P.J. Fleck has tackled challenges his whole career. Now he’ll take on Gophers football.

He may only be 36, but the Gophers’ new head coach brings high energy and recruiting acumen to Minnesota.

Newly appointed Gophers football head coach P.J. Fleck speaks during a press conference on Friday, Jan. 6 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Carter Jones

Newly appointed Gophers football head coach P.J. Fleck speaks during a press conference on Friday, Jan. 6 at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Mike Hendrickson

Jim Tressel maintained short but high-tempo football practices.

The former Ohio State head coach wanted his team to perform at “100 miles per hour” every day.

Only one of the team’s assistants in 2006 — a 25-year-old P.J. Fleck in his first coaching job — had the stamina to run alongside the players while the rest of the staff trailed behind.

“He was a guy who had unbelievable energy,” said Tressel, who had an impressive 94 wins with Ohio State from 2001-10. “His ability to connect with our players was really a bonus for us.”

That energy served Fleck well.

By 32, after brief coaching stints at Northern Illinois University, Rutgers and the NFL, Fleck was named Western Michigan’s head coach, making him the youngest in high-level college football at the time.

Four years have passed. Fleck is on to his next gig.

He walked into TCF Bank Stadium Jan. 6 as the University of Minnesota’s next head football coach — and the highest paid in school history.

The Energizer

Fleck dreamed of playing football in the Big Ten when he was young.

But a Big Ten coach never came to his home with an offer, so the 5-foot-10-inch wide receiver stayed close to home to play for Northern Illinois.

Still, he enjoyed an illustrious career at the school, finishing with the third-most receptions in Northern Illinois history. His play earned him a contract with the San Francisco 49ers upon graduation in 2004 — a rarity for players exiting second-tier collegiate football programs.

“He wanted what he wanted — and not always did he get it — but he had to work harder to prove that he could’ve had it,” said Fleck’s mother, Linda Fleck.

Fleck calls himself “the King of Too’s.” Too short, too young, too inexperienced.

As a child, Fleck was a self-professed runt — and yet, he roughhoused with the bigger kids on the block and played baseball on a team of older kids.

“I think that gave him more of the push, the drive,” Linda Fleck said. “He was going to fulfill his dreams.”

Fleck doesn’t just have a chip on his shoulder, he said at a Jan. 6 press conference — it’s more like a crack.

At Northern Illinois, Fleck met teammates like him: players not worthy of a spot on a Big Ten team, but who worked hard.

Joshua Haldi, quarterback at Northern Illinois for the 2003 season and Fleck’s former roommate, said Fleck “hasn’t really changed.”

“He played with that edge,” Haldi said. “He played with love of the game of football but was really energetic.”

Fleck was the kind of guy to make friends with a room full of strangers, Haldi said.

“He’s not shy. He’s not bashful,” he said. “He’s energetic. That infectious attitude is just how he’s always been.”

It’s a trait Fleck has carried throughout his life, his mother said.

Fleck dressed as famous athletes for Halloween growing up. For two years in a row, he went as former Chicago Bears quarterback, Jim McMahon.

As a child, he would toss footballs through the air and sprint to catch them. That competitive edge stretched beyond the field.

“‘I’m going to win that coloring contest,’” Fleck’s mother recalled him saying. “And sure enough, he would.”

The Recruiter

Tanner Morgan and his dad sat in their car in a parking lot outside Western Michigan’s football facilities on April 7, 2016.

While the two sat waiting for an assistant coach to meet them, Morgan’s dad turned to him.

“Don’t feel like you have to commit,” Morgan recalled his dad saying.

The high school quarterback from Kentucky with offers to University of Louisville and Wake Forest reassured his dad he was just there to check out the facilities.

Plans changed that day.

“I couldn’t stop myself from … committing. I was literally jumping out of the seat on the couch,” he said.

During his campus visit, Morgan observed Fleck interacting with the team. Players applauded Fleck as he entered team meetings. His team meetings were to the point.

“I just sat back and said, ‘Wow, I want to be a part of that,’” Morgan said. “He’s just one of the most real, genuine and uniquely energetic coaches in America. I couldn’t not play for him.”

Morgan gave Fleck his verbal commit that day, but it wasn’t enough for Fleck. He spent his 36th birthday visiting Morgan at his Union, Kentucky home, just to check in.

Fleck’s energetic personality convinced Morgan to leave his home state for Western Michigan.

It also convinced him to follow Fleck to the University of Minnesota and play for the Gophers — hours before he was supposed to get in a car to start his first semester at Western Michigan.

Fleck’s knack for recruiting dates back to his days at Ohio State, said former Ohio State head coach, Jim Tressel.

“He just has that openness to him. That genuine ability to connect,” Tressel said. “If P.J. was with one of our top guys, I knew he was going to be in good hands.”

He used the ability to land the highest-ranked recruiting class in the history of the Mid-American Conference in 2014, despite Western Michigan’s 1-11 record in 2013.

From then on, Western Michigan had the top recruiting classes in the MAC in 2015, 2016 and in 2017 — until Fleck left for the Gophers.

He was introduced to Minnesota at 3 p.m. on Jan. 6.

By 11 p.m., six former Western Michigan recruits had announced they had flipped their commitments to Minnesota. Morgan was the first to announce.

“It was an eventful day,” Morgan said. “I loved the opportunity to follow him. That’s why the commitment was so quick.”

Morgan moved to the Twin Cities Saturday, his first visit to the state. To him, that didn’t matter. He just wanted to join his coach.

The Rebuilder

Winning a football game at Western Michigan had been a challenge.

Before Fleck joined in 2012, the team never scored double-digit wins in a season, and the program was 0-5 in bowl games.

That quickly changed under Fleck.

After starting 1-11 his first season, he had back-to-back 8-5 years and recorded the Broncos’ first ever bowl win.

The team reached its pinnacle in 2016. They were ranked in the top 25 for the first time in school history and finished the season 13-1.

Fleck popularized the mantra “Row the Boat” while coaching the Broncos. He used the battle cry to inspire his Western Michigan team before games and plans to introduce it at Minnesota in combination with the Gophers’ slogan, “Ski-U-Mah.”

“It was him. It was how his players played for him. It was his coaching staff. It was everything,” recruit Tanner Morgan said. “He literally changed that entire program into what they are today.”

Fleck won’t need to rebuild Minnesota on the field but will face a long road ahead off it.

The program’s nine wins this season were overshadowed by the team’s less than 48-hour boycott over the suspension of 10 teammates connected to an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault.

Game attendance was at its lowest in more than a decade, and Minnesota’s 2017 recruiting class was at the bottom of the Big Ten for the first time since 2013.

On the day of his hiring, Fleck said he looked forward to the challenges the position may bring.

“I got news for everybody: change has arrived,” Fleck said at the Jan. 6 conference.

He can’t fix issues around attendance and the culture within the athletics department overnight, but Fleck seemed to mitigate problems related to recruiting — Minnesota’s 2017 class rose from 14th to 12th in the Big Ten by the end of the weekend.

But Fleck has been chasing challenges since he was a child.

One of the youngest in his class, Fleck had to re-enroll in preschool because of his age. Even then, he complained to his mother that the level of difficulty was too low.

“Way back then, he needed those challenges,” Linda Fleck recalled. “He takes on a program that he wants to change the culture and the whole school, and that’s amazing. You look back at that, and he was ready to conquer his world at age 4.”