Coach P.J. Fleck makes most of ‘scars’ left by losses to Big Ten teams

Published 8:05 am Monday, August 21, 2017

By Andy Greder

Pioneer Press

Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck had no interest in reliving the past with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz when the new Big Ten colleagues sat near each other during the conference’s kickoff luncheon in Chicago last month.

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Fleck says he still has nightmares of the Broncos’ nonconference game against the Hawkeyes during his first season at Western Michigan, in 2013. An occasion, he says, when “we got beat by 70.”

In fact, the score was Iowa 59, Western Michigan 3. But that somewhat smaller margin of defeat is of no consolation.

“That was a wonderful experience,” Fleck said sarcastically. “I didn’t share that with him again because that would (not) have been fun to go down memory lane for me.”

Fleck recalls a “record” number of returns allowed for touchdowns at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City that September afternoon. While the total was four — two punt returns of 83 and 63 yards and two interception returns of 35 and 13 — those big plays contributed to Fleck starting his head coaching career with four straight losses, going 0-3 versus the Big Ten.

Adding to the lumps, Fleck suffered a 27-23 loss to Nicholls State, a Football Bowl Subdivision program, in his second game. Before that, Fleck lost his debut, 26-13, to Michigan State.

While Western Michigan went 1-11 in the disastrous first season, Fleck said it should have been 0-12 — if not for Massachusetts failing to convert a two-point conversion with 22 seconds remaining in a 31-30 Western Michigan midseason victory.

But by in his fourth season in Kalamazoo, Mich., Fleck’s Mid-American Conference team came back to beat Northwestern 22-21 in last year’s season opener in Evanston, Ill.

“All of our scars, we used to our advantage,” Fleck said.

Before the Week 4 beatdown at the hands of the Hawkeyes in 2013, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and the 17th-ranked Wildcats had beaten Fleck and Western Michigan 38-17. But that wasn’t the first time the coaches had met.

When Fleck was a first-time assistant coach at his alma mater, Northern Illinois in 2007-08, the receivers coach wanted to have lunch with Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald agreed to meet, if Fleck could fit it into a half-hour window of his schedule and be willing to drive to a small burger joint near Northwestern’s campus.

Fleck made a tires-screeching noise to describe how quickly he left Dekalb, Ill., to meet Fitzgerald.

One Fitzgerald quote stuck with Fleck: ‘I don’t believe in management. You manage machines. Leaders inspire people. I believe in leadership,’ “ Fleck recalled.
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