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After success at Western Michigan, P.J. Fleck trying to make Minnesota football 'elite'

Heather Fleck’s first encounter with her future husband came four years ago, when she went to see him speak at an event in Kalamazoo, Mich., where she was working and he was coaching Western Michigan. A mutual friend had mentioned she wanted to set them up.

Though more-open minded than many when they first meet the high-energy, fast-talking coach whose shtick can seem right off the used-car lot, Heather was skeptical. She has since learned otherwise, that there’s quite a bit of substance to go with P.J. Fleck’s unique style.

“I thought the same thing — no way could this guy be like this all the time,” Heather Fleck said. “It’s just who he is. It’s so different, it’s so over the top that people think he can’t be this way all the time. What you see is what you get.”

After taking the Broncos from a 1-11 record in his first year to a 13-1 season that included a trip to the Cotton Bowl three years later, the 36-year-old Fleck is trying to bring the same magic to a Minnesota football program that hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967.

“Every program has its own needs,” Fleck said during the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in late July. “When you’re taking over a program that I love to take over, that are very challenging to get to something they haven’t had in a long time, or maybe changing people’s perspectives, ideas, thoughts, you’ve got to just be different.”

While the Gophers are 3-0 going into Saturday’s home game against Maryland (2-1), the skeptics remain. The early-season schedule — home games against Buffalo and Middle Tennessee State, and a road game against Pac-12 bottom-feeder Oregon State — has been soft.

“Just because we’re 3-0 doesn’t mean we’ve played exceptional football or we’ve got a really exceptional football team, or we should do this or we should do that,” Fleck said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “We just have to be better today than we were yesterday.”

Most college football coaches have their own cliché catchphrases, many of which they took from those they played for or worked under. In Fleck’s case, it’s almost as if he’s developed his own language.

Just call it Fleckish.

“He has a lot of phrases. He has his own dictionary,” Golden Gophers senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson said in Chicago. “I wouldn’t say they’re funny, because they all make sense. It’s very motivational.”

While many who followed Western Michigan’s meteoric rise are familiar with Fleck’s “row the boat” slogan, there are others that could become just as popular if the Gophers emerge as a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West.

Start with the simple question Fleck would greet his players with on a daily basis shortly after he arrived.

“He would ask me, ‘How are you doing?’ I would say, ‘I’m good,’” Richardson said. “And then he’d say, ‘What’s wrong?’ I’d say, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he’d say, ‘You didn’t say you’re elite.’ You get used to those sort of things.”

It took junior running back Rodney Smith a while to give the right answer to the same question.

“It just wasn’t natural,” Smith said in Chicago.

Now when Smith answers his friends outside the football team with that answer, he said, “You definitely get different looks because it’s not normal. But that’s what the culture is — it’s not normal. You want elite people to be a part of it. It’s now kind of natural.”

Yet, Smith’s friends still don’t quite get some things. Like the way the Gophers say they have to be like nekton — like sharks — “always attacking, never full” or how the players do everything “plus three,” including eating.

Or: “We do everything plus three — we emphasize finishing,” Smith said.

Fleck keeps little index cards by his night table just in case another idea pops into his head.

“He’ll be like, ‘Hey babe, are you sleeping?” Heather said. “And I’ll say, ‘What’s up?’ And he’ll have an idea that we’ll talk about and then go back to sleep. His brain never stops. … He does not have an off-switch. He’ll come home and I’ll say, ‘Hey Coach, you’re at 12 right now; I need you to be at 8.’”

Fleck said it was the same when he was growing up in Sugar Grove, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago.

“If you talk to my friends on Carriage Hill Lane, they will tell you I was the same way,” Fleck said. “Same guy in boxing: me against you. They always gave me the left-handed boxing glove because I was fun to beat up and they just loved watching me get my butt whipped because I wouldn’t quit. Eventually I’d just wear you down.”

Fleck eventually found his way to Northern Illinois, where he played from 1999 to 2003 as a wide receiver and on special teams. He finished with 179 receptions (third in school history) for 2,162 yards (seventh) while also returning 87 punts (first) for 716 yards (second).

A two-time team captain, Fleck had one of his most memorable games against Maryland to start his senior year, when he caught 13 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in a 20-13 upset of the visiting No. 15 Terps.

“That’s a very special moment,” Fleck said Tuesday. “What Joe Novak had done, a lot of people could never have done at Northern Illinois. Those are the things that excite me, things that have never been done before. That’s why we came to the University of Minnesota.”

Though he signed with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent and spent two seasons in the organization, Fleck knew he was destined to coach. Fleck recalled going with former Northern Illinois teammate Thomas Hammock, now the Ravens running backs coach, to a college coaches convention.

“We went with suits and ties on — the ties not even tied right — and we wanted to meet all these coaches,” Fleck said in Chicago. “Jim Tressel of Ohio State walked by us. We’re sitting there going, ‘This is unbelievable.’ That’s when you started getting the itch.”

Fleck, who was hired by Tressel as a graduate assistant in 2006, has been scratching ever since.

Interestingly, one of the those Fleck worked with along the way was former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill. Fleck was Kill’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Northern Illinois from 2008 to 2009 before leaving to coach receivers at Rutgers in 2010. Kill left to coach the Gophers after the 2010 season.

Kill’s resignation during the 2015 season because of ongoing health problems led to the promotion of Tracy Claeys, who led Minnesota to a 9-4 record last season but was fired after the suspensions of 10 players for their role in a sexual assault case.

“Jerry always taught me how to care for the players,” Fleck said. “I was a caring individual before, but to watch Jerry truly care for people was really inspiring. And that means all the time, not just when you’re on [television]. All the time.”

His current players have seen that.

“We’re learning things outside of just football,” Richardson said. “We’re learning socially. We’re learning how to treat women not just as an item, treat them as if they’re a queen and changing the narrative. Not just having the stereotypical picture on how football players treat women. Just be better men overall.”

Yet the truth is that at Minnesota, Fleck has decades of mediocrity on the field — and apathy from fans — to overcome. In a city that long focused on its professional teams, dating to days of George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers, the Gophers have usually been an afterthought.

“As a head football coach, especially at a place that hasn’t won a championship in 50 years, you just have to do things a little differently," Fleck said. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about Minnesota. It’s not about me. And I make sure our team understands that, too.

“I’m not too proud to do different things; that just fits my personality. But we don’t do things to try to be different. We don’t do antics. We want to find creative ways that the block M [Minnesota’s logo] gets known nationally, not just based on wins but our culture.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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