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Be you, keep roWINg: P.J. Fleck gives Spring 2021 Educator in Residence talk

March 15, 2021

P.J. Fleck

P.J. Fleck

Four-one-hundred-thousandths of a second.

That’s the daily rate of progress sprinter Usain Bolt made between the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games in improving his already-record-setting time.

Not much, P.J. Fleck told his online audience March 3 during his Spring 2021 Educator in Residence keynote address.

But those minuscule and gradual gains paid off for Bolt in a huge way, the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers said, and illustrate perfectly one the lessons he drills into his players.

Change requires work that fosters trained behaviors, Fleck said, and trained behaviors produce “boring habits” that yield “elite instincts” or, possibly, “crappy instincts.”

“Most people want the change. They want this new, trained behavior, but they’re not willing for those four years to make it through those boring habits that are going to create the instinct, either good or bad – the result, either good or bad – and that’s what I feel separates our culture and program,” Fleck said.

“We thrive in the boring habits,” he added, “because when they’re boring, we’re not boring. The way we respond in games – the way we respond to results – is everything in life. This is the difference between champions and non-champions.”

A 2004 alumnus of the College of Education with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, Fleck focused his hour-long “Winning in Football, Winning in Life” presentation on the strategies and philosophies he uses to coach his teams to lifetime success on and off the field.

Included among those is, of course, Row the Boat – the mantra the coach made famous during his time leading the Western Michigan Broncos following the death of his son, Colton, shortly after his birth.

Fleck spoke of how Row the Boat has evolved far beyond adage, of how thousands of oars are given away each year to demonstrate the team’s love for its fans, or how oars decorated by those fans line the path from the Golden Gopher locker room through the tunnel and onto the field.

He spoke of how it became “Row the Boat: A True Story with Principles and Lessons to Transform Your Culture,” a soon-to-be-published book he wrote with Jon Gordon during the pandemic. He spoke of how all the money raised from these initiatives goes to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House.

Yet Fleck’s players are also intimately familiar with “H.Y.P.R.R.” – How, Yours, Process, Result, Response – a model the coach uses to lay a foundation, build a vision, create a culture, set a standard and cultivate shared values of work, sacrifice, giving and service.

Laurie Elish-Piper, dean of the College of Education, introduced Fleck by highlighted his lesson-planning approach to coaching: “Like so many of us in this profession, he was inspired by his own amazing teachers to change lives and shape destinies,” Elish-Piper said.

“We named Coach Fleck as our Educator in Residence because his success in Minneapolis and, earlier, in Kalamazoo demonstrates that the lessons he learned here in our Elementary Education program are in play in the locker room and on the field itself,” the dean said “He prepares his young men not only for Saturday games but for productive lives after college.”

Fleck confirmed that immediately at the top of his address, during which he openly spoke of times when he failed, how he learned from those times and how transformed those setbacks into achievements.

“I’m very proud to be a Northern Illinois alum. I’m very proud to be a Huskie. I love talking about the Huskies and thinking about my time there, not only as a player, but as a coach,” he said.

“This is where my heart will always be. This is where my whole life was shaped. I came there a boy; I left a man, and I was ready for life when I left Northern Illinois – and it was because of people,” he added. “The way I run our program is very similar to how I ran a sixth-grade classroom, and I had amazing people to teach me that.”

Pamela Farris and Susan L’Allier
Pamela Farris and Susan L’Allier

Fleck frequently referenced the indelible impacts of now-retired College of Education faculty members Pamela Farris and Susan L’Allier.

Farris, he said, “taught me so much about what I could do, and just because I was one of the only males that I could be one of the best. She let me grow and taught me the significance of education. She taught me how to really take 35 sixth-graders, or whoever you’re teaching, and to find a way to teach that subject in 35 different ways.”

His 130 players constitute nearly four times that number, he added, and come to him “from all backgrounds, all walks of life, all financial backgrounds, race, color, religion.”

“You bring them all together. You put them in a room. Everybody wants you to win. Everybody wants you to do the right things off the field. Everybody wants you to love each other,” Fleck said. “To do that, you have to be a family, and you have to love each other, and that’s what I felt in my classroom – the things I was taught by Professor L’Allier and Dr. Pamela Farris. They changed my life forever.”

Players in Minnesota, where Fleck took the reins in 2017, now benefit from the example set by Farris and L’Allier – “people in my life who said, ‘You will not be average.’ ”

Under Fleck’s leadership, and infused in his philosophies, the team has not only produced winning seasons but raised the collective GPA from 2.98 to 3.57.

“I want them to think outside of the box. I want them to think that they can. I want them to think that this is the best place in the world. You’ve got to find a way to be able to reach all their hearts, souls and minds, and that’s what I learned at Northern Illinois,” the coach said.

“I wouldn’t be who I am without that education,” he added. “Very rarely in your profession can you look back and directly tie it to the people who taught you lessons of exactly what you do every single day.”

P.J. Fleck
P.J. Fleck

Fleck spoke to his Whiteboard Wednesday audience about “the ‘how’ of a person,” saying he asks prospective recruits and potential employees to “tell me about your life, from birth ’til now: Go!”

“It’s your story. It’s your journey. It’s your heart. It’s your spirit. It’s your unconquerable will. It’s your energy. It’s what got you to exactly where you are,” he said. “It’s the crack on your shoulder, not the chip. The crack on your shoulder is proving to yourself that you’re exactly who you say you are. The chip on your shoulder is proving to everyone else you are who you say you are.”

He looks for overachievers “who value their lives in all four areas of their lives,” those being academic, athletic, social and spiritual.

He wants to know about the tough times, looking for people “who have been through a lot.” Without those struggles, he said, “when adversity hits, they’re not going to know what to do.”

Fleck is aware that his unlimited drive and positive outlook are “not for everybody,” he said, “but I don’t want to be for everybody. I would rather climb a mountain than go over little foothills, and I want to attract people like that. We want people to attack their life. We get one, and we have no idea when it’s going to end.”

Achieving a vision, meanwhile, requires “the right people – not ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but the right people for you.”

“Ninety-seven percent of what I’ve done has been everything but coaching, and that’s OK, because I really trust my people, and I’ve empowered them to fail. To grow. To succeed. When we win, they get all the credit. When we lose, I take all the blame,” he said, “and you have to be very comfortable with yourself that way.”

Once in his program, the players and their coaches become part of the “process, which we define as work. The process is where we separate the elite from everyone else. Work is a privilege – not a right – and we have that mindset.”

Competing for Fleck, whether in Minnesota or at his previous job leading the Western Michigan Broncos, means following his “Row the Boat” philosophy.

Oars represent “the energy you bring to your life.” The water is life, and putting the boat and the oar in the water “is your choice.” The compass is “the direction of your life.”


“The oar is the symbol of strength in our program, and the boat is the sacrifice. Our program is about serving and giving, and if you can’t do those two things, you can’t play for me,” he said.

“The more you give and the more you serve, the bigger your boat gets. Big boats go far. Big boats take more people from where they are to where they’ve always dreamed of being. Big boats don’t sink,” he said. “Little boats – lack of sacrifice – don’t go far, sink easily and don’t stay afloat. The bigger the boat, the more storms you’re going to be able to take on. How do you do you that? Sacrifice. Serve. Give. Make your life about somebody else.”

Successfully rowing a boat requires collaboration – “the same time, the same speed, the same efficiency, or you’re going to go different directions,” Fleck said – along with determination and persistence to advance into the unknown.

“Your back is to the future. None of us knows what’s coming tomorrow, but you row anyway. When failure comes, when success comes, it doesn’t matter. Your oar stays in the water,” he said. “You’re looking at the past when you row a boat, which you can’t change – but you can learn from. It’s the only thing we can learn from as we move forward with our back to the future. You just keep going.”

He ties it to another mantra with, not coincidentally, the same initials: Responsibility. Trust. Belief.

“The reason I’m an educator is to get people to be accountable and responsible for their actions: responsibility, trust of what that means, and then belief – belief in yourself, and the belief in the program,” he said. “Nobody can get you to where you want to go if you do not believe in yourself at all, and you’ve got to learn how to be able to believe in yourself first before you can believe in somebody else’s vision.”

Fleck is also deliberate in providing his players with a sense of “FAMILY” – Forget About Me, I Love You – and telling them that he loves them.

“My players are young people. They need definition, and we define love as sacrifice. If I don’t sacrifice for them, how can they ever learn what love is and what a family is? It’s about me loving you, period. It means I’ve sacrificed for you. Whatever you need, I got you,” he said.

P.J. Fleck
P.J. Fleck, student-teacher

“As an educator, if you’re not being real, and you’re not promoting ‘failing’ – which we define as growth, ‘failure’ as quit – and knowing that it’s OK to fail, and that you’re there for them during that, then there’s no way you can create a family atmosphere,” he added. “In this building, and in what we do together, we’re going to sacrifice for each other.”

Preparing football players for life after college is why he teaches, he said, adding that his ability to produce winning results started at NIU.

“I believed in myself because Dr. Pamela Farris believed in me as a teacher,” said Fleck, who devotes himself to making sure that his players believe in themselves and that they also realize why they believe in themselves.

And it works.

“How do you know when your culture is hitting? It’s when they start speaking your language. That’s how you know you’re connecting with people – when they’re speaking the same language you are, and they’re responding the way you respond,” Fleck said.

“Not everybody has to have my personality, but everybody has to have that ‘how’ – that inner passion, purpose, desire, heart, spirt, unconquerable will – or you will not get me at all. You’ll have no clue what I do. You won’t fit,” he added.

“I’ve got to be the first one to show what that looks like. It’s our job as educators and teachers to find cultural ways to teach lifetime lessons. No matter where we come from, no matter what background we have, it’s got to hit everyone in the room. I learned this at Northern, and it’s one of the greatest lessons I ever learned.”

P.J. Fleck (second row, second from left) delivers his March 3 keynote address.