P.J. Fleck has a canned retort for when critics snark over the Gophers football coach moonlighting as an author last year.
“I think the running joke is, that’s probably why we went 3-4, because ‘he was too busy writing a book,’ ” Fleck said preemptively last month.
Before the U fell below .500 during its shortened season last fall, Fleck’s isolation during the early stages of the pandemic in spring 2020 included him spending roughly 20 hours compiling and writing portions for his book “Row the Boat” with co-author Jon Gordon. The concise 120-page read will be released Wednesday.
Fleck has incorporated previous books by Gordon, which focus on positivity, inspiration and leadership, for how Fleck has steered his program at Minnesota. In 2019, Fleck had the team’s leadership council of 30-plus players read Gordon’s “The Power of a Positive Team” during their historic 11-2 season.
Fleck, who has recommended books to his coaching staff, said Gordon’s “The Carpenter” is one of his all-time favorites; he also enjoyed Gordon’s “The Energy Bus” and “You Win in the Locker Room First.” Fleck, who said he has contemplated a children’s book on “Row the Boat,” also hit a self-deprecating note on why he went into this collaboration with Gordon.
“I got an 18 on the ACT,” Fleck said after the U’s spring game on May 1. “I think I got a 15 on the English/writing part before we get too excited. That is why you team up with somebody like Jon Gordon.”
Fleck said about 80 percent of the work on the book was done in spring 2020, when the U’s spring practices were cancelled and recruiting wasn’t possible under an NCAA dead period. The following 20 percent was spent refining and editing it over the next few months. Gordon said he asked Fleck questions about his life and leadership, and Fleck’s answers became short chapters, with Gordon penning the afterward last New Year’s Eve.
“Most coaches write a book after a national championship; this isn’t about that,” Fleck said. “This has nothing to do with that. This has to do with two programs we’ve taken over and started from the beginning. And one place (Western Michigan) we ended someplace really high and here we’re kind of in the middle of it.”
For Gophers diehards, reading “Row the Boat” will be familiar. It dives into the inspiration for the phrase and how it’s a never-give-up mantra for how Fleck tried to honor and create change out of the tragedy of losing his son, Colton, to heart and lung complications soon after his birth in 2011.
“Those were some of the slowest, most numbing and realest few minutes of my life,” Fleck wrote. “Holding your son as he takes his last breath changes you for the rest of your life, whether you’re ready for it or not. I felt like my life was over. I didn’t feel strong enough to overcome this tragedy. I wanted to give up, to quit and never revisit that time in my life.”
Fleck already had shown plenty of persistence in his life. The book starts off a photo of him growing up in Illinois, dressed as former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, with spiky hair, white headband, sunglasses and a No. 9 jersey.
Some nights, Fleck’s father, Phil, would ask P.J. if he was done shooting hoops or playing catch. “When I told him yes, he would reply, ‘Well, that’s fine, but don’t forget there is always someone out there taking one more rep than you just did.’ ”
For Christmas one year, Fleck got a pair of boxing gloves, which he used in matches with the older kids in the neighborhood. Each fighter would take one glove to use.
Fleck wrote, “Did I get the crap kicked out of me? Yes, most of the time, but I never stopped fighting.”
Fleck outlines the parallels in processes he used at Western Michigan and Minnesota, from the first-year struggles (and the instrumental role of his wife Heather) to coaxing results for his teams to have some successes in the next year or two and what he did to foster big breakthroughs at both places.
Fleck shares insights on key moments during his tenure at the U, primarily in 2018, and how Row the Boat was vital in 2020, when a 3-4 record isn’t considered a disappointment.
“It’s … about how everybody can use Row the Boat,” Fleck said in an interview. “How everybody in their business or their classroom or their team or their family can use Row the Boat in their life and have a positive perspective to live by and have a lifestyle to live by. So that’s why we wrote it.”
The primary aim for the book is the children patients at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital, where P.J., Heather, and Gophers players were regular visitors before the pandemic limited interaction. Fleck said the limitations from COVID-19 reiterated the needs for those kids, and proceeds from the book will go to the Fleck Family Fund at the hospital.
“We wanted to be able to spread out some hope, love, positivity, togetherness,” Fleck said. “This culture and be able to benefit the children’s hospital, especially with what our country is going through … Those patients over there at the hospital (can only have) one parent in there at one time. Just put ourselves in their shoes for a while. That is why we ended up writing the book.”
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Author: Andy Greder