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What a Young College Football Coach Can Teach Us About Culture

Wednesday, January 22, 2020  
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January 10, 2020

Dear colleagues,

On New Year’s Day, something extraordinary happened that has a direct bearing on our life-changing work. To understand the significance of this event, I am going to provide a little context, walk through what happened, and describe what it means for us as public charter school leaders. 

The Context

P.J. Fleck is the 39-year-old head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, among the youngest head coaches in all of Division 1 football. The U of M is one of the largest and best endowed universities in the nation with 51,000 students and two campuses in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

The U of M’s football program was founded in 1882 and became a member of the Big 10 conference when it first formed in 1896. Although the Big 10 is one of the most storied football conferences in the country, the U of M hasn’t had a strong football program since 1960. Over the past 10 years, it has blown through several head coaches in an attempt to remake the program.

Thus, when he came to the Minnesota three years ago, P.J. Fleck had to overcome widespread doubt and cynicism among students, institutional leaders and patrons alike.   

What Happened

On January 1, 2020, the 18th ranked Golden Gophers football team beat the 12th ranked Auburn Tigers 31-24 in the Outback Bowl. The Gophers didn’t just beat the Tigers, they outplayed them from start to finish in every facet of the game.  

Auburn is coached by Gus Malzahn, one of the most respected coaches in college football. In seven seasons as head coach, Malzahn has enabled Auburn to compile a 62-30 winning record and become one of the strongest programs in the nation. Because of Auburn’s performance in the 2019 season, it was favored by odds-makers to beat Minnesota by 7.5 points in the Outback Bowl.

In essence, the game pitted Auburn, a powerhouse program with an elite coach, against Minnesota, an upstart program with a young coach trying to orchestrate a turnaround.

What It Means

Over the past six years, P.J. Fleck hasn’t just turned around one football program, he has turned around two. Before he came to Minnesota, his first job as head coach was at Western Michigan. In just three seasons, from 2015 to 2017, he enabled the Broncos to progress from a losing record of 1-11 to a winning record of 13-0 on the way to facing off against the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2017 Cotton Bowl.

So what is Fleck’s winning formula? Get this – his background is in elementary education, and he started his career as a 6th grade social studies teacher. In a recent interview, Fleck said, “One thing I’ll say about teaching sixth grade is you learn 30 different ways to teach one lesson. I think that’s what has kind of helped me become a head football coach.”

But Fleck knows that he isn’t just delivering lessons; he is a change agent and culture builder. At a press conference on September 7, 2017, Fleck shared insights on how to build strong culture. He used the acronym HYPRR, which stands for:

·       How – the People

·       Your Vision

·       Process – the Work

·       Results – the Data

·       Response

By using a simple metaphor called rowing the boat, Fleck engages, motivates and aligns all of the stakeholders in a Division 1 football program – the players, coaches, alumni, donors and institutional leaders – so that they become champions in the quest for greatness.

The Lessons for Us

In public education, we aren’t going to motivate anyone to achieve greatness by forcing them to work in a heavily regulated little box. Sadly, that is exactly what we are trying to do in far too many schools where teachers operate within compliance-heavy systems that constrain every facet of what they do. The sheer volume and weight of these systems – standardized curricula, step and ladder pay scales, codified calendars, frequent testing, centralized controls – act together to stifle ingenuity, discourage vision, and weed out people who want to give it their all.        

If we want to elevate the teaching profession, we have to put educators in control of their own destiny. We have to unleash them to be great teachers, change agents and culture builders. We have to embolden them by giving them the autonomy, initiative and resources to remake programs, open new schools, and lead institutions to greatness.

P.J. Fleck isn’t a transformational head coach because of the legacy programs that he inherited, the salary he commands, or the resources behind the football programs he leads. He is a great head coach because he is committed to winning and finds opportunities to lead in situations where people are hungry for change and willing to come on board with his energy, vision, intensity and pursuit of greatness. He leads with creativity, resilience, discipline and passion.  

Throughout the state of Colorado, I know thousands of entrepreneurial educators who didn’t have to leave elementary and secondary schools to find such opportunities on a football field. They found those opportunities in charter schools. As districts become increasingly engaged partners in the charter school movement, I sincerely hope that we can bring such entrepreneurship to many more educators. 


Benjamin J. Lindquist