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An unexpected call jumpstarted Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck’s career

When former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel answered his phone in 2002, he didn’t think the conversation would help shape another person’s life.

Northern Illinois assistant Mike Sabock was a former teammate of Tressel’s at Baldwin-Wallace College in the 1970s. Sabock was calling to mention a Northern Illinois wide receiver he should keep on his radar for a graduate assistant position. P.J. Fleck, a 5-foot-10 junior from Sugar Grove, Illinois, was just a little bit different than everyone else.

“I remember [Sabock] getting a hold of me when P.J. was a junior and saying, ‘Hey, this kid is going to be a great coach some day. You’ve gotta keep an eye on him for a graduate assistant,’” Jim Tressel said.

Sabock was persistent and called Tressel again the next year. He didn’t want Ohio State’s head coach to forget about the energetic wide receiver. Following his final season at Northern Illinois, Fleck signed with the San Francisco 49ers and played two seasons in the NFL. After his professional football career ended in 2005, the stars aligned for Fleck to work with Jim Tressel at Ohio State.

“We recalled that Mike Sabock had been persistent about him. [Sabock] said, ‘Don’t forget about P.J., he’s going to be an extraordinary coach.’ So the timing hit right,” Tressel said. “I remember when he arrived here. He hit the ground running. He was non-stop and connected immediately with the players. He did whatever the coaches needed done. He was constantly asking questions and searching for answers.”

Fleck spent seven months working as a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes. He helped with a variety of tasks and was in charge of making sure each coach had what they needed to be successful. Whether it was assisting a coach on the field, or bringing Tressel and the staff fast-food chicken, Fleck was ready to provide a helping hand.

“I picked up Raising Cane’s for Jim Tressel every day. That was one of my jobs. I poured coffee for Luke Fickell,”  Fleck said during Big Ten Media Day in 2017. “I had to do what I was asked to do and that was OK. Even though you might be at the bottom, how are you leading people around you?”

Tressel recalled Fleck’s chicken runs, but disputed the frequency of those trips.

“I don’t know if I had Raising Cane’s every day, now c’mon,” Tressel laughed. “He’s probably embellishing that a little bit. We had a Raising Cane’s about two blocks away. We worked long hours and hard, so when we wanted to get a bite to eat, it had to be quick.”

Between Cane’s and coffee runs, Fleck learned the nuances of every offensive position. He sat in meetings, helped with the scout team and asked questions. Fleck spent time with former Buckeyes’ wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell and soaked up all of the information he could.

“[Fleck] had tremendous energy. He was always willing to do and wanted to do extra to improve as a coach. As a young guy that was coming up in the profession, he had that drive,” Darrell Hazell said. “We sat down many times and had discussions about many things in the receiver world and he was always willing to learn. He was a sponge and continued to improve.”

During his time with the Buckeyes, Fleck frequently had discussions with Jim Tressel about his goals in the profession. The national champion head coach clearly remembered an office visit where he and Fleck discussed his future in the industry. P.J. told Tressel he had the goal of becoming a high-profile college football coach by the time he was 35 years old.

“I remember talking to him [and telling him], what’s important is today. Focus on this moment. We need to have those goals in our sight, but what’s important is today. Not that I ever had to worry about him being focused on anything because he was full speed. I could just see him lock in to winning every day,” Tressel said. “It was fun to watch a young person seek advice, seek knowledge, seek experiences and then apply them. He would go out on the field and he’d be running around as fast as the players.”

Tressel said Fleck’s study habits and work ethic were apparent during his time at Ohio State. The young graduate assistant was always looking to improve. Tressel explained it’s not easy to land a high-profile job in college football, but Fleck’s effort helped him move ahead in the coaching industry.

“You could just see he was not going to be denied,” Tressel said. “He had his goal of being a high-profile coach by age 35. That was what he was going to do. He was going to do whatever it took to get there. However much work it took, however much study it took and effort…I knew one thing — he was going to do everything humanly possible to get where he wanted to go and he was going to do it the right way. I had the utmost confidence.”

During the 2006 season, Ohio State finished 12-0 and qualified for the National Championship. Fleck watched Jim Tressel prepare for a showdown against Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. With 3:41 remaining in the second quarter of the BCS Championship, Ohio State trailed 24-14. The offense faced a fourth-and-1 situation on its own 30-yard-line. Before the snap, Fleck remembered Tressel expressing the play’s magnitude.

“[Tressel told us], ‘Boys, if we don’t get this fourth down, it’s over,’” Fleck said last year.

Florida defensive end Ray McDonald slipped through the backside gap and running back Chris Wells was stuffed short of the sticks. Ohio State lost 41-14 to No. 2 Florida in the National Championship. Fleck said the result of that game was the second-most humbling moment of his coaching career.

“I found out, that anybody can get beat at any point. Whether you’re looked at as a terrific coach, whether you’re looked at as a bad coach, or whether you’re looked at anywhere in between,” Fleck said last October. “If we had won that National Championship Game, I don’t know how that would have affected me as I continued to go through my coaching career, but I got to see the greatest parts of [Tressel] and that he’s human and that he’s like every other coach.”

After the season, Fleck became the wide receivers coach at Northern Illinois. He spent three seasons with the Huskies before coaching the same position for Greg Schiano at Rutgers. When Schiano left for the NFL in 2012, Fleck followed him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The next phase of Fleck’s journey brought him back to college coaching.

When Fleck was being considered for the head coaching position at Western Michigan, Jim Tressel received a call from Broncos’ Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard in 2012. At that moment, Tressel was proud to see his former graduate assistant progressing in the coaching ranks.

“[Talking to the athletic director] was a great memory, that not only did he get the job, but he did well. It wasn’t all peaches and cream through the whole thing. He had difficult times and challenges and adjustments to make,” Tressel said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to stay tuned with him throughout his journey. I always felt honored that he wanted to reach out and say, hey, this is what I’m thinking about, or this is what I’m struggling with. I felt good about being there for him.”

Fleck brought Western Michigan to new heights and shattered records along the way. In his first season as head coach, the Broncos finished 1-11. Four years later, he quickly turned the program around and led Western Michigan to a 13-1 record. Following an appearance in the Cotton Bowl, Fleck was hired by Minnesota on Jan. 6, 2017.

At every coaching stop, P.J. Fleck has energized programs with his “Row the Boat” culture. In Fleck’s third season at Minnesota, he is putting the Gophers on a national stage. After a 31-26 win over No. 4 Penn State, the entire country has its eyes on Dinkytown. Minnesota is 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and has climbed to No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings.

When Fleck arrived in Minneapolis, he navigated many challenges, including building his first recruiting class in a few short weeks. During his first season with the Gophers, Fleck had to install his culture and change the program’s perception among key stakeholders. Before his first year at Minnesota, he needed to name a starting quarterback. Fleck wasn’t sure what to do, so he picked up the phone and called one of his most important mentors.

“I remember when he first got to Minnesota. He called me one night,” Tressel said. “I remember him calling me up and saying, ‘hey, I know you have not been to practice and I know you don’t know anything about these guys, but let me describe what we’ve got going on and bounce off of you kind of what I’m seeing and feeling. If you have any reaction, fine. If you don’t, fine. It would be good for me just to talk about it.’”

Fleck has always reached out when he needs advice or wants input from Tressel. The former Ohio State head coach said this type of curiosity was apparent long before he became the leader of a Big Ten program. 

“He constantly wanted input and constantly wants to make sure that he’s thought through everything. It doesn’t mean that every thought ended up being the right thought. He learned from some of the ones that weren’t the right thought,” Tressel said. “I always say that it’s exhausting to be great. He’s willing to put in the exhausting listening, talking, working and collaborating. It’s fun to watch and it’s not easy. You’re not going to win every game in the Big Ten. It’s not easy to play at that level. The journey is the fun part.”

As a head coach, Fleck continues to apply many of the strategies he learned throughout his career. While working with Tressel, he had the opportunity to witness what life was like in the college football spotlight. Now, with Minnesota gaining local and national attention, Fleck has been treating each week as a “1-0 Championship Season.” Essentially, every game is its own separate moment and requires the same amount of focus. Jim Tressel developed this philosophy at Ohio State and Fleck applied it to his program.

“We worked extremely hard on staying in the moment. It’s so easy in this day and age, even more so, to be thinking about, where am I in the division, or where am I in the playoff picture?” Tressel said. “It was so easy to drift your thinking out beyond the moment. So we spent a lot of time helping one another understand, whether it’s a football season, or the game of life — the moment you’re in is the moment that you have to win. In a football season, that’s one week at a time and one play at a time, and so forth. We spent a lot of time talking about that.”

After wrapping up his coaching career, Jim Tressel is now the President of Youngstown State University in Ohio. With all of the duties and demands of leading a University, Tressel doesn’t have as much time to watch college football. Despite the busy schedules of both Fleck and Tressel, each of them know they are only a text or phone call away.

“I know that if there’s a time he needs me, I’m going to find time. If there’s a time I need him, he’s going to find time. And in between, if we can hit a little, ‘good ball game, or proud of you, or whatever,’ we’re going to do that,’” Tressel said. “There are going to be days that are wonderful and days that you wish you would have done better, but I feel good that he’ll always feel comfortable if he needs me, reaching out. When I get a minute, and see that he won a ball game, I might sent him a little emoji of a guy rowing a boat or something. It’s just been a fun relationship.”

As Jim Tressel witnesses all of the success P.J. Fleck is having, he thinks about the day his phone rang. If Tressel hadn’t learned about the 5-foot-10 wide receiver from Illinois, a future coaching prospect may have slipped through the cracks.

“People ask all the time — what was your best victory? I always say, I’ve had a lot of victories and the best ones were the ones when one of the people we worked with goes on and does great things. For a guy like him, he came in and he gave every ounce of effort he had to us. He helped us be really good. I’m grateful that Mike Sabock called me when he was just a junior in college,” Tressel said.

When P.J. Fleck coaches his team, several of Jim Tressel’s influential traits shine through. Whether it’s from a schematic or leadership perspective, Fleck is a product of his mentors, including Tressel. To connect with his past, Fleck wears a tie on the sideline for every game.  Every week, Minnesota’s head coach takes the field and is dressed just like his first boss. For the former Ohio State coach, that’s what makes this profession special.

“It’s kind of cool [that he wears a tie] because I kind of did the same thing. I was connecting to the Woody Hayes’ of the world, the Joe Paterno’s and the people that did that. I just felt that for us, that game day was a work day and it was an important day. So on an important work day, you put on a tie,” Tressel said. “When you noosed that tie up tight, you knew it was a special day. I hope he has that same kind of feeling.”


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