KHS alum P.J. Fleck prepares for 1st season as head coach in major college football
by Mike Slodki
KANELAND—When asked about former Knight wideout P.J. Fleck, former assistant and current Kaneland High School head football coach Tom Fedderly said, “No one is going to outwork P.J.”
“I don’t know about anyone else, I just try to outwork myself,” Fleck said on Monday.
That could be what led to the Sugar Grove native’s rise through the ranks among NFL and college football staffs. His rise culminated in becoming the youngest head coach in major college football on Dec. 18, when he took over the top spot at Western Michigan University at the age of 32.
He replaced eight-year head coach Bill Cubit, who had been fired after a 51-46 stint leading the Broncos.
After starring for Kaneland High School and Northern Illinois University, and then making the NFL as a member of the 2004 San Francisco 49ers, Fleck entered the coaching ladder as a graduate assistant with Coach Jim Tressel’s Ohio State Buckeyes.
Fleck then went on to be wide receivers coach at NIU and Rutgers before following former Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 2012 season.
Fleck has plenty of mentors who have made an impact on him as he prepares for his first season in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“Anytime you’re a coach at any level, you’re built by who you were with,” Fleck said. “I’m all of those guys.”
Fleck’s aspirations always included being a head coach at some level. A chance to lead a program with plenty of Midwestern talent and belonging to a conference with ample television coverage gives him a stage to show what he can accomplish.
“People looked at Nick Saban when he first started coaching and said he had never been a coach before,” Fleck said. “Now it’s wondering if he can win another national championship. You can’t be a head coach until you get the job.”
Assembling the Broncos’ football staff provided a boost to the first-year coach.
“I was excited to assemble my kind of coaching staff. In my short career, I’ve been around a lot of coaching staffs, and now it’s my chance. Every year, you kind of re-invent yourself until you become a head coach,’ Fleck said.
Fleck tries to lead the program back to a winning season, last seen in 2011 when the Broncos went to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and finished third in the MAC West Division.
The Kaneland grad is also getting the head coach/father dynamic down, as the birth of his second child, daughter Paisley, came just 24 hours before he officially took the Broncos’ helm.
“I love it, and somehow I have more energy,” Fleck said. “You have to be able to manage your time, and this has made me a better husband and father.”
The 15th head coach in Western Michigan history has plenty of fans in his corner locally, as Fedderly saw early on what Fleck was capable of accomplishing.
“Just watching him mature and become the man that he is just makes me really proud. He’s just a really good friend and good friend of our family. To see him work his way up as he did and become a head coach at 32 is unbelievable,” Fedderly said.
With mere months remaining before the start of his first season, Fleck reflected on the the biggest change he has experienced thus far in his new role.
“You are the final decision maker. I’ve always wanted to be that. You listen to the coaching staff and hear what they have to say and at the end of the day, you make the best choice,” Fleck said. “Greg (Schiano) was the best I’ve ever seen at making decisions.”
Having to start somewhere, Fleck has reached a pinnacle at his first head coaching stop.
“People have always doubted me at every stop,” Fleck said. “It’s happened my whole life, and I love it.”
Fleck and his WMU team kick things off in East Lansing, Mich., against the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday, Aug. 31.