Fleck loves candles, and so does his wife. But that’s not all of it, because everything inside Fleck’s highly positive, excessively energetic mind has layers, each revealing a new element of symbolism, some metaphor or maybe one of those catchy slogans. Light represents beginnings, so each morning, Fleck thinks, “Okay, I’ve got to now light the fire of the program.”
Fleck drives Minnesota football with the relentless belief in this culture as his guide — but not in the way every other coach in America throws around that buzzword. His cultural blueprint is detailed and complex. He preaches precise definitions for words such as “energy” and “success.” It’s easy to be skeptical. Maybe the “Row the Boat” mantra, the one Fleck thrust into the national college football lexicon a few years ago at Western Michigan, seems like too much. But he believes it. His players do, too. And this group he’s leading through his third season at Minnesota hasn’t lost a game yet.
Hired as a head coach at 32, Fleck revamped a Western Michigan program that once existed in relative obscurity. The school won one game in 2013, his first season with the Broncos, and then won 13 in 2016. He has now sent the Golden Gophers barreling ahead on the same trajectory. Minnesota has won 10 games in season only once in the past century, but Fleck’s squad sits at 8-0 with No. 4 Penn State coming to town Saturday as part of the Gophers’ difficult November slate. How are they doing it? The players credit culture, buy-in and belief.
Although Fleck said coaching tenures should be measured like dog years, the 38-year-old packs positivity inside the frame of a 5-foot-10 former wide receiver. If someone asks whether he has always been like this, Fleck responds, “Like what?” Translation: Yes, he has always been like this.
When the Big Ten coaches gathered in Chicago for media days, Fleck’s first-grade teacher, Mrs. Jacobson, attended and told him he hasn’t changed. Fleck didn’t stay indoors much as a kid. If others in the neighborhood couldn’t play, he would turn trash cans into defenders or invent his own games. He hated to go to sleep.
“I’ve always had a burning desire to live and live life to the fullest, period,” Fleck said. “And I don’t think you have to apologize for that.”
When Fleck attended a Northern Illinois camp as a high schooler, Coach Joe Novak watched him grab every catchable ball, even the ones that meant bloodying his knees or elbows on the turf. Novak remembers Fleck as quick but not that fast, productive but undersized. The coaches wondered whether they should even recruit this enthusiastic local kid.
“None of us were sure, but boy, it sure turned out well for us,” Novak said of the player who accumulated more than 2,000 receiving yards and quickly displayed the characteristics that made Novak think he would make a good coach one day. Novak once arrived to the locker room after a win, and Fleck, a freshman at the time, already had begun leading the team in the fight song.
Fleck, who signed a new contract Tuesday that will take him through the 2026 season, doesn’t try to convince high schoolers to believe in Minnesota’s philosophies. Fleck said his staff instead looks for “our kind of guys.” They don’t have to match Fleck’s outward energy level because they don’t need that to fit into what Fleck calls the “Row the Boat” culture. Minnesota’s quiet right tackle, Daniel Faalele, still has an inner drive to develop in the four areas Fleck directs focus: academically, athletically, socially and spiritually. Faalele’s way of getting there simply involves the opposite personality.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan, a redshirt sophomore from Kentucky who has thrown for more than 1,700 yards, had committed to join Fleck’s Western Michigan program. The day Fleck told Morgan he accepted the Minnesota job, Morgan decided he would come, too. His belief lay in the philosophy and this coach, which didn’t waver depending on the school for which Fleck worked. Because of the coach’s holistic approach, Morgan said he would have followed Fleck anywhere. He first visited Minnesota on his move-in day.
Fleck defines energy as the place where passion and purpose collide. For him, that oozes down other channels in his life outside football: He’s married and has four children between the ages 5 and 11. He loves water — fishing, jet-skiing, wake-surfing — and theater, with framed posters from every show he has seen hanging in his office. Fleck saw “Les Misérables” in London and has seen “Hamilton” five times, including once with his players during Big Ten media days. Fleck appreciates people who excel in any realm, mirroring his program’s philosophy of expecting players to “do our best every day and change our best every day,” running back Mohamed Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim stops by Fleck’s office to talk once a week, casual meetings he calls “Mo Mondays.” Players are off that day, so Ibrahim pops in for conversations on topics ranging from fashion to music, financial advice to gift ideas for his girlfriend — just usually not football.
Minnesota practices are frenetic but controlled. Ibrahim said it seems like his friends at other schools practice longer, while the Gophers’ practices are short but productive. Asked when Fleck’s energy reaches its peak, Morgan said “all the time.” Others who have played for Fleck agree.
Zach Terrell had finished his redshirt season at Western Michigan when the school opted to take a chance on Fleck, the unproven Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant. Terrell watched the new coach’s introductory news conference at home with his parents during winter break.
“I had no idea what ‘Row the Boat’ had to do with a bronco,” Terrell said. “I couldn’t figure it out. I had some reservations. I was not 100 percent sold on it. I didn’t think what he was preaching was authentic.”
Terrell knew he would stay at Western Michigan through spring practice. He didn’t win the starting quarterback job, and Fleck told Terrell he was a bad leader. Many people thought he should transfer. But then, Terrell said, “I drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak.”
During Terrell’s redshirt freshman season, he became the starter and then led the program for four years. He threw for more than 12,000 yards in his career. Fleck-isms still flood Terrell’s everyday vocabulary. An oar hangs above a window in his house. The pastor’s message at Terrell’s wedding centered around the acronym RTB, a nod to “Row the Boat.”
Terrell’s wife doesn’t mind. During college, she helped quiz Terrell on Fleck’s jargon, known as Bronconese. All the players understand what “Row the Boat” means and its symbolic pieces. They have the same definition of success (John Wooden’s version), and they know about nekton (aquatic organisms that move independent of currents).
Call the company where Terrell works, and the employee on the other line says, “It’s an elite day here at Zeigler Auto Group.” Terrell said his former coach believes there are five types of people — bad, average, good, excellent and elite — so Fleck’s players aim to fall into that fifth category. That’s how they answer the question, “How are you?” The words “good” and “great” don’t appear in texts between Terrell and Fleck.
“When you’re in the program, if you truly, 100 percent bought in, it’ll change your life,” said Terrell, who still has the “Man Manual” that came from being part of Fleck’s team.
Fleck boils down the ability to turn around a program into three pieces: the right people, cultural consistency and the value of long-term vision over short-term desires. So when Fleck’s Western Michigan team finished the season 1-11 during his first year as a head coach, that’s what he held on to.
“You’ve got everybody saying: ‘Well, that didn’t work. So what’s next? We going to “Mow the Grass”? What’s the next slogan, big guy?’ ” Fleck said. “So it’s to have the conviction to stay true to who you are.”
In 2014, the following year, Fleck’s team won eight games. During the spring of 2016, Fleck showed his team the Cotton Bowl logo. That’s where the season eventually ended months later. Facing Wisconsin, the Broncos lost for the first time that season. Their success and the remarkable turnaround spring-boarded Fleck to Minneapolis, where his 17th-ranked Gophers have done what just six other Football Bowl Subdivision schools have accomplished thus far: win every game on the schedule.
Minnesota, though, started its 2019 campaign with three wins over nonconference foes decided by a combined 13 points. The Gophers needed double overtime to beat Fresno State. Their Big Ten slate began with the lower-tier teams, and ranked opponents such as Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin are ahead. Yet as he establishes his program, Fleck likens this season to building the framework. This is still a young group. In 2017, the staff dug a hole. Last year, the group laid foundation.
“I believe that our program, our coaches, the way we do things are different,” Fleck said. “And I don’t think ‘different’ is bad. I think ‘different’ is different.”
There are too many metaphors to count, but the wins are concrete, each one proving that, as long as the players believe, Fleck’s version of “different” works, too.