sports. I always loved to compete. I wanted to be the best at anything I did. If I started something, I wanted to be the best.”
Although Fleck played four sports throughout his time at Kaneland High School, where he helped the football team to earn back-to-back state titles, it was the gridiron that settled him most.
Football appealed to him with – foreshadowing intended – its connection to life.
“There are only so many games. In high school, there are nine. In college, there are 12. You work all year round for these small, three-hour, once-a-week, one-time-a-season opportunities, so everything matters,” he says. “Basketball, there was always two days from now. Baseball, you could always play the next day. With football, it meant more because it was weekly. If you lost on Friday night in high school, you had to wait ’til next Friday night to make that right.”
It also extended – for seven long days – the raw emotions borne from each game.
“There was this massive joy with a win, and this massive pain with a loss, and I was drawn to that. As a competitor, you’re drawn to that … to that deep, deep enjoyment when you win and that deep, deep pain when you lose,” he says.
“When that’s the one thing that connects you, and knowing that life’s like that – that there’s going to be things out of your control that happen, and you’ve got to respond to it, and you’re got to respond to it now – I think that’s what drove me to football more than any other sport,” he says. “It fits life so much. It teaches you how to be able to grieve, cope, have success, fail, grow. It teaches you all those things that life’s about.”
A challenge to his natural competitive spirit also propelled Fleck toward his eventual pursuit of an Elementary Education degree from NIU.
Recess was, of course, his favorite part of school. Then, he says, Miss Jacob took that away.
“I wasn’t a great student early. I struggled to read. My third-grade teacher, Miss Jacob, changed my life forever because she called me out. She was the first teacher to ever call me out on me faking to read, or me faking to be smart. She called me out – and she kept me from what I loved, which was recess, to read with her,” Fleck says.
“I didn’t have any attention span to sit there, but she gave me things that I would enjoy reading or enjoy learning about, and she almost tutored me in a way that I would understand it. She took the lessons she was teaching everybody else and, during recess, she’d take that and use sports to teach me those lessons,” he adds.
“She taught me that there are numerous ways to learn, and that there are numerous ways to learn lifetime lessons. She took my cultural way of learning – and made it a lifetime lesson that changed my life.”
When choosing his college major, he remembered how elementary school – “the most pure, real, joyful time in my life” – had helped him manage some of his shyness and insecurity.
Playing sports also offered that, he says, but it was teachers who instilled the confidence that he could overcome those feelings.
“I felt safe at school,” Fleck says. “I remember pure joy. I remember creativity. I remember just being outside from morning ’til night. I remember my teachers being the people I wanted to be like. I had great influencers in my life who made it fun, who made learning worth it – and I remember the ones who didn’t – but I wanted to be someone who changed people’s lives. I wanted that for me like Miss Jacob had been for me, or Miss Dalton had been for me, or Pamela Farris had been for me.”
He also remembers the rush his teaching debut at Clinton Rosette, even though it had caused him great anxiety.
“When you’re in your clinicals, and you’re going through those three semesters, student-teaching was what I feared the most. I thought, ‘I can socialize. I can talk. I know the information. I feel like I’m creative. But how can I get 30 sixth-graders to learn 30 different ways during a 50-minute lesson?’ That’s hard, and to me, that was the exciting part,” he says.
“When you get that first opportunity to teach that first lesson, that’s a grand slam. You always remember that,” he adds. “I think I taught ancient Rome. All our students were in togas. We were building our ancient cities. In education, you need to use all the senses. If you have a really good clinical teacher, they’ll allow you to do that.”
Such a “collision” of topic, creativity and personality combine for the kind of “educational magic where people really learn.”
As a college football coach, Fleck hopes his players are learning life lessons to “be real, be you, be yourself, to be the best versions of themselves, to know that they are special” – and that true success requires, of course, teamwork.
His players hear about “humanity education” that goes beyond “textbook education.”
They hear about vision, hopes, dreams, aspirations – and believing in those. They hear about drawing from their past to create their future. They hear about leading – players and coaches together.
“To get to where you want in life, you’re going to have to earn it. But you’re also going to need other people to get there. We all can’t do it alone. If you’re real, and you’re authentic, and it’s the real you, you’re going to attract the right people to who you really are. We need to attract the right people who can help us to get where we need to go,” he says.
“That’s what I hope people get from me. It’s not the wins. It’s not the losses. It’s the moments and memories of those wins. It’s how you got there. It’s the stories of the people who came from nothing, and maybe didn’t trust and didn’t love and didn’t know what family was, and by the time they got out of your classroom, or the time they were done playing for you as a coach, they can do all things now,” he adds. “I think that’s the biggest thing in teaching and coaching. It’s about giving – and serving.”