GopherSports: Coach, you were hired on January 6 and spent the next few weeks securing your first recruiting class. You have been busy speaking around the Twin Cities and meeting a lot of great Minnesota fans. But on Tuesday, you take the field with your team for your first practice at Minnesota. How excited are you to be back on the field coaching?
P.J. Fleck: When you are a football coach, you actually get hired and fired based upon if you win of not. Now it is nice to get back to doing what you are the best at, and that is coaching and being on the field. For those 90 or 100 minutes, you are between the lines coaching. We all played the game and decided to make this our career and really raise our families around the game. You only have two times a year to do that. You have the season and you have spring ball and spring ball is only five or six weeks. The season is only four months, so over half time you are not even worried about football. You are worried about leading up football. We have a lot of work to do, but I know our team is really excited to get out there.
GS: The team wrapped up winter conditioning last week. How did that part of the process go?
P.J.: What we wanted to do with winter conditioning was connect this football team. I was very honest. I told our team I thought they were a group when we got here and did not consider them a well-connected team yet. We are getting there. Every day we are getting closer and closer. I wanted to show them the importance of connection and bringing people together and what a culture can do for people. That's what culture is, it's connecting people. We just have a very unique way of doing it. Our players have responded very well to that and they have learned to work within our culture and our system and a lot of them have seen a ton of growth so far.
GS: One thing that has been evident is that your position coaches have formed a close bond with their players this winter. Whether that is having dinner or breakfast with them or celebrating a birthday. How important is that position coach-player relationship?
P.J.: We look at our entire program as a family. We don't look at it as a business. This is a family and there are times you like what your family does and you like family decisions. There are also times you do not like what your family does and you don't like family decisions. But we are here for each other and I consider myself the dad of the family. Our assistant coaches are the uncles. That's what we want to provide for our team. It's to provide direction. It's not to say that you must do this and learn this and believe in this. It's to be able to create growth and create self-teaching and self-knowledge about what it takes to be a man in 2017 and beyond. I think that's what is really unique about our culture and our coaching staff. We are going to use every occasional meal that we possibly can because it's another way to connect when you break bread around one another. We are going to spend as much time legally as we can around our players just to make sure they know how much they mean to us. Our families are going to be around our players an awful lot and I think that is important for our players to see. I want them to see us as coaches, but also as teachers and role models and dads and how we interact with our children. That's the greatest form of learning, watching someone do something.
GS: You and your staff have only been here for a few months, but what players have you seen emerge as leaders?
P.J.: It's hard to identify one because there have been multiple. We just had our first leadership council meeting last week and will have those every Thursday. I think those are very important. There are 36 leaders on our football team right now who were picked by their teammates to learn how to lead. What does it mean to be a leader and to develop those leadership skills as we go? I think that is very important. Instead of being able to separate and say I want this guy here and this guy there, I think our whole team is learning how to do it and they are doing it very well collectively. They are not just saying these guys are the leaders and they are the ones who are going to connect us. They have done it as a whole. They have gone out to dinner and lunch with each other a lot more than they ever have. You can tell when we played whiffle ball, the connection and excitement they actually have for one another. Now that has to come out in spring ball.
GS: Speaking of spring ball, the team will practice two times before spring break. What will be the main point of emphasis for those two practices?
P.J.: We want our players to learn our scheme. We learned how to work in winter conditioning and what our tempo is, but now we have to apply it to scheme and play within the system. I am talking about the techniques and details of football and not just working out and touching a line. Now it comes down to football and applying that. I think that is what we want to see in these first two days. We want to teach them how we practice. Our tempo and how we do things is very different and you have to adapt to that. Just like how we had to adapt to how we did winter conditioning because everything we are doing we are doing for the first time. There is a new system, a new offense, a new defense and a new special teams. Even a new way of moving from period to period. The way things are called is different and there are different names for drills. There are so many things that we have to be able to teach. And that is what those first two days are for. I have never done two days prior to spring break, but I think it separates it from our learning part. Yes, you are going to make mistakes, but I just want everybody flying around and getting to know how we do things. Then we come back from spring break and we are going.
GS: You have mentioned that you do not have a lot of healthy offensive lineman for spring practice, but what is another position that you will be keeping a close eye on this spring?
P.J.: Obviously the quarterback position. I think that is the one everybody is anticipating and wants to see what happens there. One thing I don't want to do is put unwanted expectations and unwanted pressure or stress on young people. That's unnecessary. I just want them to be themselves. They all understand this is an open competition and all I want is for them to be the best they can be. I don't want them to compare themselves to each other because that will completely take aware their joy. I want them to be the best person they can be and at the end of the day let me make the decision about who is going to be the starting quarterback. They just need to go out and do everything they can do to compete with their teammates - not against them - but with them. I think it will be really interesting to watch that battle.
GS: The quarterback runs the offense and your staff had a very successful offense at Western Michigan. Can you give the fans a sneak peek about what they can expect on offense?
P.J.: I will be very honest. We are very simplistic. I am the same football coach who went 1-11 in our first year at Western Michigan. We didn't have a great offense that year, but it was the same type offense that we run. We just didn't have the right people and the right players to fit into that system. We have a lot of players here who can fit into that. That was one of the reasons why we took the job. You feel like you can keep your same system and build around your players. There are things that can be added and things that we can take away. Kirk Ciarrocca is one of the best coordinators in the country. We are going to be an offense that is incredibly balanced, but we are going to do what we do at the best level that we can do it. We want to make sure that we do our best better than our opponent do their best. That is what is comes down to. One of the main statistics is turnover margin. At Western Michigan we were 116th in the nation when we were 1-11. We were No. 1 in the country in turnover margin when we went 13-1. The other team that had a fantastic year in turnover margin was Washington. The two teams that kind of shocked the college football world last year were Western Michigan and Washington and they were 1-2 in turnover margin. It's the No. 1 statistic tied to winning. It's not all these fancy plays. You fumble and you turn it over and it does not matter. You take care of the football, be a balanced offense and do what you do better than your opponent then you are going to have a lot of success.
GS: One of your sayings is The Ball Is The Program. How often do you stress that and where did that come from?
P.J.: A lot. It's in our team room and if it is in our team room then it is something that we stress more than anything. We will continue to stress that. As people see our practices they will see the emphasis on the ball. Coach Ciarrocca taught me that saying when I was at Rutgers. He brought that from Delaware to Rutgers even before I got there, but I adopted it and took it to Western Michigan because I thought that much about it. At Western Michigan it was everything. I mean it was everything. It was all over shirts, walls and rooms and our players understood that the ball was the program.
GS: Coach, thanks for your time and have fun on Tuesday.
P.J.: Thank you. Row the boat and Ski-U-Mah!
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