In part three of our series visiting with first-year head coaches, we spoke with Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck to see what the youngest head coach in FBS will look to build in his first year in Kalamazoo, his strategy in hiring a staff and just what he means when he says he believes in the Mid-American Conference.
1) How will you define success in Year One?
Is the team a direct reflection of my staff and I? I think it’s pretty simple. I think if you sit there and go wins and losses you’ll never be satisfied, at least in year one. Does the team reflect the coaching staff and myself in terms of where we’re at in the program athletically, academically and then obviously out in the community. Are they a direct reflection of us? The first year is all about getting the guys to buy in, and if you get them to do that the winning will come. I’m not going to measure it and say if we win eight games we were successful. Were we? People are willing to sacrificing things and do it the wrong way. I don’t want that. I want to do things the right way and start to get kids in here that are our type of people.
2) Would you rather start your tenure by going 8-4 maybe by winning the wrong way or go 4-8 the right way?
I’m trying to build a foundation. I think if things are done the right way, the 8-4 be consistent throughout the whole time I’m here instead of going 8-4, 4-8, 8-4, 4-8, 8-4, 4-8. I’d rather take the 4-8 and go 8-4, 8-4, 9-3, 10-2, 11-1, 12-0 because I know the foundation is laid.
3) Do you think your players are buying in to you and your staff?
Absolutely. 100 percent. You’re always going to have within the program that you want to work harder or get more out of them, but I think where our players are truly buying into it is themselves. We’re changing a culture. We’re changing people believing in themselves on a daily basis. Getting them to do things they’ve never done before and enjoying it. That’s the hardest part. Everybody wants change, everybody wants new energy, everybody wants something different. Well, the problem with change is everybody wants change until you have to change. Everybody wants to lose weight until you have to actually go in the gym. It’s the same thing with change, everybody wants it until they have to change. Like I said, we’re trying to change a culture here. We’re trying to change a community, we’re trying to change a football program, we’re trying to change a way of thinking in our town. And then obviously across the country in terms of what people think about Western Michigan football.
I don’t want it to be a one year wonder, have it turn upside-down like sometimes the MAC does. Who’s at the bottom comes to the top and who’s at the top comes to the bottom. I’m trying to build a solid foundation here and that’s hard for some people. Like I said, our players are doing a great job changing on a daily basis and that’s the challenge they have: find a way to change today. I think they’re doing that.
4) What was your strategy in filling out your coaching staff?
I know I haven’t coached 20 but, when you think about it, I’ve really moved seven times in eight years. As a player in the National Football League and in college and then when you look at where I started at Ohio State as a GA, then went to Northern Illinois and worked for two different staffs, and then went to Rutgers and worked for numerous people out there under Greg Schiano and then went to Tampa Bay and met a plethora more of all those coaches, those coaches know other people. I didn’t hire anybody that I either didn’t know personally or that I didn’t have someone that I truly, truly trust with my life recommend to me. That was very easy for me. I got my No. 1 choices in every single guy that I hired, which is very rare.
I’ve had a hiring sheet when I first got in the profession, even as a GA. Who would I hire when I became a head coach. Obviously every year it changes but a few of the guys are still on that list even from when I started. My defensive line coach Vinson Reynolds, he was on my original sheet when I was a player. We played together at Northern Illinois, I always thought he’d be a phenomenal, phenomenal football coach, and he is.
5) How did you hire your off-the-field personnel?
That was some of the most important hires, I think. Those are the day-to-day operations that keep everything moving. As you run a program, you’re CEO of a company. Yes, you are a football coach – that’s what you know inside and out. I hired people in my deficiencies that were their expertise. I wanted to hire people that were youthful, had a ton of energy, very organized, and I know them.
Our director of internal operations is a female, Jessica Larmony. I met Jessica when she was a recruiting assistant at Rutgers. There was no job too big, no job too small (for her). She was wonderful with parents, she could light up a room and was a very detailed organizer. I told her, ‘If I ever get a head job, I’m going to hire you.’ She has the ‘it’ factor. She understands people, how to relate to people and I wanted that in my program. And I wanted some diversity. I think that’s important.
6) When you first got the job, how much time did you spend evaluating your current roster?
My main focus was, who do we have on the team, what areas do we need to concentrate in and how does that fit the scholarship number? One thing that I did when I first got here, I had a list that was given to me by some people saying, ‘These might have been some guys that are going to give you trouble. If you want to get them off the football team, that’s okay.’ Most coaches would do that. They’d come in and say, ‘Well, I don’t have any ties to you and I’m going to let you go.’ We only had 17 scholarships to truly give at the beginning and so we definitely needed some room. However, I didn’t think that was the right thing to do. I gave everybody a completely clean slate, which probably wasn’t the most popular thing, even with my staff. Some of the guys that I was told might give me problems, they’re my favorite people on the football team. I’m glad I kept them. They’re going to help us win and win championships.
Out of my day, if I wasn’t interviewing, if I wasn’t doing media, if I wasn’t trying to hire football coaches, I was evaluating our own talent because that the No. 1 thing on my agenda was to find out what we have, what holes we have and how I have to fix it. I would say, hours-wise, at least a quarter of my day was spent evaluating my own talent.
7) To this point, what about being a head coach is different than you expected?
The time taken away from the football part is so much. Trying to raise money, trying to be out in the community, trying to handle academics, there’s a problem within the actual team, you’re handling it right then and there. It might take three, four hours. In that three, four hours the offensive staff can’t sit there and wait for you, they’ve got to go. There’s a balance there that you have to be able to do but the biggest part is leading people. Any time I hear a knock on the door, which is probably about 150 times a day, it’s an issue. Whether it’s a positive issue or it’s a negative issue, it’s something that needs to have attention drawn to it. Someone needs something from you.
Greg Schiano taught me one thing and it’s the best advice I’ve gotten as a head football coach. He said, ‘Now that you’re a head coach you don’t prioritize any more. You sequence. Make sure you sequence.’ Which is, while you’re doing one thing you’re also doing another and you’re also doing another. You’re doing one, two, three and four all at the same time. Where, when you’re an assistant, you could prioritize. You could say, ‘Okay, one is done. Go to number two.’ When you’re a head football coach you are sequencing, and I thought that was a great way to put it.
8) Have you ever found yourself getting nervous at any point in your first three months as a head coach?
I wouldn’t call it nerves, I think it was just anxiousness. You know there’s a ton of things you have to do and you’ve never necessarily done them before. I’ve never spoken as a head football coach. There’s a lot of questions when you first take the job and you’re not sure what they’re going to ask you. Some of them you’re not prepared to even answer yet because you don’t have enough information. That was a little bit of the scarier part, knowing I haven’t done this for awhile. The guy I worked for, the media coverage that we were allowed wasn’t that high. We weren’t allowed to speak to the media very much. Then all of a sudden you’re talking as a head football coach, which you’ve never done. You just don’t know what kinds of things you’re going to be asked because you’ve never been asked them before.
9) What do you say to the people who think you don’t have enough experience to be a head coach?
As you grow up from a position coach to a coordinator to a head coach, those are all completely different jobs. You’re never ready until you get a shot. It’s all about having the confidence that you are ready and the experiences to truly back you up and say, ‘Hey, I am ready.’ Because I think people can see through people who say they’re ready and they’re really not. I have enough experiences built up that I’ve surrounded myself with some pretty incredible people and have had a ton of experiences in a short amount of time. Let’s say I stayed at each place for two more years. Now instead of 32, I’m sitting here at 41. Am I looked at differently because I had one more year with the same people? I gained everything I could within those years. I knew I wanted to become a head coach and become a head coach pretty quickly, so I made sure I gained all that information, good or bad, from everybody that I worked for very quickly.
10) At your introductory press conference you stated that you “believe in the Mid-American Conference”. What do you mean by that?
I’ve always believed in it because it gave me an opportunity that no one else would give. It’s a special league because, a lot of times, kids aren’t going to turn down Ohio State to go to Western Michigan, so it’s always going to be that next tier kid that says, ‘I’ve got something to prove. I can play at Ohio State. I have a chip on my shoulder.’ I love the underdog mentality and I love that about this league, because that’s what it has. Most of those players have that. When you look at the whole league in general, it’s a bunch of underdog kids that just wanted an opportunity and they got one, and now it’s their chance to prove to everyone else, and even themselves, they can play at an elite level.
If you have a second or third-year coaching staff you’d especially like to hear from, email [email protected] with your request.