Before he became the head coach at Minnesota and before he established himself as a prominent coaching name at Western Michigan, P.J. Fleck was a Northern Illinois legend.
After serving one season at Ohio State in 2006 as a graduate assistant, Fleck returned to his alma mater in 2007 to coach wide receivers. He spent three seasons with the Huskies, a place where he was revered and "couldn't do much wrong," before getting an offer to coach wide receivers at Rutgers, where Greg Schiano had built a consistent program from the ground, up.
Speaking at Big Ten Media Days on Monday, Fleck said he was told by many when he took the job that he would have to work extremely hard for Schiano, but nothing could have prepared him for the expectations that Schiano would place upon him.
"Greg Schiano was not easy to work for, but that's what I needed in my life. I went out to Rutgers, and I remember asking people, 'Should I take this job?' And mentors of mine were like, 'Oh P.J., I don't know. I don't know if you are going to fit Greg.' So what did I do? I took it. Why? Because most of the things in my life I was told not to do, I did anyway because I wanted to do it the hard way," Fleck said. "I needed to be held accountable for everything. I needed to know how to discipline players. I needed to know how to discipline myself. Greg Schiano got me to do things I never even knew I could do in my entire life."
P.J. Fleck discussing his relationship with Greg Schiano. Said he wouldnt be a head coach today if it wasnt for Schianos influence. pic.twitter.com/BBzNhM3ozN— James Grega Jr. (@JGrega11) July 23, 2018
Fleck spent two years with Schiano at Rutgers before following him to Tampa Bay, where Schiano had accepted the head coaching job with the Buccaneers of the NFL. After one additional season coaching wide receivers with the Bucs, Fleck was offered the head coaching position at Western Michigan. From there, everyone who follows college football knows the rest.
After struggling through a 1-11 first year at Western Michigan in 2013, Fleck, much like Schiano at Rutgers, turned a dormant program into a conference mainstay. His second and third seasons ended with 8-5 overall records and top-three finishes in the Mid-American Conference. His final season with the Broncos saw his team finish with a perfect 13-0 record and a MAC title before losing to Wisconsin, 24-16, in the Cotton Bowl.
Had it not been for Schiano's mentorship, Fleck said he would not be where he is today, which is leading the Minnesota football program back from a tumultuous few years. Entering his second season with the Golden Gophers, Fleck gives plenty of credit to Schiano for molding him into the successful young coach he has become.
"He prepared me to become a head coach. He gave me leather skin. You can't be sensitive if you work for Greg Schiano. He hardened me," Fleck added. "If I would have never worked for Greg Schiano, I could have never been a head coach. I could not have handled the rigorous time commitment, I wouldn't have been able to handle discipline when you have to discipline.
"It was hard, and that is what I appreciate about him. He is the greatest influence of my entire life and he is still involved in my personal life and I talk to him all the time."
For the first time since working for Schiano, Fleck will have to face off against his former mentor this season, when Minnesota travels to Columbus on Oct. 13. An offensive minded coach, Fleck is still in the process of rebuilding a Minnesota offense that ranked 12th in the Big Ten in total yards last season, averaging just 308.5 yards per game.
“If I would have never worked for Greg Schiano, I could have never been a head coach.”– P.J. Fleck
Fleck, whose team returns just nine scholarship seniors, knows that coaching against his mentor will be a tough task.
"Anytime you go against Greg Schiano, you know what you are in for. That defense is going to be creative, put a ton of pressure on your quarterback, and he is going to create turnovers," Fleck said. "He is going to show you things you have never seen before and confuse you and his defenses are always tough. They are just like him. Great teams take over the personality of their head coach and the defenses they have at Ohio State take over Greg Schiano's personality. It's tough, demanding, resilient and that is what Greg is. He knows more football than I will ever know. He is a brilliant, brilliant mind."
Regardless of what happens when the Buckeyes and Golden Gophers square off in mid-October, Fleck said Schiano continues to make a positive impact in his life and is someone he will always respect and continue to trust for advice both on and off the field.
"He is the greatest influence of my entire life," Fleck said. "He was a father when he needed to be a father to me. He was a head coach when I needed a head coach to teach me how to become a head coach. The most organized, most detailed, most accountable coach I have ever met."