Last night, ESPN’s much anticipated four-part series, “Being P.J. Fleck,” premiered on ESPNU. The first episode, “Into the Fire,” was a bit underwhelming if you’re already familiar with Fleck and his background. It covered a lot of the basics, leaving plenty more to explore in the remaining three episodes of the series.
The central question of the series seems to be: “Is P.J. Fleck for real?” In this cynical age of college sports, his high energy, impenetrable enthusiasm, and positive attitude have drawn lazy comparisons to a used car salesman. People simply can’t seem to fathom that someone could maintain that energy and attitude 24/7.
But everyone interviewed as part of the series — from Fleck’s parents to Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples to former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel — will assure you that Fleck’s upbeat personality isn’t an act. It’s very much who he is.
Here are a few of the highlights from “Into the Fire”:
Fleck was turning around programs long before he was hired at Western Michigan. He played for Kaneland High School in Illinois, a school located between four cornfields. The football program had never been to the playoffs, but went a combined 28-0 during Fleck’s junior and senior seasons en route to back-to-back state championships. His high school coach recalled the bus ride home from their second state championship, when Fleck, while clutching the championship trophy, asked if college coaches swear at you.
He has no illusions about his short-lived career in the NFL. When asked to describe his brief NFL stint, Fleck simply snapped his fingers. Five shoulder surgeries put the brakes on a professional career that was already limited to scout team work. “Never give them a reason to cut you,” he says. But there was a silver lining that didn’t take long to materialize: Literally seconds after informing him that he was being cut, then 49ers head coach Mike Nolan offered him a spot on his coaching staff.
Greg Schiano changed his entire life. Fleck was effusive in his praise for the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, whom he served under both at Rutgers and in Tampa Bay. He says that Schiano demanded more from him than any other coach in his career, and that he likely wouldn’t be a head coach today if not for his influence.
We got a glimpse of his head coaching manual. As far back as his coaching stint at Rutgers, Fleck has been cultivating concepts and ideas that he would like to implement as a head coach, organizing them inside in a large binder. For example, he mentioned that he has former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil’s passing attack outlined in one section of the binder. Four coaches he cites as being significant influences on his head coaching how-to: Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Miami head coach Mark Richt, and former NFL head coaches Bill Walsh and Mike Nolan.
When he was at Rutgers, Fleck attempted to show his binder to then offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca (now at Minnesota), who said he’d look at it later but in the meantime would appreciate it if Fleck could get his “wideouts to line up right first.”
Fleck wears a tie as a tribute to his coaching mentors. When asked why he often wears a tie, especially on the sideline during games, Fleck talked about it representing his respect for the game. But he also mentioned that he takes cues from former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who wore a tie, and Mike Nolan, who would wear a suit on the sidelines when he was head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Some disturbing news about Fleck’s early childhood aspirations. Interestingly enough, Fleck didn’t play tackle football until the eighth grade. Basketball was his sport of choice for much of his childhood, and he dreamed of playing point guard for the University of Wisconsin at one point. The episode even included a traumatizing photo of a very young Fleck wearing a Badgers t-shirt. Fortunately, it was just a phase.
I’m very excited to see what the rest of the series has in store for us. It’s great national publicity for the program, and it gives Gopher fans an opportunity to learn a little bit more about their new head football coach. What did you think of “Into the Fire”? Let us know!
Catch next week’s episode, “Just Keep Rowing,” at 8 p.m., Wednesday, on ESPNU.