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An unexpected call jumpstarted Gophers head coach P.J.

Fleck’s career

(originally posted on

by: Daniel House

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 called 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 from 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.

A short time later, Sabock was persistent and called Tressel during Fleck’s senior season. He
didn’t want the Ohio State head coach to forget about him. Following his final year 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
Raising Cane’s, 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 Raising 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

“[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 work 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 in the backfield. 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

“[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

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 energized programs with his “Row the Boat” culture. In his
third season, Fleck has put 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 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 had to name a starting quarterback too. Fleck wasn’t sure what to do, so
he picked up the phone and called one 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 that 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.”

Now, Fleck has applied many of the things he’s learned to his head coaching 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, each week is its own separate moment and
requires the same amount of focus. Jim Tressel developed this philosophy at Ohio State and
Fleck has 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

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.

Whether it’s from a schematic or leadership perspective, Fleck is a product of his mentors,
including Tressel. To connect with his past, P.J. wears a tie on the sideline for every game.
When Minnesota’s head coach takes the field, he 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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