Scoggins: Prof. Fleck? Coach finds new gig teaching class

The instructor of a leadership class at the University of Minnesota is 70 minutes into his lecture when he grabs a large red vase from the lectern to deliver a final point.

This isn't just any vase, he tells the 22 students in the room. It was a gift from his wife on their wedding day. A refurbished heirloom that has been in her family for more than a century, which they plan to pass on to their kids someday.

He clutches the vase as he discusses the fragility of leadership and how one mistake …

He tosses the vase into the air midsentence and watches it hit the floor, shattering into pieces.

A few students gasp, then stunned silence.

"Just like in leadership," he says, "it's fragile. One bad decision and it's broken."

P.J. Fleck starts smiling.

"Now, that is not Heather's vase," he says, drawing laughter. "It's from Target."

Inside this classroom, Fleck is not merely the Gophers football coach. He's also co-instructor of a class called Everyday Moments of Leadership, a seven-week course for undergraduates in the Carlson School of Management.

The coach — who earned a degree in elementary education, had visions of becoming a teacher and often references his fondness for that profession — jumped at an invitation to return to his teaching roots this semester.

"It's so fun," Fleck shares in a quiet moment after his 90-minute class. "There are so many parallels in leadership with sports and business."

Carlson School Prof. Theresa Glomb had an idea after reading Fleck's book entitled "Row the Boat," named after his slogan. Glomb talked to Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle about creating deeper partnerships between Carlson School and the athletic department, broaching the topic of Fleck helping teach a course. She had noticed correlations between Fleck's core pillars of coaching and her school's curriculum.

"One of the things that is significant about P.J. is he is such an intentional leader," Glomb says. "Everything is interwoven with the themes and the season."

The half-semester course features 13 sessions. Fleck is teaching four of them. His topic for class No. 3: Enabling others to act.

His students receive the full Hurricane Fleck experience.

His lecture is fast-paced and energetic. And loud. Really loud. He holds a mug of coffee in one hand, a clicker to control his video presentation in the other.

His lecture highlights specific traits of leadership, how he applies them to coaching, and how those qualities translate to any profession. Each teaching point is accompanied by a video.

Fleck asks students if they remember the three L's that leaders do, as discussed in a previous lecture. Nobody responds immediately.

"I'm not going to tell you the answer," he says. "I'm going to wait."

They eventually get all three correct: Listen, look and lift.

When a student answers a question softly, Fleck reminds the group that "Remember, volume reflects confidence."

He hits a bevy of themes: Empowering employees, building trust, holding people accountable, how to avoid micromanaging.

He shares that he gave every member of his staff a plastic egg this year. A golden egg in a nod to Willy Wonka. Fleck loves to use acronyms for motivational tactics. In this case, egg stands for energy, gratefulness, growth. That's how he plans to evaluate his staff this season.

Some of his teaching points are serious in tone. He talks about firing an assistant coach who was a close friend — "We're not as close anymore," he says — and accepting that being judged and criticized is part of leadership.

"I'm not here to be liked," he says. "I'm here to lead an organization and a team. That's what your mission is going to be as a leader as you keep going forward."

Other moments are less intense. He uses a funny clip from the TV show "Black-ish" to illustrate a point. He shares with the group that his morning alarm vibrates three times followed by a Jimmy Buffett song. His goal is to be up and alert before the first chord of Buffett.

He closes with the vase theatrics.

"Here's the point," he tells them. "Leadership is really difficult. It's incredibly lonely, but you're not alone."

Fleck tells students to grab a piece of vase off the floor as they leave. He asks them to keep it as a reminder that leadership can be fragile.

Students stop to have Fleck sign their piece of the vase. A few take selfies with him. One student brings over a replica of Fleck's San Francisco 49ers jersey that he wore during a brief stint as a wide receiver. Fleck sounds surprised and appreciative as he autographs it.

Several students knew nothing about Fleck at the start of the semester. He was just an instructor in their leadership class. Fleck loves that about the gig.

"You're not just a football coach," he says.