Part of what makes athletes and coaches great is their attitude. They have within them a lot of directed energy that makes things happen. Mr. Head Coach P.J. Fleck believes in this. Now, he is in his seventh year as Head Coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He has a 44 and 27 record at Minnesota and 74 and 49 overall. He is a 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year and Dodd Trophy finalist, a 2019 Bear Bryant Award finalist, and a 2019 AFCA National Coach of the Year finalist. In this episode, he lets us in on the lessons he learned growing up—from childhood to his professional life—that helped shape who he is now. Coach Fleck also brings out insights from his book, co-written with Jon Gordon, called Row The Boat. Through it, he shares a never-give-up approach to leading and showing up for life and for every person. He then talks about some of the memorable players he has coached, highlighting the lessons they learned that took them to where they want to be. Full of great insights and heartfelt stories, this episode is one to tune in to. Don’t miss out.
02:15 – What attitude means to Coach P.J. Fleck
04:25 – Attitude alignment with your team
07:46 – The role and responsibility of position coaches
11:36 – Coach Fleck’s first attitude coach
16:07 – Attitude lessons from Coach Fleck’s grandma
23:08 – Attitude lessons from Coach Fleck’s mental coach
25:22 – About Row the Boat
31:53 – The players, coaches, and the lessons
39:20 – Process of selecting
45:53 – Attitude lesson about birth
48:02 – Attitude lesson at 10
50:44 – Attitude lesson at 20
53:57 – Attitude lesson at 30
55:00 – Attitude lesson at 40
58:30 – Message of hope
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It is my honor to introduce you to our guest in this episode but first, please remember to like our show. Please subscribe and follow us. Share it wherever you find it. In this episode, we have one of the best Division 1 head coaches in America, somebody that has inspired a nation and has inspired campuses.
He is Mr. Head Coach P.J. Fleck. It is his seventh year as Head Coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers as of this year. He has a 44 and 27 record at Minnesota and 74 and 49 overall. He is a 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year and Dodd Trophy finalist, a 2019 Bear Bryant Award finalist, and a 2019 AFCA National Coach of the Year finalist.
He’s got more and more awards, but I know he’s not here to talk about the awards. He is here for you. I dropped off a book. I was speaking up in Minnesota. He picked it up and said, “I get what you guys are doing at the show.” Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, strap yourself and get ready to go. Jason is going to play an intro for P.J. real quick. Here we go. We’re going to give you a little taste before we bring him up.
“Let’s go. Lock in mentally. Enact perfection. I want to see a refusal to lose from everybody. Every single guy, high energy, high intensity. Get the most out of practice that you can. Everybody got it? Let’s go. Have some fun. Wednesday night softball league, Thursday night some type of cards in the neighborhood. You got to mix the golfer in there too. That’s weekends. That’d be great on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Remember when you were a kid and you go for ice cream.”
P.J., Coach Fleck, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having us on. I’m glad. We appreciate it. I am honored to be here.On the LATEST episode of the Get Attitude Podcast with @GlennJbill P.J. Fleck @Coach_Fleck is guest on the show. Produced by @JasonAaronPro #football #motivation @GopherHole Click To Tweet
You can hear the intensity and having been on the football field for many years, people go, “Is that how you guys go to work? Is that how you show up for work?” One of the biggest things that I tell our audience is how you show up matters. How are you showing up to work? You think about the men and women going into offices and stuff, they are not showing up like you’re showing up. It is a different arena and environment but let’s go ahead and start with a few easy ones for you, Coach. Tell me your definition of attitude and how does attitude manifest itself with the teams that you’re coaching?
It’s simple. We define attitude as directed energy. That’s all it is. Energy comes from your purpose and your passion colliding. You’re going to kill a lot of birds with one stone here. We always talk about whether you either have to or want to, but if you can get your have-to and want, to match, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when people go to where they say they want to be. You know this, Glenn, as a coach. The origin of the word coach is stagecoach. Take important people from where they are to where they dream of being.
That’s what I do on a daily basis. That’s not always the easiest process. That’s not always a glorious process. That’s not always the road most traveled. A lot of times, it’s not even paved. You’ve got to go do that your own way, but the big key to that is your way. You got to be yourself. There are so many people who have to go to work. They don’t want to go to work. They look at it from a different perspective. They’re not directing their energy and the things that make them have this incredible purpose and passion. They don’t direct their energy enough.
That’s what we’re looking for when we’re bringing players in and when we’re developing them. When I’m developing my staff, when you’re developing a community to like what you do as a football program, even if they don’t even like football. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of directed energy, this attitude to make that happen. That’s for sure.
Coach, here’s what I want to know and what most leaders probably want to know. When you feel that attitude alignment is not aligned with your team, or if you feel that the morale of your team is going in the wrong direction, what is it that you do? What is your path? What is your formula to reverse that trend?
Number one is transparency and communication. You have to know somebody’s expectations. You have to know what is needed to fulfill that expectation. Also, you have to know what it looks like. A lot of times the lack of communication between two human beings creates this negative void. Every time you’re not communicating, it’s assumed there’s something negative. Something in our brain assumes we’re doing something wrong.
If you let that continue to fester and fester, that’s when things blow up. We have a team meeting every single day. We communicate with our team every single day about what the expectation is for that day. We divide our season into quarters, just like you would a game from winter conditioning to spring practice, to summer workouts to the season. We all have objectives for that quarter as a team and as an individual. We have player meetings on an individual basis and a pop-in basis.
I do not have a secretary. I do not have somebody you have to make an appointment with. You can walk into my office at any moment. It’s all about the player’s development, academically, athletically, socially, and spiritually. Nothing comes before the players, their needs, their wants, and their aspirations. It is why we all have a job and that hopefully, they feel that constantly. We’re all up in their business. That’s part of it but it’s that transparency every day.
My job is to continue to push them and motivate them, but also, they should be pretty highly motivated on their own. Your dreams, hopes, and aspirations should motivate you more than they motivate me or we’re not going to be on the same page. Truly, my job is to take people from where they are to where they say they want to be. Not where I want them, where they say they want to be, but 90% of the things we say we want, we get or we have an opportunity to go get, except we don’t know what to do with it when we get it, or we don’t know who to get ourselves around to go there.
That’s a shame and if people could take advantage of that, that’s how you wake up one day and you’re like, “How did I get here?” This is unbelievable. There should be another person inside this room being the head coach of Minnesota but somebody quit along the way. They stopped. They had a bad attitude. I passed them along the way, and somehow when my opportunity came, I was ready for it. That’s how I would describe it.
This is so in line with what we’re doing. I knew this would be great to have you because we’ve done 129 episodes based on attitude. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re reading this for the first time or you are new, understand that we have some of the greatest authors, speakers, coaches, and athletes that have ever walked this planet. We have one with us now. There’s a whole library for you on how to get the right attitude.
Let me ask you this because I was a position coach. I see a lot of similarities in business too. You got the head coach and then you got your position coaches. You got to love your position coaches or you wouldn’t be able to do what you do. There is that layer between you and the kids and then your position coaches. What’s your philosophy with the position coaches? What’s their role and responsibility to the kids? Is it different than yours? How do you set that structure up to build continuity from the player through the position coach to you?
Just like a coach does a player, my job is to coach the coaches and get the coaches to where they say they dream of too. My dream has come true. I’m not saying I don’t have more dreams. I have plenty of dreams but everything I wrote down on my bucket list, which I have still from high school, by 36, I accomplished all of it. It’s my job to be able to put those men and women in a position to do the exact same thing. It’s not to hoard your people. It’s about creating, developing, and then getting them to go do what they want to do too.
There are a lot of guys who have been with me for my entire time being a head coach, and then there are some that rotate every single year. Depending on their hopes, dreams, and aspirations, it’s my job to get them there. However, as a team, I always say that I’m the dad of the family. I’m not their dad. I’ll never be their dad, nor do I want to be their dad. I’m their coach. There’s a big difference between your dad and your coach, but I’m the dad of a family.
Our coaches are like our uncles. The dad stays. The dad’s your dad. The uncles might live next door for a long time until the uncle gets another job then the uncle’s going to leave but sometimes people get so attached to the position coach that they don’t like the head coach or have a relationship with the head coach. When the uncle leaves and goes and takes another job somewhere else, they don’t like their family anymore.
Everybody’s got to have that same type of drive to be their best, not the best. The best is subjective. Everybody’s going to have an opinion on the best. Their best is what I get to do to make them their best. It’s the same as the players getting the most out of them on a daily basis to get them to where they want to be. I’ve got to create that environment.
I am no bigger than our position coaches. I’m no bigger than the players. I work for both of them. They don’t work for me and that’s a different way of looking at it, but I work for them. My job is to get them to where they want to be. We all know this. As coaches, you take a job knowing that one day your own success will be compared to your own success.
It’s going to be hard for you to always keep winning more and more. We’re probably all going to get fired somehow some way one day but while you have that platform, it’s my responsibility to make everybody else better. We’re all on the equal playing field that way, the fair playing field but the only difference between me and them is I make the final decision. I’m no bigger than them or mean more to the program than them because they can influence a program just as much as me, more than me, or less than me. They have a chance to bring the program up or bring it down. Everybody has that power inside our program.
Let me ask you this. You have an attitude and you probably can define your attitude. I directed energy. I haven’t heard that one out of several hundred interviews. It’s an awesome job there.
We keep it simple. I got an eighteen on the ACT. You got to be within 3 or 3 words of a definition or I’ll never remember it.
Who was your first attitude coach and who instilled this fire in you to be who you are?
I’ve always had this unique ability to have incredible energy. I’ve always loved life. I’ve always looked at things half-full. I’ve always had the ability to be and I never take for granted my platform. Again, when I have a passion and then the platform meets, that’s energy. I’ve always had a very unique way of looking at life. I’ve had so much trauma in my life that I look at it and have a different perspective. I’m sure we’ll get into Row The Boat and the passing of my son. I’ve been divorced. I’ve lost so many people in my life. I’ve been the best at what I’ve done. I’ve been humiliated. I have been the worst at everything I’ve done.
I’ve been dragged through the mud publicly. I’ve been everything that becoming successful comes with at times. Also, as you’re being the real you, making tough decisions that maybe you’re going to do it because it’s easy. I could save face and I want to do it, but I’m afraid to do it. I haven’t been afraid to do those things that are going to make my life and the people around me better even if it’s going to make my life harder.
That’s where that comes from but I think my high school coaches started that. I was a freshman on all the varsity sports and I had people who believed in me. We never can get anywhere alone. We need people to get us to where we want to be. We’ll get to Row The Boat but that’s part of the compass you need to get yourself around people you wanted to become. I taught sixth-grade social studies because I love my elementary school teachers.
I wanted to coach because my high school coaches brought the best out in me. Tom Fedderly, Joe Thorgesen, and Ken Neahring, who’s passed. He was my high school basketball coach. Also, Ralph Drendel is my track coach. He would always find the best way to get me to even motivate myself and I was a pretty self-motivated kid. That’s where that love for playing for your school, love for playing the sport, doing it the right way, respecting your opponent, and respecting the games.
I’ve always had such great energy and passion towards the people that were there before me and the way I could influence it when I had my platform and the people that will come after us. We all have to realize that somebody’s going to be able to do our job maybe better than us one day and we’re not the only ones that can do our job. We’re not the only two people here that can write a book. Everybody can do that and there are probably a lot of people who can do it way better than us. You have to know that you have that certain time to do it and take advantage of that.
What was your family life like as a kid? Do you have siblings and your parental structure?
I have a mom and dad. I grew up in the Southwest side of Chicago, the Catholic side. I am a Southwest side of Chicago kid. My mom was a special education assistant. She would work with the young people with extreme special needs and then I got to be able to be in that environment all summer. I have a summer job that you didn’t get paid for. Back then you just do it because your mom said to do it. My mom’s got a huge heart. She’s a good person. She’s very loyal, and sometimes to a fault.
My dad is a hardworking man. He had some issues with his life and had to overcome a lot of different things. He is a blue-collar hardworking union man. He worked for AT&T. He worked for Terminix, the bug company. He was as blue-collar as you can get. They instilled so many life lessons in me, but I also relied on the other people around me because I knew that if I was going to get to where I needed to be, I needed to get myself around people who had been there.
My dad was the person who put me through it. If there was a ten-year-old baseball team, I was eight years old and on it. He always made me play up, train up, and live up. You didn’t have to show your birth certificate back then. I always wondered why I was always the smallest kid on the team and the worst kid on the team.
However, by the end of the year, I was one of the best kids because as human beings, we usually almost play up to what we’re doing without knowing it or play down to it without knowing it. He always knew I’d be undersized and I respected that. It made me the competitor that I was. I had an older sister who hated me. As a younger brother, I had to fight through a lot of that too.
They always say that if you’re the smartest person in the room or the best person in the room, there is no room for growth. I love that lesson your dad put. Many times, we have people not only did mom and dad’s great attitude influences us, we always love to touch on that, but it’s that generation before them. I’m curious. Do you have no grandma and grandpa on both sides? Did you know them well enough that they had an influence on you? Does one of the four of them have an unreal story that has an attitude lesson in it?
My grandma, my mom’s mom, Mary Anne Procos was her name. She passed away many years ago. She was the glue to our family. I always remember my grandma, and all of her grandchildren, right, wrong, or indifferent. She always told me, “You’re different. Whatever you want to do, you have it.” I always remember that and I felt bad. It’s not that she didn’t say it to my cousins, but she said it about my cousin Sean, I remember who’s now a big-time priest. He was the Pope’s right-hand man when he was training, but he elevated so quickly as a young priest.
She always used to say it about him and she always used to say it about me. We both have the gift of gab and can talk, but she always said it about us too. I always remember that because she always knew I had something that was unique. She always used to say to just be yourself. There’s going to be a lot of people who like you. There are going to be a lot of people who hate you, but always make sure they hate you because of yourself, or they love you because of yourself.
Don’t ever let them love you because you’re not somebody that you think that you are or don’t let them hate you because you’re trying to be somebody and be liked. I thought that was always some of the best lessons and many people are afraid to be themselves. One of the best qualities and the most unique qualities we can have and be better than anyone else no matter what is truly being ourselves.Don't ever let people love you because you're not somebody you think you are. Don't let them hate you because you're trying to be somebody and be liked. Click To Tweet
We’re only too afraid to do that because the norm is to conform to what the title, the job, social media says, or our society says. That’s easy to do. When you are yourself, that’s when you’re going to stand out the most. When people sit there and say, “I’m different.” Maybe I’m not so different. I’m me when everybody’s trying to fit in and conform to what they’re not. She taught me a lot. That was one person that growing up that I always wanted to do it for because she always told me those things. It was like, “Do you think that about me?” She knew I was going to get somewhere one day.
It’s the power of belief in another. That is an attitude bomb for our GAPers, guys. If you’re a grandma out there, understand what the effect can be by speaking belief into either your child or your grandchild. That’s beautiful, awesome, and real. You said you had a lot of failures. Things weren’t going great. At the time of great decision-making in your life, at the time where you felt most stressed out, was there one question that went through your head? Did you ask yourself this question over and over again?
If there are people right now reading and they feel like they are a failure. They feel like they’re done. Nobody believes in them. They didn’t have Grandma’s message. When you felt like, “Shit’s hitting the fan here. I need to regroup.” What was that process like for you? What’s your mindset? What was your attitude toward the comeback?
First of all, I define failing as growth. Failure is quit. Those are a choice. The root word is fail. We’re all going to do it. It’s all depending on what your attitude and your directed energy are based on that word. I have failed a ton, way more than I’ve been successful. Everybody that is successful probably has said that. Failing is a choice of how you’re going to look at it and I look at it as growth. The more I fail, the more I can grow or I can quit. There’s a choice to that.
If you want to be a failure, then just quit. If you want to learn to fail to grow and be successful, then respond. During my first year at Western Michigan, I’m 32 years old. I’m the youngest head football coach in the country. I came from being a Position Coach in the NFL, and I’m thrown into this role of rebuilding Western Michigan. I thought, “I got it figured out.” The next thing you know, we go 1 and 11. I’m ranked 132 out of 132. I’m divorced. My personal life is falling apart. My professional life is falling apart. I’m a schmuck.
I’m the worst of the worst in every area of my life and it was a trying time for me. A few years prior, my son passed away from a heart condition. All of that came to a head. I had to ask myself, “Am I exactly who I say I am? If I am, I can work through it and I can make it better, but it’s going to take a complete reinvention of myself. It’s going to take this transparency and this change of myself.”
Change can be defined as truthful listening. You got to be true to yourself, then you got to listen to what’s going on around you and respond to it. That’s what I did. I became incredibly more authentic and genuine. I became a way better version of myself. I then became a non-micromanager. I trusted so many people around me. I empowered people. I wasn’t a boss anymore. I was a leader and that was the true change in my life.
It was when I was at my deepest and darkest time publicly, professionally, and personally. It’s all out there. Also, I have no problem talking about it because too many people hide the things that they have been through that are embarrassing, but that’s what’s made us successful but they only want to talk about the successful part. I love talking about all my failings. I love it because of so many people that are hopefully reading this. I still see somebody usually every week for my own mental health. I’ve had to do that for years and I’m a positive guy.
I got a great attitude but to keep that attitude positive, I got to throw up and dump my trash can on somebody. I can’t do that to my wife or I’ll be on my third marriage. You can’t do those things, but you got to either genuinely change and have an honest conversation with yourself and know exactly where you want to be and do the right necessary steps to get there, as hard as they’re going to be. Some people don’t direct their energy, time, and attitude towards that and they always wonder why I didn’t.
What’s the most profound thing that your mental coach has given you? You say you meet with him once a month and you’re dumping and you’re going through. You guys are collaborating, brainstorming, and then hit it with you right between the eyes. Do you remember one thing he said that you went, “That’s good?”
He said, “You have a problem with wanting to control the consequences of everything.” As human beings, we all have the choice of the decisions we make. We do not have the choice of the consequences. Whether we make good choices, and at times, the consequences of those might not be great. They will be great. It could be great, but sometimes it’s not always going to work out well. It’s like when you make a bad choice, sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don’t, but you don’t get the choice of that consequence. You do get the choice of how you respond to that.
That’s incredibly important for everybody that’s reading to understand that we all go through crap. We all have crap right now. I have a tattoo on my Achilles because I’ve learned over time that if you’re not willing to stop, smell the roses and the positive times, and celebrate the moments and the memories, then the hard ones are going to be even worse, and tougher to get over.
The tattoo says, “This too shall pass,” but we as human beings always take that context in a negative way. It means that this too shall pass when things are negative in our life but how about using that same frame, which is true, but take that same frame and that quote and use it in a positive way? Even the fun times and the positive times are not going to last. That will pass too. If you can understand that the only thing we truly have power over is the choices we make, and the consequences will come good and bad, we can have a choice to respond to those and change and grow or keep making that same mistake over and over and over until it buries us. That’s the choices we get to make.
In a nutshell, it’s pretty much the definition of attitude. It’s the way you dedicate yourself to the way you think. That’s the definition we use here at the show. Let’s go ahead and talk about Row The Boat. I believe that book came out when you were at Western Michigan, turning it from 1 and 11 around, or was it before then?
That was when it started and it was unveiled. We decided to write the book during COVID because not many people had anything to do as we were all in our houses. Jon Gordon and I got together. We both preyed on it and then said, “Let’s do it.” It didn’t take long to write. Remember, I got an eighteen on the ACT.
Jon’s accomplished, so he was a good partner, that’s for sure.
He fit my style. I could tell a story. He writes about other people’s stories. They’re very short. They’re all about 100 pages or less and they get right to a point. Usually, the name of the title gets right to what it’s about and that’s what Row The Boat is. It’s a never give up lifestyle.
Let’s go ahead and do it. What would you say are the 1 or 2 most impactful or popular stories in the book for those who maybe haven’t read it? Also, if you guys want to get it, it’s on Amazon. Maybe the two biggest lessons on Row The Boat resonate most with everybody or was the one Jon Gordon goes, “Damn, I’m good. That’s something I haven’t heard before.”
He’s heard everything. Row The Boat is a never give up lifestyle. It’s truly a choice. The aura is the energy you bring to your life. It’s the only thing that moves the boat. The boat is the sacrifice, which is the more you give and the more you serve, and the more you make your life about other people, the more joyful of life you’re going to live and the farther you can go in life. Big boats go far. Little boats sink. It’s simple. Water symbolizes life in the whole analogy.
The third part’s the compass and that’s who we are. We are who we surround ourselves with. If you want to be successful, get yourself around successful people quickly. They’re probably not doing all the popular things. They’re probably out there working hard and grinding, but that’s what it’s all about. Backs to the future. You can’t determine that. You row in the present, which is the only thing you can control. You look at the past, which is the only thing you can’t change.
That’s the whole Row The Boat symbolism. It all stems from my son passing away on February 9th, 2011. I wanted to be someone who shared his life with people when you get into a community and attach himself. I’m a human being. We’re a public figure. We’re a celebrity, whatever you want to call us. We’re the highest-paid state employee, but we’re still like everybody else. We’ve got issues, problems, death, and situations. A lot of times, we don’t look at that and as a coach, when you share that, you can connect to so many people.
One of the stories from the book is during my first year in the National Football League. I know that I’m a 5’9”, 180-pound stunning NFL athlete, but I got picked up for a $1,000 signing bonus with the San Francisco 49ers. That’s a lot and so I get there. I’m 14 out of 14 on the depth chart. I’m going to get cut. At the end of the first mini-camp, I don’t have any reps except Dennis Erickson calls everybody up at the end of practice. He said, “We’re going to do our conditioning test now.” I got no reps in the three-day practices. I know now coaching in the NFL, I was going to get cut because if you don’t get any reps, you’re getting cut.
I would’ve spent three days in the NFL. We did the beep test. The beep test is you start, it beeps and you run, and you got to beep the beep past a 20-yard or 30-yard mark. You have to go back and forth with these beeps. I remember the only way that I make it to tomorrow or even have a chance of making it to the next OTA is if I win this damn thing. That was the only way because I had no reps to prove myself. I’m getting cut. I’m 14 out of 14 on the depth chart. I have to win it. Everybody gets excited and then I give somebody a reason to say, “Don’t cut him. Get him to the next one. Who is that guy?”
It’s because right now, nobody knew who I was. Not one person on the team knew who this guy was. Brandon Doman, the quarterback of BYU, and myself tied. We set a San Francisco 49er record. We were both toppled over the finish line at the same time. We celebrate. People lift us up and I ended up making the team. I played for two and a half years but if I wouldn’t have won that race, there’s no way I would’ve even made it to tomorrow.
My skillset had nothing to do with it. Being a great receiver had nothing to do with me making that team. It had to do with my talent, my heart, my spirit, my own conquerable will, my journey, my story, and how that got me to that. Nothing was going to stop me. Of all the years that I dreamed of having this, nothing was going to make me get beat in that beep test and that was how you get through a lot of adversity. That dream is so much greater than the grind of it, and you’re willing to sacrifice how you feel. Life’s about the journey, not the end. I was always the king of the toos, too small, too short, too dumb, or too slow. It was all on display that next mini-camp but you couldn’t measure my talent.
The point of that story for people who maybe are not in football is as you’re going through life, you got to show up in front of every relationship and in front of every person. There may be a person that you go, “This person couldn’t change my life,” but in fact, if you show upright without any preconceived notions about any job, any interview, or anything, the opportunity comes from having the right attitude every moment and every time you’re in front of somebody. That, to me, resonates with what you did.
Even when I hire people, I don’t necessarily always hire people because they’re the best at the job. I hire them if they’re a cultural fit and then teach them the job. I’m looking for the right attitude and the right people. Nothing’s worse than a person who does the job at a high level that brings everybody down. I’ve had that before. I don’t want that. Give me the right fit. Give me the right how. Give me the right heart, spirit, work ethic, unconquerable will, attitude, and energy. Give me that and I’ll make you a coach. I’ll make you a great player because that’s truly what it is.
When you think of the player that maybe had or maybe it’s current, the best or the greatest attitude that you ever coached, there’s got to be a handful, I’m sure, but a kid where you maybe walked in or he walked in and you go, “I’m not sure. This guy’s got everything against him,” and he turned everything. Who was that one player? Again, I know there are 3 or 4, but let’s hear the story of that player and the lesson. Where he came from and how that player bridged the gap to where he wanted to become.
Unbelievably, I’ve only been a head coach for ten years as of this time and I’ve had two quarterbacks play for me the entire time. One quarterback at Western Michigan and one quarterback at Minnesota. One played for four years. One played for six years. They both went to the National Football League. One’s with the Ravens. One’s now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They would be 6-foot nothings and 200-pound nothings. They are kind of the king of the toos. One is Zach Terrell, who was our quarterback at Western Michigan and the other is Tanner Morgan, who was our quarterback here at Minnesota.
I’ll tell you a story about Zach Terrell because when I first met Zach Terrell, he was a freshman at Western Michigan. I called him in my office and I said, “After watching you for a few weeks, I think you’re a terrible leader. I don’t know if this is going to be the place for you. I don’t know if you’re going to be able to lead this football team the way I want you to lead it. I don’t know if I’m a good fit for you.”
He was a little quiet and maybe a little timid. He is a very spiritual young man and it felt like it wasn’t going to connect. He’s like, “Do you feel that way about me, coach?” I’m like, “Absolutely. I don’t know you as everybody else knows you.” He is like, “That’s not who I am, and I was going to transfer, but I’m going to stay to show you exactly who I am because that’s not who I am.” I said, “That’s what you’re giving off.” We were separated once we got there, and it couldn’t have been a better story.
He takes us from 1 and 11 to 13 and 0. The Cotton Bowl appearance has never happened in the history of Western Michigan. He’s not only one of the greatest quarterbacks in the Mid-American Conference history. He won a championship. We’re the worst team in the country in his first year starting for us and it turns into the third-team All-American taking us to 13 and 0, a championship, a Cotton Bowl appearance, the greatest record in school history, and hundreds of things we had never done at Western Michigan. He won the Campbell Trophy, which is the Academic Heisman for college football.
The one story I’ll tell you about it is when I was going through my divorce, I told my team and the response was this. I told him what was going on. I told him what we were going through. I told him that we were having a divorce. He literally stands up, turns to the team, and goes, “Guys, let’s all pray for Coach,” and that was it. I would’ve thought they were going to be mad at me. You feel like everybody’s going to look at you and look at you like you’re a freak and you’re a bad person. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb and they don’t want to follow you anymore.
His response was, “Let’s pray for Coach. Let’s connect them to us.” That was amazing. When you’re starting to learn more from your employees and your players than you’re teaching them, you’re doing something really powerful and that’s the power of him. Now, he’s higher up as a GM of a car business. He’s making six figures plus. I’m going to be working for him probably one day. He’s unbelievable.
As you floated around the coaching ranks for ten years, we’ve all gone to the coaches’ clinics and all that. Is there a college or a pro coach that gave you an attitude lesson? You were sitting in a clinic, somebody said something and you went, “That’s good.” I’d love to know 1 or 2 coaching mentors that you look to. I interviewed Tom Allen and you were one of his when I asked him this question. I don’t know if you and Tom know each other well. It sounds like you probably do, but I’d love to know who’s gotten into your heart and mind as a peer or as the coach where you go, “This is why they got it going on.”
Tom Allen would be one of them. He’s a fantastic human being but I’ll say one that I meet with every year. We do it annually and we share so much. We spend about 48 hours around each other, which doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but when you have two coaches that are our personalities, it’s like magic. We get so much out of the weekend. Buzz Williams is the Head Basketball Coach at Texas A&M.
I like to go outside of the sport of football because a lot of football coaches are going to give you 99%, but we’re still paranoid people and we feel like somebody’s going to steal something from us and use it against us later in recruiting. We’re all willing to get partial truths, but not all of them. When you go outside your sport, there’s no competitive disadvantage either way. Buzz is a very unique individual and we share a lot of things together.
I would say the two mentors I have is why I wear a tie on the sideline. I’m only a head coach and game day’s important because Mike Nolan who was my head coach with the 49ers cut me in my third year. He’s still one of my greatest mentors. Once he cut me, within the same breath, he offered me a coaching job. I never thought about coaching in the NFL or coaching in college. I thought I was going to go teach elementary school and teach sixth-grade social studies and then go coach high school. He goes, “You’d be a fantastic coach because I’ve watched you with your peers. You don’t care who’s going to take your job. You just share and you teach. You make everybody better.”
He cut me and within the same breath offered me an NFL coaching job and like an idiot, I didn’t take it. I wanted to but I thought I was still a good player. A week later, Jim Tressel calls me unannounced and offers me a GA job out of nowhere. However, you always have to make sure that you just never know who’s going to be talking about you and what they’re going to say, and who they’re going to say it to so you better make sure you always take care of your business.
Mike Sabock was Jim Tressel’s fraternity brother at Baldwin Wallace where they went to school. Jim Tressel’s GA couldn’t get into school, so he needed a GA quickly at a time when there was nobody available. He offered me a job sight unseen and I took that job. We both wore ties on the sideline. One ended my career, and if he didn’t end my career that day, that moment, that minute, I wouldn’t have been the coach that I am now because it wouldn’t have fit into Jim Tressel’s timeframe. They both wore ties. I wore a tie to represent those men changing my life every Saturday. I wouldn’t be a head coach without them. I’m smart enough to know that I’m where I’m at because other people got me here.
That’s such a great tribute to them. You mentioned one thing and then we’re going to knowledge through the decades with you. Let’s talk about recruiting. Number one, be your authentic self. Be you. A lot of times eighteen-year-old kids are them and they’re not impressive. I’d love to get your take on what you think recruiting is. Is there a golden nugget? Is there a super pill or whatever? Are there coaches that are better than others?
You could even talk about how you want to recruit but the recruiting piece is fascinating because in any business, in any industry, recruiting and retention are everything. We’re all out looking for talent. I want to get your feel for the process of recruiting and when you know you got a kid that’s awesome, you meet him and you’re like, “I’m not sure he is got the attitude.” Do you say, “I think I can change that kid’s attitude?” What’s that challenge? Let’s start with that. How do you approach that? What’s the process and the philosophy of that?
One of the biggest misconceptions, and I’ll talk about our program, is we don’t recruit. We don’t even believe in recruiting. We believe in selecting. It’s a selection process for us. This is not recruiting. I do not want to convince somebody who is not going to fit here who won’t play here, who won’t fit academically, athletically, socially, and spiritually. I don’t want that person in this program because I’m going to spend all my time babysitting instead of developing, retaining, and influencing. The great thing about us is as a head coach of college football, you’re the GM, you’re the president, and you’re the owner. You’re everything.
I don’t have an owner that tells me who I get to recruit. Now, some people have to deal with that. Some people deal with an AD or donors or boosters, especially in the NIL transfer market. He’s telling me to do that. We select. My number one hiring question among staff and recruits is simply this, “Tell me your story from birth until now. Go.” I don’t look at resumes. That’s my question.
From there, I’m going to know everything I need to know. Where you start matters to me. What you say matters to me. How you tell the story of your life. This isn’t about mommy and daddy coming in and telling their version of your story. I’ve let parents do that. I’ll tell you about little Tommy. No. It’s coming from Tommy. You two sit there and listen to his interpretation of his life. To me, it’s a glorious thing because I find out whether they fit me or not.
I’m going to get great players anyway. There are 1 million high school football players a year. I’m going to find twenty of them that fit me, but I got to find the right twenty and that’s the key to it. I’m not for everybody, and I take a lot of slack for saying that, but nobody’s for everybody. We all read the same books, we all go to the same movie, and we all have the same food. We’re all not for everybody. I’m willing to say, “I’m not for everybody. It’s okay if you’re not for me. It’s okay if I’m not for you.”
I want to find the people that fit me, not personality but the heart, the spirit, the attitude, the unconquerable will, and the determination to get to where you say you want to go because again, it’s about your life. Do you want to go there? Do you want to play in the NFL? Do you want to be an all-pro in the NFL? Do you want to go to school or do you want to get great grades in school? Do you want to be a business person or do you want to own the business?
Be very specific in what I’m working with here and that’s important for you to understand as somebody who hires. The number one attribute of the best leaders is they hire well because everybody in this building is way smarter than me. I’m not afraid to say it. My GM who through this wall got a 35 on the ACT. He doubled my score and every day, I’m reminded of it because of how brilliant he is, but I don’t make a decision without running it by him.
We always say it’s about attraction. I love how you say it’s about selection and it’s not about recruiting. I’m going to change that in my narrative as well. I appreciate that. When you say, “Tell me the story of your life,” this is what I’ve been doing on the show. We have this thing called Knowledge Through the Decades and I walked you through your life every ten years. I ask you to come up with your attitude lesson. I do want to touch on your son, Colt. Was he an infant when he passed? How old was he?
He was and that’s a hard feeling because you know about it. You’re setting up doctors and surgeons to get it fixed, and then eventually, you find out that he probably won’t make it. You go to the hospital and then you come out with nothing. It’s a very unique feeling and that’s why Row The Boat, has its own charity. People have to understand that I don’t make any money from Row The Boat. Row The Boat has raised so much money for the Masonic Children’s Hospital.
All the money for our book goes to the children’s hospital. Anything from Row The Boat goes to the children’s hospital. Part of the reason I’ve enjoyed where I’ve been is because they’ve allowed me to use it. They’ve allowed me to be me. They’ve allowed me to be able to connect the past with the present into the future and respect the traditions of the old but create this new culture. Culture’s about now and that’s what our culture is. It doesn’t say we haven’t had tradition here. This is one of the most traditional football programs in the world. Sky has been around for many years, but it’s a combination of the past, present, and future of how we’re building our program.
Readers, if you feel what the coach has given you, go to RowTheBoat.org and donate in memory of Colt. Certainly, we’ve dealt with infant fatalities too. I work in a hospice for young children and the work that the doctors, the nurses, and the whole apparatus of people who care for the infants that are passing are unbelievable. I’ll make sure that I jump on that site to do it. Keep on rowing. Let’s go to knowledge through the decades. You’ve got five kids and I always like to ask this question. What is the attitude lesson of being born? You may not remember being born, but maybe you think about them when you think about the attitude lesson. What’s there to learn about birth?
You get to choose your own path. You do. Life’s about choices. You get to choose that, but that we conform as a society. We take the path of least resistance like water. Think big and dream big. I was raised in stranger danger. Don’t get into a car with somebody you don’t know but now, we do that all the time with Uber. It’s a $17.2 billion stranger danger business model. That’s what’s crazy. You get to choose your path and create your life of whatever you want your life to look like. We all have the freedom to do that and life is not equal. It’s about fairness. There’s nothing equal in this world.You get to choose your path and create whatever you want your life to look like. Click To Tweet
There’s nothing fair in the world either.
It is because everybody’s going to have incredible hardships and everybody’s got an opportunity, whether you take advantage of that or not. Some are more opportunities, some are less but it’s fair. We hear stories all the time of people coming from nothing into something. A lot of our donors are immigrants. They’re Israeli immigrants or Italian immigrants. We’re all a melting pot here. We always talk about this fair part and the level of the fair is a little different and we know that.
2020 taught us all that and opened our eyes to so much of that but the equal part is hard because people think it’s going to be, and then if you think it’s going to be that way, then it’s going to be hard for you to be able to see the reality of the world. What we’re doing is changing it by having this fair, “I’ve got a chance. I got a shot if I get myself around the right people.” If I can have access to that, our world’s changing in a really big positive way.
Now, we’re going to ten years old, Coach. That puts you at about fourth or fifth grade. I want to know what the attitude lesson you learned at ten. Maybe it was you were bullying somebody, they were bullying you, or a teacher spanked you. Do you remember being in fourth or fifth grade and learning something that changed it for you?
The power of reading. My third-grade teacher, I would be 9 or 10 years old. It’s right around the same deal. All the Fleck children, if you ask them what their favorite subject is, they say PE and recess. They’re Fleck children because my favorite subject is PE and recess, but I always wanted to be the first one out on recess. This one particular day, we’re reading this book in my third-grade class with Ms. Jacob. I was the first one done reading and I turned my book in and I couldn’t wait to go outside. Ms. Jacob said, “P.J., come back over here.” I’m like, “Yes, Ms. Jacob.” She’s like, “Tell me about the chapter that we had to read before going out to recess. You had to finish the chapter and then go out.”
I was the first one done and she’s no dummy. I wasn’t the best reader in the class. I was this far away from having somebody have to read it to me. That’s how great I was. She goes, “Tell me about the chapter.” I went through it and said, “This is what happened to the frog.” She’s like, “P.J., that is so far from the truth. You did not read the chapter.” I was like, “Yeah. I know. I just want to go to recess.” She goes, “For the next two weeks, you will not go to recess. You were going to sit in here and read with me every recess.”
You talk about a bomb going off near you. It’s the worst thing life has ever brought to me but it taught me that the power of reading was way more important than recess. I could have a lot of recess and a lot of PEs one day if I use the power of reading. I still don’t love to read, but I will read because I know what it can do for you. I told you about my eighteen ACT, but I became an academic American. She taught me that very valuable life lesson and I had to learn it the hard way.
I bet you love to read scouting reports.
I do love to read those. That’s for sure.
The film has no words on it usually but I love to watch movies, so it’s good. I love the cliff notes and if the book’s in a movie, I’m good. I’ll watch the movie.
Now the question’s going to be, how is AI going to affect the scouting process? Are you guys going to go in and go, “Load the data. Here’s the AI report?”
I’m sure that’s coming down the pipeline very quickly. I might be replaced with an AI coach one day. You never know.
We’re all going to have avatars on the sideline. Let’s go to twenty. What college were you at? You were twenty years old. What was the attitude lesson you learned at twenty?
Just enjoy it and stay in your twenties as long as you can stay in your twenties. Experience it all. Take it all in and find out what you truly love. We tell our own children, Heather and I, not to even get married until you’re 30. Maybe that’s my 30 advice was don’t get married until I’m 30 but you have to tell yourself that at 30 so you can live your twenties better.
I have three sons all in their twenties and so many of our friends go, “Dude, just keep being twenty. You’re never going to understand what you’re going to miss.”
The advice should go backwards. That’s the whole point of life. I feel way different physically when I run or bike or swim than I did at twenty. Enjoy those twenties and just hold off on that wedding until 30. You’ll know exactly what you’re looking for and you’ll be mature because, in the twenties, we change the most with experiences. We find out who we truly are in our twenties.
With that said, you’re employed by a bunch of twenty-year-olds. Do you feel that the dynamic of a twenty-year-old has changed in ten years? Are the basics the same, but they’re worried about different stuff? I’m curious to get your quick take or your read on whether twenty-year-olds are the same as they’ve always been or if are they battling and fighting. Is it legitimate that they got new concerns, new worries, and new challenges?
Life has its challenges, no matter which generation you’re a part of. They have access to so much more information than they used to have. They’re so much smarter than they used to be and they’ll call you out on anything that you don’t know that you think you do know. My dad used to tell me certain things, and I believed him because my dad told me. Now, you tell a player or something, they go and ask Siri, and if it doesn’t match your answer, they’re not listening to you anymore.
There’s this trust factor that Kevin Eastman writes in his book that it comes down to time, consistency, and proof and that’s true. That’s trust. It takes the trust factor a little longer to kick in than it did before. The time is a little bit longer. The consistency has to be a little bit steadier, and the proof has to be bigger for them to buy into everything you’re saying but before, I did it because my coach said to do it. Now, you better have a reason why you’re doing everything.
Skepticism is probably at a higher rate now or at a higher level. I always love that saying, “Trust isn’t earned in a day. It’s earned day by day.” That gets into that consistency and all that. Let’s go to 30 years old. Tell us about what you were doing when you were 30, what were you going through, and what was your attitude lesson when you turned 30.
I was screwing up my entire life.
Love adversity is number eight on the card.
I would say that micromanaging gets you nowhere. There’s a massive difference between a boss and a leader. “Because I said so,” doesn’t get you very far. In my early thirties, that’s what I did. I tried to be the title instead of being the best version of myself within the title and making everyone around me better. The power of empowerment was critical in my 30s.Micromanaging gets you nowhere. There's a massive difference between a boss and a leader. Click To Tweet
That is so good for so many people who are reading this right now. GAPers, I want you to step back and think about whether you are working towards your title. Are you living your title, or are you a person of empowerment? That’s huge. You’re 40, but you’re not 50 at the moment. This’ll be your last one. Tell us what you did for your birthday years ago and what do you think the attitude lesson was for you in the past few years?
I would say for me that the power of celebration. The power of ends. This is what I mean. One of the biggest diseases successful people have is that nothing’s ever good enough for you because that’s a blessing and a curse. It’s required to be successful. It’s required to be elite. However, it can also be the demise of you. It means everything runs together. You’re never satisfied. There’s no end to anything.
You don’t remember anything in your life. When there are great moments in your life, celebrate them because they will pass. If there are hard things in your life, know that you will get through them. You will row the boat through that. That too shall pass as well but when you set objectives and you set goals on the way to big visions, celebrate the checkpoints when you have them.
We have more champagne in our house than we’ve ever had, and we could open a champagne winery with as much champagne as we have. We could stock the NBA finals, the NHL Stanley Cup, and the Super Bowl because we have so much damn champagne. My wife Heather has taught me, “You’re going to forget everything in your life one day if you don’t celebrate, stop, smell the roses when something happens that you should celebrate.” Now, we celebrate everything.
It’s truly created these moments of memories that I remember because when you asked me before my thirties, it’s a blur because I was so driven. I worked so hard. It was just the bottom line. In the business world, I forget a lot of the journey. When you celebrate, you remember the failings. You remember the successes. You remember the responses, and you have that clear cut and the people are going to want to work for you more when it’s fun but you can’t live in the fun zone, though.
Fun is earned. It still costs $200 a ticket to go to Disney World, the happiest, funnest place in the world. You still got to pay for it. It’s not free. It’s hard. Things at Disney World are hard. There’s a $20 hotdog. It’s hard to earn that money to go to Disney World. You’ve got to be able to train your people to stop, smell the roses, and celebrate. I’m good at that now. We’re taking our whole staff golfing, and we’re having this golf tournament. I never used to do that. We’re going to celebrate the end of selecting, the recruiting process. I do everything I can to celebrate as much as I can to make sure it’s worth it.
You’ve finished second in the West in the past few years. I believe in you. When I wrote that in that book, I watch you and I follow you. There’s momentum. There’s an attitude. There’s an attraction. Nobody thinks you can do it. I think you know that. I don’t think anybody ever every single year doesn’t give you a shot but I want you to know that our GAPers and I are rooting for you. We’re watching you. We’re following you. We’re praying for you.
One last thing that we always like to do is, if you could, give our GAPers a message of hope. There’s somebody that may be going through that divorce right now or somebody that may be getting ready to go bankrupt right now. Somebody that may be getting ready to quit their job and start a new business. Somebody’s getting ready to get fired. All the adversities you talked about.
We would love it if you can get on your preacher box. I’m a good Catholic boy too. Give me your best sermon. For those people that are reading, you’ve given us great information that can be used and information that can bridge the gap from where people are to where they want to go. Coach, I’m so thankful, but if you could give us a quick message of hope, we would sure appreciate it and then we’ll get you out of here.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was, “Don’t sacrifice what you want down the road for what you want right now.” We all know where we want to go. We all have this incredible vision of where we want to go. We also have this vision of our life of what it’s expected to look like. Know that nobody’s line is straight. You’re born and you die. Everybody thinks you stay on this line. That is the biggest myth ever.
When anything negative takes us off that line and we dip, we’re so sad. We’re defeated but the people that respond to that dip, which is probably just change and uncomfortableness, you’ll get to a higher peak. The line of success looks like this as it goes up. It is not a straight line. Some people’s valleys are deeper and some peaks are higher. We all have peaks and valleys.
Also, being able to understand that, to keep changing your best at peaks and valleys. Celebrating the fun times, not sacrificing what you want down the road for what you want right now. I’m talking about if you’re feeling negative right now, know that it’s temporary. If you’re feeling happy right now and joyful, nothing can stop you right now. That’s still temporary. It’s because something’s coming but we think, if anything takes us off that line, “Why me?”
Everybody has a line of success that is an up-and-down line. It depends on how long we let that thing sink or how long we let it go peaking. That’s up to us. I encourage everybody to keep rowing that boat. Never give up on yourself. Get yourself around people you want to be like and think and act like the person you want to become.Everybody has a line of success that is an up-and-down line. It depends on how long we let that thing sink or how long we let it go peaking. Click To Tweet
I appreciate your directed energy in this episode. We wish you the best in the upcoming season. If there’s anything we can do to serve you, let us know. GAPers, that’s it. Head Coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 2024’s Big Ten Champs. We’ll talk to you soon. See you at the next GAP.