On Dec. 17, 2012, Western Michigan made P.J. Fleck the youngest head coach in the highest level of college football. Twenty-eight months later, Fleck, 34, is still FBS's youngest coach, and one of its fastest risers. He's signed what some have hailed as the best recruiting classes in the history of the Mid-American Conference, engineered one of the best one-season turnarounds in college football and generated lots and lots of publicity - and in his own Fleck-ian way.
FootballScoop spoke with the Western Michigan head coach about his program philosophies, his path through coaching, his new raise and much more.
When we spoke shortly after your hiring I asked you what would define success in your first year and you said, "Is the team a direct reflection of my staff and I?" I'm wondering how, if at all, that answer is different in Year 3. We define success in our program very similar to the John Wooden definition. "The peace of mind knowing you did everything you could to be the best you could be." But we change it at the end, "as long as you change your best." That is the No. 1 thing in our program. Wins won't define us. What needs to define us is our 'how.' If we have enough of the 'how' we'll eventually win championships, but the 'how' is what you just said, a direct reflection of the coaching staff. It's everyone within the organization reflecting the organization's core values. I think that's really difficult to do, get everybody on the same page, not just playing the X's and O's the right way, but playing them with the 'how.' That's the hardest part of the culture. I think in Year 3 we're closer now than we were last year to whatever that is. We'll never get to the top of the mountain. Just like Alabama does with Nick Saban. They win a national championship, they're on to something else the next day. You're always finding ways to change your best. For us it's to be better than we were the day before, and that's the only mindset we have as we move forward.
We are truly building behind the word Chemis"tree" this year. We define it as "constant change at the root of the family." In Year 1 it's installing core foundations. Year 2 is getting your group of men to believe in your vision. Year 3 is Chemis"tree" within the vision and team. Building our root system deep by knowing the details and pasts of each other's life.
You speak about the 'how' a lot. Can you explain what that is? A lot of people get to somewhere many different ways. That's really what the 'what' is. Everybody got to their 'where' somehow, someway. And that's the story. The 'how' is always your story, how you go about living life. We call it heart-work in our program, it's hard work plus purpose, pride and passion. That shows how you work. Hard work is not good enough here, it's how you're working hard. That's the purpose, pride and passion. It's how somebody gets somewhere, it's the process of that. This program is all about process. It's not about the result, it's about the process, and then the result being a reflection of the process. We're truly a process-driving program, not a result-driven program.
You're entering your third year as an FBS head coach. Are you surprised to still be the youngest head coach in the country? To be honest with you, yes. I'm a little shocked by it. There are so many young coordinators out there and so many guys that have a big name at such a youthful age. I don't think that's the only thing that defines me, that I'm the youngest head coach in the country. Somebody's got to be the oldest, somebody's got to be the youngest. And right now in my life I'm glad I'm on the other end. Youngest doesn't mean experience. I've had a ton of experience and amongst our coaching staff we've got a ton of experience for Western Michigan University and that's the only thing we worry about.
Many who follow recruiting say the classes you've signed are some of the best in MAC history. How are you doing that? We're us. When I became a head coach Jim Tressel told me, 'be you.' Well, 'be you' starts with believe in yourself, and that's who we are. We are real, we're us, we have incredible people here at Western Michigan and that's what I think young people like is people. Everyone has facilities, everyone has weight rooms, everyone has fields, everyone has scoreboards, everyone has that. Who has the realest people? We have truly real people and they get a real experience, not only on the field but off the field, and when they come here and experience that they realize it's not a sales pitch. There's no sales part about it, it's just us. And if you love us, let's go, if you don't love us then move on. We are real. We're us. We do things very different. We've been able to have success with that. There's no magic formula. I think we just have incredible people here.
Does that mean you're working harder, putting in more hours, than you did on Greg Schiano's staff at Rutgers? I think it's a combination. I think if you're willing to be different you're going to have to work a lot harder than some people. You're going to put your neck out there. One thing Greg Schiano taught me is he was willing to be different, he was willing to stick his neck out there, he was willing to do things that were just a little bit different and be creative. When you do that it opens you up to a little bit of scrutiny but also you stand out a little bit more. We're not doing it to stand out, we're doing it because we're us. That's just who I am. We believe change is truthful listening. You've got to be able to be true to yourself and you've got to be able to listen to yourself and listen to others to truly change. Everybody wants change until you get changed. We change on a daily basis inside our program. We change our recruiting every single day. We go over recruiting every single day. We find new methods to do things every single day. It's very directed to every single kid instead of just, hey, this is our philosophy and we're going to tell every kid this message. Every kid has a different message, everyone has a different story but we truly relate ourselves to the players and I think our energy level is infectious and contagious and it's hard to ignore that.
Generic question time: what do you know now that you wish you knew when you first took the job? Never sacrifice what you really want for what you want right now. How's that for an answer, is that good enough? (laughs) As a head coach we're in the business of winning now but everyone else wants things the right way. If you want something done the right way, I think, it takes a while because you're truly building something. You're investing in something. When you invest you've got to sacrifice some things and a lot of times when you rebuild and you start over you're going to have to sacrifice some wins in the beginning because the culture's completely changed, the talent's completely changed, the philosophy is going to continue to change, the numbers in the program are going to constantly change but you have to be willing to sacrifice that in the beginning if it's something you really want down the road. But we live in an instant society - instant coffee, instant oatmeal, microwaves, social media - everything's instant, but when you look at building and the true foundation of building something, whether it's a business or organization, a football program, building a family.... it's like the mom and dad that wants to have a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old that haven't had kids yet and say, 'Okay, I'd like to have a 10 and 12 right now.' No, no, no. You've got to go through those diaper years first. It's all about don't sacrifice what you really want for what you want right now. It's kind of the life lesson we talk to program about, it's right along there with Row the Boat, a quote we use every single day and that's kind of our philosophy within our program.
If I'm a 28-year-old GA, what's the best way I can use you to advance my career? One, I played in college athletics. If you look at our staff, everyone's played the game. I think that's very important. I've been a student-athlete on scholarship, I've played in the NFL. Everyone has a goal of getting there so I know what that's like as a player. I've coached in the National Football League, which I think me and Steve Spurrier - you might have to check on that - are the only two that have actually done both, coached in the NFL and played in the NFL. June Jones was one, there might be a few more but there's not many of them. I've gone through the academic road, been an Academic All-American. The one thing about that is these players can see that. These coaches can see that. I can relate to everything those players go through. I've had a lot of adversity in my life, I continue to have adversity in my life. The leadership part, when you're a true leader you're public property. People can say what they want. When you talk about a GA that wants to come work for me, they're going to get a complete teaching of the entire business of coaching but they get to see it through a person who's worked through the whole process of the football upbringing. I was a GA, too. I wasn't a GA very long but I was a GA, and then I got my position job. They can see how hard work pays off, and the right people get you jobs. Not necessarily what you do, because you have to have what you do, you have to be successful at what you're doing, but you've got to surround yourself with the right people. I was fortunate enough to do that with Jim Tressel and Joe Novak and Jerry Kill and Greg Schiano, I surrounded myself with the right people who taught me everything I know. That was huge for me. Mike Nolan, Mike McCarthy, those people taught me everything I know. They're going to learn in the profession as you go forward that they're going to get a piece of them as well and they're see that P.J. Fleck is not P.J. Fleck, they're going to see that P.J. Fleck is a combination of everybody who built me. But it's also a process. Everybody wants to be a head coach today. They're going to see what each job entails and how it correlates between the others.
The day you got cut by the San Francisco 49ers in 2006 Mike Nolan offered you a job on his staff as assistant wide receivers coach, yet you chose to take a GA job at Ohio State. Why? I don't know how many people get cut and on the same day get offered a coaching job. That's very rare. The job didn't even really exist, Mike Nolan said he'd invent the job for me if I wanted it. The one thing for me is I really wanted the job, but then Jim Tressel, who had never met me, called me out of nowhere and his GA couldn't get into school. Talk about something supposed to be happening. Well, his fraternity brother who coached me at Northern Illinois, Mike Sabock, called Jim Tressel and said, 'P.J. just got cut. If your GA can't get in, he's a really good student I bet you he could get in.' Jim called and I really had to decide. I thought it would be very hard for me to separate myself as a coach and a player, because if I was still there in San Francisco I would have still thought I could make the team. I think I needed for myself to move on into my coaching profession I had to take a jump. I couldn't play in college anymore; I had to go to the college game. And I didn't want to make that transition from a player to a coach in the NFL because I thought I could still play. That would have been very difficult for me in terms of separating myself as a coach from a player. I had to take a college jump and I'm so blessed I did. I could get another philosophy, another opinion by going with Jim Tressel. I was already coached by Mike Nolan for two years so it was a chance to broaden my horizons and learn from another guy that was a national champion and that was very important to me.
You received a sizable raise which more than doubled your salary to $800,000 in December. How did that come about? I'm very, very fortunate, very blessed and humbled that the people in this community that love the work and the process of what we're doing here at Western Michigan because there are a lot of people on the outside that have helped. This wasn't just the university, a lot of the money comes from private funding. I think the university ended up with a $10,000 raise, but the income from outside sources shows the community that we're doing all the right things. Really at the end of the day the community shows you if you're doing the right things or not doing the right things. You're either breaking attendance records, you're winning championships, you're changing cultures, you're getting people fired up about football or you're not. We've got a long way to go but it was a very humbling experience because I know that we're doing the right things for them and this community and they want us around. We know we haven't gone anywhere yet but we know the process is appreciated and we've got a long way to go with this process.
Are you comfortable being the MAC's highest-paid coach? I'm never comfortable with anything, to be honest with you. All that does is raise expectations from the outside in, and that's what this program is about. That's why I took the job - to create expectations. A program without expectations, they're probably not going to be very good, and we want expectations. This has definitely set an expectation. That's exactly what we wanted in our program.
You did the Polar Plunge when you first got the Western Michigan job and the Ice Bucket Challenge last year. Can we expect to see you shirtless again this offseason? (laughs) Maybe on vacation by the pool, but other than that probably not but we'll see. I will do anything for charity. Giving's a part of my life and whatever we have to do to continue to raise awareness, continue to give back to our community, I'm all on board with. That's really big for me. I'm a little out there, I do some crazy things, but I took my shirt off because a guy had a Michigan State shirt on in front of me. He came to a Western Michigan pep rally. What was I supposed to do, let him wear it? No, I had to give him my shirt.