PJ Fleck led Western Michigan to a 13-1 season that ended in the Cotton Bowl. He has now parlayed that success into the head coaching job at Minnesota. Fleck was hired on Friday to replace Tracy Claeys, a controversial firing that has highlighted the division between the football program and administration. Fleck spoke to reporters following the announcement.
P.J. FLECK: Good afternoon, everyone. Ski-U-Mah, means row the boat. Huh? Been waiting to say that for a long time since I got the job, to be honest with you. I am so honored to be your head football coach. I want to start by thanking a lot of people. I want to thank President Kaler for your commitment to the University of Minnesota, commitment to Mark Coyle and the commitment to your football program. I want to thank Mark Coyle. From the minute I met him, I was sold, and the reason why I was sold when I met Mark, was because we share the same vision, and people ask me all the time, why Minnesota? Because we both share a vision of winning a national championship. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten West. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten and having Rose Bowls. And I’m not afraid to say that because that’s the way I live my life. I’m not afraid to hide behind something and say, you know, I can’t promise you something. I’m going to promise you a lot, because that’s the way I live my life. And that’s what I want to be able to create here at the University of Minnesota. Will it be easy? No. And that’s his vision. And the minute when we sat down and he shared that same vision with me, I knew I was sold, because for me to be able to lead in a lead institution like Western Michigan University where my wife is, from and we really embedded ourselves in that community, it was going to have to take something very special, and Mark Coyle is a special athletic director and I’m proud to say I work for him. I want to thank Jack Cunningham, Rhonda McFarland, Julie Manning, our Board of Regents, I look forward to meeting all of you and especially Chair Johnson. Again, I’m incredibly humble and proud to be your next head football coach here at the University of Minnesota.
I want to thank Western Michigan University. Change is a very difficult time. It’s a difficult time for everybody. It’s a difficult time for the University of Minnesota. It’s a difficult time for Western Michigan University, and at the forefront of those difficult times are players and people and student-athletes. I want this thank Dr. Dunn, a president who allowed an elite athletic director in Kathy Beauregard to take a shot on a 32-year-old punk that had never been a football coach before and had never even been a coordinator, to take a shot on me to lead her football team. She’s more than an athletic director to me, she’s a mother, she’s a friend and she’s a mentor, and I know it’s very difficult times, and I apologized to her before I left, but I had to chase my dream as well, and the University of Minnesota is my dream. I want to thank all of our Board of Trustees at Western Michigan University. Trustee Miller, Johnson, you guys are friends of mine. You’re everything to me. You’ve changed my entire life.
More importantly, and last but not least, I want to thank our players. I want to thank them for accepting a vision and accepting a “row the boat” culture that was made to change their life and to go have 1-11 to 13-0 or 13-1 was a credit to those players and those players only. They were given the vision, they were give the challenge, they were give the work, and they did it. Some of the best human beings I have ever met are at Western Michigan University, and they’ll always be my sons, and I thank you for that very much, players.
I want to thank my wife, Heather, my agent Brian, I want to thank my entire family. My wife Heather is going to be an incredible ambassador for the State of Minnesota. When you get a chance to meet her you’ll fall in love with her immediately. She’s got the biggest heart. She’s warm, she’s kind. If you think I’m energetic and passionate, just wait until you meet her. She’s an incredible mother. Our kids at home, who are probably not watching this, but hopefully they’ll watch it one day, I do this for you. Gavin, Carter, Paisley and Harper are my entire life, and I want you around our football team, and I want you around my family, and you’re going to see my kids all over the place. You’ll see our coaches’ kids always over the place. This is a family environment. We define family as, forget about me, I love you. This program is about serving and giving. It’s about what we can do to do things for other people, and there’s no one that does more for others than my wife Heather. I’m so in love with you and I’m so thankful I have you in my life.
Why the University of Minnesota? Why not? This is a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid. To be able to play in the Big Ten, wasn’t fortunate enough to do that, got to play against Big Ten, but to coach in the Big Ten and to surround myself with people that would allow me to have that opportunity, and that’s who I want to the thank right now. I want to thank the Jim Tressels, I want to thank the Jerry Kills. Coach Kill did tell me, hey, tell him you’re a Kill guy. I said I’m a Kill guy. I’m part of the Kill tree. I do know that. Coach Kill taught me a lot how to care for players. When I already did care for players, he taught me how to care more. Mike Nolan, who changed my entire life. Greg Schiano taught me to be how demanding, to be the most demanding that I could be but also love people at the same time, to bring out the best in everyone. I look forward to bringing out the best to our players here at the University of Minnesota. The vision, academically, athletically and socially fit mine. It’s a college experience. It’s an elite experience. You won’t hear me say, good, great or excellent very much at all. You’ll hear me say elite because that’s the type of experience I want our student-athletes to have at the University of Minnesota and nothing short of that. In the athletic field, like I told you before, we want to compete for Big West championships, Big Ten championships, Rose Bowl championships and national championships, and that is the vision that we start today together collectively as we move forward in the new era of Gopher football that will be very energetic. That’s what you get with me.
Academically, our players are going to represent the University of Minnesota in a first-class fashion. You’re going to see them up front in the first two rows. You’re going to see them with a collared shirt on. The professors are going know their football players. And I’m sure there’s some out there that say, oh, well, he’s a football player. Eventually, I want them to say that is the definition of a student-athlete. And then socially, why Minnesota? The Twin Cities. The Twin Cities. That’s all I have to say. The Twin Cities. I used to recruit here and I used to have a fabulous time coming through the Twin Cities to recruit. That’s why Minnesota. With a shared vision, I look forward to rowing with you forward as we continue to go through our time together.
A lot of you are going to ask me about recruiting. The number one thing in this culture in this program is recruiting and listen to my words, it is recruiting and it’s going to take every single person in this room. Media, you have a job to do. You’re going to do it. I promise I’ll give you a lot. I have a job to do, and I know that. But recruiting is the number one pipeline, and lifeline to any program. What does that mean? It means we are going to recruit our student-athletes every single day with the positivity and energy of the University of Minnesota it football every day to think University of Minnesota is the greatest place on earth. That is what we’re going to do. We’re also going to recruit the finest student-athletes in the country, and you know where we’re going to start, and you know where we’re going to build walls up around? Our elite State of Minnesota, and that’s what I’m dedicated to. We’re going to draw a circle around six to seven hours around the Twin City area, and then we’re going to go to work, because we want to fill the bank every single game. How do you do that? This has to be more than football. I am more than football. Our kids will be more than football, and I want you to share that vision with me. What does it mean, “more than football”? We are going to serve and give as much as we possibly can, to each other on our football team, to our community, to other student-athletes. It’s not about us anymore. And the new era of Gopher football, it is not about us. It’s about how we can serve and give other people. We’re going to connect people to Gopher football that don’t even like football. We’re going to connect them because of how we do things. They’re going to want to be a part of it. See, the “how” of a person is your heart, your spirit, your mind, your soul, and it can’t be measured by a ruler. It can be measured by your actions. And our players will have incredible, elite actions every single day. And we are here as leaders to teach them how to do that. When you watch Gopher football from this point forward, it will be different. I am different. Year one is about a dig. I am not here to change tradition. Ski-U-Mah is going to be all over the place. Row the boat will be mixed. I am not here to change tradition. What I am here to do is change a culture. To change the movement, for us to create and experience things that the University of Minnesota football has only dreamed off and hasn’t accomplished since the late ’60s. With all due respect, that’s why I took the job. My entire life has been about running into the fire, not away from the fire. I eat difficult conversations for breakfast, and that is why I took this job. For every reason not to take a job, that’s why I took it. That’s the story of my life. I have a crack on my shoulder, not a chip. We are going to find a way to out care everyone else, out give everybody else, and out how everybody else, and that is my commitment, and that is my wife Heather’s commitment, and my kids’ commitment and our student-athletes’ commitment, to make everybody in this room proud of the University of Minnesota football, because we are all a part of it, and I promise you you are going to have a lot of things to write about, instead of finding little nidbits that we can sit there and focus on the negativity that surrounds student-athletes in 2017. We’re going to do everything we can so you can write about the positivity and making our national brand felt by the entire nation, because that’s what is going to happen. We want this to become a national brand, a national movement, where people from all over the country want to come to the University of Minnesota because it’s different. It has energy. It’s unique. It’s uncommon, and I’m okay with that, because that’s me.
I’m so proud to be your head football coach. I’m very honored to lead these young men into a new era, and I look forward to the challenge every day of that leadership role. Ski-U-Mah and row the boat. We’ll open up for questions.
Q. Last year, this team won nine games. Is this a reclamation project, the coverage is not there, or do you think you have to win right away out of the gates?
P.J FLECK: I think I have to do a lot more investigation what we have, what we have coming in, what we have that that’s moving on, but I look at it as a cultural change. This is not a complete rebuild of a tradition and culture. This is cultural change thought. Like I said, for the first year of digging, that’s what that is. It’s digging to find out how much we have to dig, what culture — what types of culture we have to change, what doesn’t need to be changed, how we can work through the different branches of how we’ve got to be able to get things done, but I do know this, the staff that was here before deserve those nine wins. They did a tremendous job on the field, and we want to continue that type of success as we move forward.
Q. (No microphone)?
P.J FLECK: I did. You know, I got a chance. It was very unique. It was very unique team meeting. I met with about 25 of them in the room and the rest were on facetime live, Facebook live. That’s the thing for student-athletes in 2017, so it was very unique, because they are on break, they are away. The first thing I did tell them was simple. Guys, you did not pick me, you did not pick me, but I picked you. And I promise you this: every single day, I’m the solution guy. I’m going to find a solution to make your life elite. Your personal life, your social life, your spiritual life, your academic life, your athletic life. That is my job. And that is what I get paid to do. Remember, I am the “how” coach. I am the character coach. I am the people coach. The heed football coach’s job has a lot more to do with people than players. That’s the way we look at it. So, that is what I told them.
And it’s an elite group. A lot of them are looking me up and down, left and right, measuring me up, and I kept saying, guys, I’m not much, I get it, I get it, I get it. Okay. I’m not much, all right? But I can feel the energy and I could feel they’ve embraced the change. And I know there’s going to be a lot of challenges ahead. I know there’s going to be people that fit with the change, that don’t fit with the change, that like the change, that don’t like the change, but that’s — change is hard. Everybody wants change until you get change. Well, I got news for everybody. Change has arrived!
Q. When you got to — at Northern Illinois when Jerry Kill’s staff took over, how did you feel like you meshed with that group, and how did those experiences for two years kind of shape who you are?
P.J FLECK: Well, Coach Kill taught me so much in this profession. Coach Kill, like I said, he taught me how to care through the head coach’s eyes. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That is Jerry Kill to a “T”. And his staff was absolutely elite to me. We had a lot of success together, and I knew I wanted to become a head football coach, and leaving that staff to take a job at Rutgers was very difficult for me to do because I enjoyed my time with Jerry Kill. It was a very influential time in my life. He taught me so much, but then I had to leave and go expand and work for Greg Schiano who was one of the most demanding coaches in the country, but taught me to get the most out of people, so I really enjoyed my time. We accomplished a lot together, and very, very smart football coaches.
Q. Coach, where did you find in yourself this personality where you felt that you could go out and change people’s lives?
P.J FLECK: You know, you got to go back to know who I am as a person. I’m the runt. I’m the king of the “toos”: too small, too smart, too young, too inexperienced. I could go on with t-o-o. That’s been my life. If there was a 9-year-old baseball team, I was 7, and my dad stuffed me on that team. If I went down the hill with the boys, I was youngest on the block, I would get beat up, I would come back up crying. My dad would say, what are you doing? I said, I got beat up. He said, get back down there and go find a way to make it work. That’s what he said. I would come back in from shooting hoops on the driveway. I would come in, I’d be done. My dad would give me an option. He goes, what are you doing? I’m coming in, it’s dark, got to go to bed. Well, there’s somebody out there shooting one more free-throw than you know, just so you know there, bud. I’ll put the lights on the driveway if you want me to. I’ll put the car up — we lived on a slant. I’ll pull the car up on that basketball hoop for you to see it, but he made me make the choice. I think that was very important in my upbringing.
I got a crack on my shoulder, not a chip. It’s not to prove to other people I can do something. It’s to prove to myself that I can change lives. I’m an educator, I’m a teacher. I have an elementary education degree. So how does that help a football team? I’m a teacher. I’m a teacher of life and I’m a teacher of football. It’s my job to find the most cultural way to teach the old lifetime lessons. If you’re going to teach a rivalry you can’t teach Jordan and Bird anymore. They think Jordan is the guy that makes the sneakers, right? You have to use Kanye and Drake.
That’s the rivalry they think about. So, for me, that’s where that comes from, finding unique ways. Remember, my background is to have 36 sixth graders that all learn 36 different ways and teach one lesson about Ancient Rome. There’s no different in my team meetings. If you ever want to come in a team meeting, I will invite you. It will be the most unique experience of your life. I promise you, because that’s my classroom. I talk to my team every single day. As long as we are in the building, as long as we have the proper meeting time for at least 20 minutes, and 95 percent of it has nothing to do with football. It has to do with life, and leadership our culture and how we can continue to change our best and grow higher. Great question.
Q. This program has been under a lot of turmoil recently. What is your immediate plan to address that?
P.J FLECK: Here’s the one thing I’ll address on that, very broad, but I really don’t have anything to comment on, because I don’t know much about it. I’m here today. And so my era starts now and moving forward. It’s not about that in the past for me. But I do know this: It’s a concern of our players. They asked a question today about it. We talked about it ad we moved on. But I did tell them the same thing. That my focus is on them now, not them back when, it’s them now. That’s why I’m here. I’m a solution-driven guy and that’s what I want to continue to do as we move forward through Gopher football.
Q. Coach, you talked about recruiting. One of your recruitment of one player while at Western Michigan was heavily criticized after it came to surface that player had been accused of sexual assault multiple times. You said your staff had no knowledge of that. We talked to a lawyer in Ohio who said it was widely known those accusations were out there and the information about those allegations were easily obtained through police reports. My question for you is what kind of vetting of that player was done and what kind of vetting will take place of recruits here at the University?
P.J FLECK: First and foremost, I took responsibility for that in terms of I allowed that kid on the football team. I had zero knowledge, zero knowledge of that information prior. He was a walk-on that was recruited later. I learned a lot from that to not have a walk-on that late. And it was the one time that I kind of didn’t do enough to make sure that there wasn’t the background that he had. However, we investigated it, and we did our due diligence with the high school, the high school coach, the high school principal at the time, and the information we got back from them, and the information we got back from them had no recollection of anything that that young man had done. We’re not allowed to do background checks in the NCAA. Again, that’s where the mistake happened, and I learned a lot from that as we continue to move forward.
We have four years, and one major incident like that, one too many, way one too many. And that falls on the responsibility of the head football coach, and as we move forward, the thorough process of that, learning and growing from your mistakes, again, not knowing that information, I couldn’t do anything different, except be way, way more thorough. And, again, going through that has made me a better football coach, maybe a better head football coach, has made us all better recruiters to not just take people that we trust word for it. We are going to take that as part of the process and we are going to even dig down deeper legally, because there are things that we can’t do legally that would have led us to that. So, that’s how we are going to do as we continue to grow higher and continue to move forward into the future and again, failing like I did as a head football coach in that time, in the four years, that time, that failure we define as growth. Failure is quit. Part of becoming a man is taking accountability for your actions. That’s how we define a man, taking accountability for your actions. And I’m the boss, I’m the leader, and again, the leadership part of that is what we took from that as we continue to move forward of how we’re going to change that.
Q. One follow up for you on that, did you discuss that with Mr. Coyle during your interview process?
P.J FLECK: I sure did. Mr. Coyle deserves a lot of credit for that because he approached me and that was a five to six hour process, and I give him a lot of credit for that because a lot of people might turn the other way. That showed me how committed to becoming elite he truly was. It was something that showed me how much he cared about the University of Minnesota and our student-athletes that we’ll not allow somebody to come in here and allow this to happen again, and we will not — there’s a zero tolerance policy once we found out about it, the minute I found out, whether it was 1:00 in the morning. The minute I had it, they were suspended indefinitely, six hours later they were kicked off the football team, and my job is move very quickly, very thoroughly, and that’s what I’ll do at the University of Minnesota. I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a father, and that’s a very sensitive topic, and there’s a zero tolerance policy.
Thank you for asking that question.
Q. Coach, this was a very fast process. I mean, just curious, two-part question, how were you able — how much homework were you able to do on everything that you needed to know before you wanted to take this job, make sure it was the right fit for you and, two, when Mark Coyle fired Tracy Claeys, he said he was looking for someone to unite the program again, and just what is your sense between the divide that exists between players and administration and how do you go about building a bridge over that?
P.J FLECK: The big thing is, you know, I’m a leader and what I want to do is be a bridge and connect. That’s what I told our players today. Trust me to just be able to connect. Lets start with you and I first, and then we’ll continue to develop from there. For me, in terms of University of Minnesota football job, that was very fast. I thought I was going to stay at Western Michigan forever. Jim Tressel told me, work like you’re going to stay there forever. Recruit like you’re going to stay there forever. Develop, facilities, everything, like you’re going to be there forever, and that’s what I did. I gave every bit of energy and time I could have to Western Michigan University. I think a lot of credit has to go to my agent Brian Harlan. We discussed things in the off season, we discussed future, we discussed where we’re headed and as we — even since before becoming a head football coach, he said where would you like to be a head football coach someday, P.J., and the University of Minnesota was on that always on that list. That’s not necessarily where other people look at me and said, oh, wow, that’s your dream job? You bet You bet. That’s why I said, it’s a dream come true. And so the minute it came open my eyes came like this, and I remember my wife Heather looking at me like — and we both didn’t say anything to each other. We stared at each other, because we knew this was something we wanted to pursue, but we knew if we pursued it, we would hurt a lot of people at home, and that’s what I want everybody to understands for the people back home, back at Western Michigan University, because I forever will be a Bronco. That’s the first people that ever took a chance on me. That was very difficult, because that was the hardest part. The excitement was there. It was the immediate, like, maybe we got a shot at this thing. Maybe they’ll; be kind enough to ask us. But it was also, like, this one’s gong to be a hard one to separate, because that’s the caring factor. That’s how much we’re embedded we are into a community and a culture when the Flecks come to town, and that’s what we’re going to do.
Q. You talked about the coaching staff and what they did to win nine games. As you’re looking at building a staff, are these guys, since you do have a connection with them, are they candidates to been on the staff and how does that shape up for you?
P.J FLECK: Yeah, I’m going to look at everything over the next few days. I’m going to move very quickly. There’s going to be some members of the staff that might come with. There might be some members of the staff that stay. I don’t know that right now. I will evaluate that tonight into tomorrow, but I want to move very quickly because this is very similar to when I was hired at Western Michigan because there’s not a lot of time, especially before a very important signing day. You got to get a lot of people in the boat, you go to get a lot of people rowing, t to get a lot of people to see the vision and you got to go and for that to happen, a lot of people that know the vision got to get here. But when I’m looking at my staff, I’m looking at three things, really. The first thing is an elite teacher. And I’m not saying just and elite teacher of football, an elite teacher of life. I want to take the lifetime lessons and teach them in a very cultural way. Remember, I’m an educator, an elementary schoolteacher. When you walk into our assistant coach’s offices, it’s like going into a sixth grade classroom. There will be things all over the place. It it’s constant learning, it’s constant movement, coaches that teach in different ways to affect all types of student-athletes. We want evaluators. We have to have evaluators, not just talent, but skill. Skill was given to you when you were born. I obviously had no height skill. I didn’t have weight skill. I didn’t have speed skill, but I had talent. I had an inner burning desire to become elite, and that is what I want our coaches to be able to have a very unique sense of, and if — to be able to have that, you have to have that yourself, and most of the coaches I’ve worked for or worked with have had that. They’ve been the king of the “toos” themselves. They are lead evaluators, ad obviously the talent part is that. It’s the combination of the athletic and also the person and the how. And the last is men of integrity. I never want the men that coach for me to ask somebody to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. We define maturity as doing what you have to do becomes doing what you want to do. The perfect definition of being mature. There’s a lot of things going on around your house you don’t want to do. And you’re lazy enough to do it, you are going to let somebody else do it. But if it’s what you to do becomes doing what you want to do, that’s powerful, and those are the kind of coaches we want to bring here, and I’ll continue to work on that the next few days.
Q. We all know how much the “row the boat” thing means to you and Western Michigan, read its trademark. Can that come with you? Where is that?
P.J FLECK: I plan on bringing it with. I think it’s something we got to handle as we continue to move forward. It’s a major staple in my own personal life, has a lot of personal meaning, but it can bring a lot of people together. Like I said before, we need everybody rowing in the same direction, same speed, same efficiency. It’s going to take all of us, everybody. And, again, a lot of people in this room you might like me already. A lot of people in this room may not like me already. That’s okay. One thing I am, I am not perfect, but I am real. You won’t meet a more real person in the entire world, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do as we move forward, and row the boat will be a part of that. I want it to be a part of that. I hope it’s a part of that. But, you know, Ski-U-Mah is of course. But the story of Ski-U-Mah. There’s a canoe, which is a boat. You got a paddle, which is an oar, and we’ve got the Northern Star, here which is our compass. And I’ll tell you a quick story. The minute my wife Heather and I read Wikipedia together, because I’ll be honest with you, I had to read it, I don’t want people to have to look up Ski-U-Mah on Wikipedia. I want it to be a national brand and a national saying. Now, it’s going to encompass a little “row the boat” in there, here and there, okay, I promise you some how, some way, but that is our vision. The minute we saw that, and there was a paddle and there was a canoe, and there was a star, we looked at each other and said, don’t ignore the signs, and we didn’t ignore the signs, and that’s why we’re here.
Q. Now, Mark Coyle said upon releasing Tracy Claeys, he talked about the three things you mentioned: the academics, athletics, the social things. Ou are going to be the youngest power five coach in college football. Is that a lot of responsibility to put on you?
P.J FLECK: Age is a number. If I took you through my youth, and more than likely, we’ll hang out for a while. I will tell you in my enter life. I ave lived three lives in 36 years. It doesn’t come down to numbers. It really doesn’t. It comes down to people who have influenced your life. What have they set you up for. Have they believed in you, have they not believed in you. What have they instilled in you. I tell you this, I’m very confident in doing the job I do, and you’re going see that confidence flow through our players and the belief system in each other and positivist that we are with our student-athletes, you will see. I can’t wait for all of you to come to practice. It will be the most unique thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life. It will be one of the fastest things you’ve ever seen in your entire life and it will be one of the most upbeat passionate practices you’ve ever seen in your entire life, and I can’t wait to share that experience with all of you, but age never has bothered me. Again, it goes back to my upbringing: King of the Toos. Too small, too short, too young, too inexperienced, whatever it’s been and its just another challenge, but better than being the alternative. I’ll take it. And as we continue to move forward, we got a lot of years together. I appreciate everybody’s time. Ski-U-Mah and row the boat. Thank you very much.