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Gophers' Fleck got his coaching start with Buckeyes

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck looks on during the first half against the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 15, 2018. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — P.J. Fleck carried one pot of regular coffee and another with decaf as he went around Ohio State staff meetings filing the cups of assistant coaches during the 2006 season.

He juggled the need to provide decaf to the one coach who drank it, while making sure he had enough regular joe to fill all the other mugs.

When Fleck's pots ran dry, some on the Buckeyes would call out the 25-year-old graduate assistant. That memory was one of many Fleck shared Monday, Oct. 8, as a rite of passage through his first year of coaching college football.

Fleck will return to Columbus for the first time as Minnesota's head coach Saturday when the Gophers (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) face the third-ranked Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0) at Ohio Stadium.

"I learned how to grind, how to do a lot of the grunt work," said Fleck, who moved on to be the receivers coach at his alma mater, Northern Illinois, in 2007. "I learned how every one of those things that you see on the game day takes everybody, not just the head coach. It goes all the way down to the GAs work."

Fleck also learned to keep his mouth shut. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the nation with a 7-0 start to 2006 when a mediocre Indiana team came to the Horseshoe that October.

One of Fleck's duties as the offensive/special teams GA was to wrangle Buckeyes players on the punt team. When the offense faced a third down and it looked possible that the special team's unit could be called on, Fleck would count up the players and relay instructions.

With the punt team ready after a failed third-down conversion, Fleck thought he heard another assistant make a "yellow punt" call, which he said is made when punting within a team's own 4-yard line.

The distinction is the spot the defense must reach for a block is closer to the line of scrimmage, so more protection is needed.

But Ohio State was at its own 7-yard line as the Fleck-directed Buckeyes lined up.

"All of a sudden, Coach (Jim) Tressel is on the headset," Fleck recalled, "And he's like, 'What are we doing? Who the hell just called yellow punt!?!'

"I was waiting for somebody on the headset to say, 'I said it, and P.J. just echoed it,'" Fleck said. "Crickets. All of a sudden, 'P.J. did it!'"

The Buckeyes' tighter-protection gave the Hoosiers a better opportunity for a big return, with Tracy Porter taking it 34 yards to Ohio State's 15. Indiana settled for a field goal, but had taken a 3-0 lead in the first quarter.

Fleck swears he heard someone make that call, but he takes the blame.

"I remember from that day forward to only talk when you're asked a question and to only give your opinion if you're asked," he said.

Fleck didn't have to sweat that for long since Ohio State buried the Hoosiers 44-3 to improve to 8-0.

In November, Ohio State went on to beat No. 2 Michigan 42-39 in what was billed as the "Game of the Century." The Buckeyes then advanced to the BCS Championship game against No. 2 Florida.

All of it seemed so easy to a naive Fleck.

"We are there just winning and winning and winning, and I look at Jim Tressel in all the meetings and I sit there and go, 'This ain't that hard. How hard can this be?' " Fleck said.

The Buckeyes were loaded with quarterback Troy Smith en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.

Standouts Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez were at receiver, with Antonio Pittman and Chris "Beanie" Wells in the backfield.

On defense, linebacker James Laurinaitis, from Wayzata, was the leading tackler.

Florida was led by coach Urban Meyer — who is now at Ohio State — and quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, with dangerous receiver Percy Harvin on the outside, before he made similar electric plays for the Vikings.

Florida was leading 24-14 in the second quarter when Ohio State decided to go for it on fourth and 1 from its own 29. There was still plenty of game left, but Fleck was gobsmacked by what Tressel said next over the headset.

"He said, 'Boys, if we don't get this, the game is over,' " Fleck recalled.

Wells was stopped for no gain, and the Gators went on to win 41-14 for the national championship.

"I never heard Jim Tressel ever say that (before)," Fleck said. "So, I got to see somebody who was the best coach in America do everything always right and still run into a buzzsaw somehow, and we couldn't do anything about it."

Fleck will wear a tie on the sideline Saturday, a nod, in part, to Tressel, a mentor he has long admired.

"I learned how you treat people in the profession by watching Jim," Fleck said. "...Not just when you are coaching. But off the field, watching ... his serving and giving and how he treated everybody. When Jim Tressel talked to you, everybody felt important.

"To work for a guy like that as your first job, that sets the tone for how you live the rest of your coaching life. I'm just really, really blessed that I got a chance to be around special people in my first job."

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