Very few are able to transition from a playing career to a coaching career. Even fewer are successful at it. PJ Fleck started out his football playing career in high school and had his sights on gridiron greatness. And for a while, it seemed that was going to be the case considering his contribution to his teams and the individual awards he was garnering.
However, tragedy struck when he suffered a severe shoulder injury that ensured he never got back to his best. After trying in vain to restart his playing career, he decided to go into coaching. These days, Fleck is heralded as a successful coach – and one of the youngest too – in the corridors of college football and even the NFL. His story reminds us that sometimes the way forward is not in holding on to something but in letting it go and looking for new opportunities.
PJ Fleck’s Biography (Age)
Philip John Fleck was born in Sugar Grove, Illinois, on November 29, 1980. He had his high school education at Kaneland High School in Illinois. It was here that he started his playing career and helped them secure consecutive undefeated state championship titles in 1997 and 1998. He also played track and basketball.
Next, Fleck gained admission into Northern Illinois University where he played under Joe Novak, who was the head coach at the time. He continued to excel and in his senior year and was voted captain on two occasions by his teammates. Fleck’s time with the Huskies saw him set a record of 87 punt returns, that is still unbeaten as of 2018.
After the 2004 NFL Draft, PJ Fleck was snapped up by the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent. After spending much of the 2004 season on the practice squad, he was promoted in time to feature in their last game of the campaign. The next season he was again sidelined due to a high-profile injury he had sustained in the preseason. Consequently, he was released in June 2006, after refusing a role to become the team’s wide receivers coach.
After a failed attempt to restart his career with the Chicago Bears, Fleck decided it was time to consider coaching as an alternate route. Fleck’s coaching career has seen him work with former coaches and teammates while he has continued to rise through the ranks on his way to coaching fame.
Fleck’s first stint at coaching came in 2006 at Ohio State Unversity under the head coach Jim Tressel. He served as an offensive graduate assistant for a year then moved on as a wide receivers coach for his alma mater Northern Illinois under head coach Joe Novak who had coached him while he was a student there. He stayed on past Novak’s retirement, finally leaving at the end of the 2009 season.
Subsequently, his career saw him take coaching roles at Rutgers University, the second stint at Northern Illinois University, although the latter lasted 24 hours as Fleck accepted the role of wide receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers which was an NFL team.
PJ Fleck’s first job as head coach came in the form of a five-year deal worth $392,000 per season with Western Michigan University on December 17, 2012. This made him the youngest and first head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of college football to have been born in the 1980s. Fleck’s four-season stint at Western Michigan was both controversial and relatively successful.
PJ’s first season was a disaster as the team finished with a 1-11 record. However, in the 2014 season, the team rallied to a record of 8-4, effectively winning Fleck the MAC Coach of the Year award. He also signed a new deal that more than doubled his annual take home and was to see him at the club through 2020. The 2015 regular season ended with a 7-5 record. Their wins included some high profile teams with bowl experience.
PJ Fleck’s last season with WMU was their best one yet. They made history by becoming the first team to defeat two teams in the Big Ten in a single season. WMU also retained their title as the highest-rated recruiting class in the MAC for the fourth year running. Fleck and his team ended the regular season undefeated with a 12-0 record and also defeated Ohio State to bag their first conference championship title since 1988. Fleck was again named MAC Coach of the Year.
He became head coach at the University of Minnesota on January 6, 2017. He put pen to paper on a whopping five-year $18 million contract which he extended by one year on November 21, 2017. In his first three games, his team beat their opponents by a mile, but then they lost momentum, eventually ending the season with a 5-7 record. This made them ineligible to play in the post-season.
PJ Fleck’s Family – Children, Wife, Affair, Divorce
Fleck has been married twice. His first marriage was to a woman known only by her first name, Tracie. They had three children, two boys, and a girl; Carter, Colt, and Paisley. The couple would eventually divorce and many believe that this was caused by a rumor a few years ago that Fleck was having an affair. PJ was rumored to be having an affair with a woman named Bonnie Zeigler. She was married to Aaron Zeigler, president of the Zeigler Auto Group in Kalamazoo and a prominent football booster for Western Michigan. The rumors were never substantiated but the damage had been done.
Fleck tied the knot a second time with Heather Jackson on February 11, 2016. She came into the marriage with her son, Gavin, from a prior marriage. Fleck and Heather also had a child of their own, a daughter named Harper.
Other Facts about PJ Fleck
1. Fleck’s Famous Mantra was Inspired by his Son Colt
PJ came up with the phrase “rowing the boat” while he was at Western Michigan. It was part of his strategy to shore up the team’s all-around performance. It turns out that the phrase was inspired by the death of his son, Colt, who had died shortly after his birth as a result of a heart condition. He coined it as a way to cope with his death. After Fleck left WMU, there was a bit of a squabble concerning the intellectual property rights to the phrase. Both parties eventually settled out of court.
2. December 17 is a Special Date for Fleck
This is for two reasons. The first is that this is the day he put pen to paper on his first job as a head coach. The second and most important is that his daughter, Paisley was born on the exact same day he signed the contract – December 17, 2012.
3. Fleck is a Hall-of-Famer at his High School
Fleck was something of a sensation back in his high school days and posted some records that haven’t been broken by any player after him. To recognize his contribution to the school’s football team and to football as a whole, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Kaneland High School in 2014.
4. Fleck Hosts an Annual Football Camp
Every year, PJ Fleck puts together a football camp, the proceeds of which go to a series of non-profits, foundations, and funds. These include the Juvenile Arthritis Foundation (Friends of Carra), Alopecia Foundation (Locks of Love), Coach Kill’s Cancer Fund, and the P. J. Fleck Scholarship Fund. The annual camp is captioned “Live Your Dream”.