P.J. Fleck might not be coaching the Gophers today if not for a defining moment as a 25-year-old wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers in 2006.
According to Fleck, it was about seven seconds after he was cut when then-49ers head coach Mike Nolan convinced him that he could be a "phenomenal" coach. Fleck turned down a job offer from Nolan for an opportunity to work with student-athletes at Ohio State, but he still considers Nolan one of the biggest influences in his life.
Nolan, now the linebacker coach for the New Orleans Saints, couldn't have spoken more highly about Fleck than he did in a Q&A with GoMN.
Here's what he told us:
What did you see in P.J. that convinced you to offer him a job in San Francisco?
"He had a unique way about him with all of his teammates. Football is more about people than X's and O's. He was hard-working, dedicated, disciplined, great communicator, not afraid to be himself or let people know who he was. Very engaging. Gave you his full attention. Interested in others. PJ is a people person."
Is there a story about P.J. that stands out to you from your time together in San Fran?
"Yes, it was November of 2005, my first year as head coach of the 49ers. It was around 6pm or so and I was at my desk. Behind my desk was a patio and windows to the practice fields. I was looking at practice film and for some reason decided to take a break and look outside. There was some movement on the fields, but I could not make out what it was. I walked out onto the patio and as I looked on to the field, I saw two players, one was coaching the other. They were still in their uniforms, that’s how I knew they were players. Practice had ended a good hour or so earlier. PJ was teaching this other, more talented practice squad player how to get aligned and run routes. A unique part of this story is that this other player was the one player that PJ was battling with for a place on the roster. This was not the only time I saw PJ outside my window working long after practice had ended."
Was the energy that P.J. displays now always there as a player?
"Yes, it was not only unique, but more importantly it is sincere and authentic."
What part of your coaching style do you think P.J. took with him to Minnesota?
"His passion for life and being a parent to his team."
Can you explain how difficult it must have been for P.J. to become a head coach at a power conference school at such a young age? (At 36, Fleck is the youngest power conference coach in the country)
"I don’t think it was or is difficult at all for P.J. He is very comfortable in front of his team and people in general. We are all unique in our own way. Personality traits unique to each one of us. Life circumstances help us to grow. Some of us become wise, some less wise. P.J. has allowed both his personal and professional experiences to have a positive impact on his life, his positive attitude is simply contagious."
Can you help explain why recruits who would've never considered Minnesota are suddenly buying in to P.J.'s message and signing?
"The answers to all the above questions is why both young people and parents of student-athletes want to be around P/J. I would have loved for my children to have a coach like P.J. while growing up. Sean Payton said to me this morning, when speaking about his son, how good it makes Sean to feel to have his son coached by people that he feels he not only connects with, but helps him grow as a man with work ethic and proper values."