TAMPA ― Ordinarily, assistant coaches in the NFL don’t wear football cleats to practice. P.J. Fleck doesn’t do ordinary.
If a Bucs receiver, tight end or running back beat his man to make a play, or if a defensive back intercepted a pass, Fleck was off to races, running down the unsuspecting ball carrier from behind with deliberate speed.
If he caught him and stripped the football, it meant wind sprints for the fumbling player after practice.
“He was just high energy,’’ receiver Vincent Jackson said of Fleck, who at age 32, served as the Bucs receivers coach in 2012 under Greg Schiano. “In 30 seconds, I felt a vibe with this man and I thought, ‘He’s not here just to be average.’ ’’
A couple of weeks ago, Fleck sat in the west club section of Raymond James Stadium. He wore a maroon tie and gray striped jacket.
As he spoke, the Minnesota head coach kept signing his name on commemorative souvenir footballs for the Outback Bowl, where his Golden Gophers will take on Auburn Wednesday.
Fleck chose to place his autograph on the left side of the bowl logo because “that’s the side people read first,’’ he explained.
Before penning his name with a black Sharpie, Fleck wrote R.T.B. for Row the Boat, his signature catchphrase. The acronym also has morphed into responsibility, trust and belief.
A self-described “runt,” generously listed at 5-foot-10, the sloganeering Fleck learned about inspirational messages growing up as one of the smaller kids in Illinois.
“I was one of those kids whose mom packed your lunch,’’ Fleck said. “I never knew what I was getting. It was in the fridge when I woke up. It was taped together because it was so big because I was a little guy and I was always trying to gain weight, so she always put an inspirational quote inside my lunch box every single day.
“I think you can always make an impression on someone in a short amount of time by saying something and I think as you continue to make your own program," Fleck said. "People always talk to us about we’re slogan people and we’re the slogan culture. We have a culture like everybody else. We just make it very public and very open to everybody to access and use and I’m not afraid to share it with people. A lot of people want to protect it and not share it?’’
Few coaches have made a bigger impression in the college football world than Fleck, who won nine straight games this year in his third season at Minnesota, including a program-altering 31-26 victory over theretofore unbeaten Penn State. It was the Gophers’ first win over a top-five ranked team in 20 years.
At 32, Fleck was hired as a head coach to bring Western Michigan out of obscurity. He went 1-11 in his first season with the Broncos.
“If it wasn’t for my wife, I’m not sure where Row the Boat would be,’’ Fleck said. “After 1-11, uh, your Row the Boat didn’t work. Everybody is asking me where is my next slogan coming from? What are you going to use? And I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t use my personal story. She said, “You’re going to use it and you’re going to make sure this is what it’s for.’’
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The next season, the Broncos won eight games and Fleck was named the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year. Two years after that, his team went undefeated during the regular season to win the championship and was nationally ranked before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
Fleck trademarked his Row the Boat mantra but it was actually derived from his way of coping with the death of his second son, Colt, who died of a heart condition in 2011.
It’s a never-give-up philosophy about how to handle adversity and success. As Fleck has explained, when you are rowing, the oars always are in the water and your back is to the future. You have to confront the past but also trust the person in front of you that is rowing with the same speed and efficiency, not knowing what choppy seas lie ahead.
“It’s not for the easy times, it’s for the really difficult times,’’ Fleck said. “And if it wasn’t for (my wife), I might have folded shop and we maybe would be somewhere else now.
“There wouldn’t be a big ship in the stadium where we’re going to play,” he said, referring to the pirate ship in the end zone at Raymond James Stadium, "and how ironic is that?’’
Fleck’s family has four children, three from P.J.’s first marriage and one from wife Heather’s first marriage.
As the leader of his football family, Fleck has a vision for Minnesota. The Gophers had seven coaches in 14 years before Fleck arrived. It’s one of the reasons he signed a seven-year, $33 million contract extension through 2026.
“Why did we take the job? We had 97 firsts this year that we had never accomplished,’’ Fleck said. “Close to 60 restorations.’’
Included among the accomplishments were 10 wins for the first time since 1904, seven wins in the Big 10 for the first time in the program’s 137-year history, 85 players above a 3.0 GPA and more than 1,200 hours of community service.
When the Outback Bowl selected Minnesota, Fleck has his players each write thank-you notes to the committee.
“We were selected to come here,’’ Fleck said. “Selected. Just like when their girlfriend selected them to go to the dance, that’s who they wanted to go with. Some heard no. Some heard yes. They were selected. They’re probably very thankful. We were selected to be here, so we are going to write thank-you notes.
“This is an educational program. We’re not a football program. This is a life program. So academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, we’re going to touch their life. Remember, I’m a sixth grade, ancient Rome social studies teacher at heart. That’s what I did, so we’re going to find a way to educate them the best way we can.’’
Fleck was an undersized receiver at Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Ill., where he helped his team go undefeated in winning back-to-back state championships. As a senior, he set a state record for catches (95), receiving yards (1,548) and touchdowns (16) and caught 199 passes for his career.
That earned him a spot on the team at Northern Illinois, where he led the Huskies in receiving as a senior. Fleck earned a spot on the practice squad as an undrafted free agent of the 49ers. He appeared in only one NFL game before suffering a severe shoulder injury.
He credits his former coaches for his success and for his core values in football. From Jim Tressel, who gave him his first coaching job as a grad assistant at Ohio State, he learned about relationships with players.
“Jim Tressell really taught me how to really care for players and be able to care for them no matter what they’ve been able to go through,’’ Fleck said.
From Schiano? “He taught me how to demand,’’ Fleck said. “And I don’t just mean demand from other people, I mean demand from yourself to be exactly who you say you are, to be the realist version of you.’’
From Nolan he learned how to dress. “Mike Nolan was the classiest guy I ever met,'' he said. "I wear a tie on the sideline because of Jim Tressel and Mike Nolan. People can say what they want, to bring attention to myself. It’s really to bring attention to other people. That’s why I wear a tie.’’
Jackson says Fleck’s year with the Bucs convinced him that the young coach would be a superstar. Jackson had just signed a five-year, $55.5-million contract and already was a two-time Pro Bowl player with the Chargers. He was only three years younger than Fleck.
“I remember having my first meeting with Vincent and I sit him down and say, ‘I’m your wide receiver coach.’ He’s like, ‘Yep, you are.’ And I said, ‘I promise you this. If you give me a month, I said I will change your life,’’ Fleck said. "And the guy looked at me like, ‘I’m a Pro Bowler. What are you going to do with that?’ But I remember him saying that, ‘if you can make me better in every area of my life, I will listen to you.' ’’
Jackson said Fleck not only made him a better player, but a better person.
“He lifted the entire team with his energy and excitement,’’ Jackson said. “And he pushed us.’’
Fleck calls Jackson “by far the best player I’ve ever coached.’’ That season, Jackson finished with career-highs in receptions (72) and receiving yards (1,384) while being named his third Pro Bowl.
On Wednesday, Jackson plans to watch Fleck run up and down the sidelines.
“The last thing a head coach wants to do is tear an Achilles, right?’’ Fleck said. “Blow out your knee. That loses all credibility of you being a former player.
“I haven’t worn cleats in a while. But they’ll make an appearance at some point.’’
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud