Weeks before the football season began in 2006, P.J. Fleck found his life at a crossroads. The NFL wide receiver had just been cut by the San Francisco 49ers and he knew life as a player was over.
Incredibly, then-49ers head coach Mike Nolan offered Fleck a job seconds after he cut him. It was a bizarre development, but one Fleck viewed with enthusiasm. He always envisioned himself as a coach following his playing days. He just didn’t realize it would happen at 25 years of age.
Then the story took another twist. Jim Tressel offered Fleck a graduate assistant role at Ohio State.
Fleck was in Columbus the next day.
It was during that 2006 season with the Buckeyes that Fleck and Darrell Hazell crossed paths – literally. They worked together on a daily basis, prepping an Ohio State team that spent the entire regular season at No. 1.
Hazell, the Buckeyes’ assistant head coach in charge of wide receivers, and Fleck, an offensive graduate assistant, were part of a team that finished 12-1, losing to Florida in the national championship game. The offense included Heisman-winning quarterback Troy Smith, wide receivers Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez and running back Antonio Pittman.
“It’s the most special place I’ve ever coached,” Fleck said of Ohio State. “It holds a special place in my heart, not because of the buildings, not because of the Horseshoe, not because of the Block O, but because of Jim Tressel and what the people at Ohio State stood for. It’s inspiring. It truly is the Holy Grail of college football.”
In the seven seasons since 2006, Fleck has been an assistant at his alma mater, Northern Illinois, as well as Rutgers, Northern Illinois again and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year was his first season as a head coach, and it was just as difficult as Hazell’s. The Broncos finished 1-11, though they did secure the highest-rated recruiting class in MAC history in February.
It was Hazell who helped land Fleck a job at Rutgers in 2010, reaching out to former boss Greg Schiano.
It’s been a meteoric rise for the 33-year-old Fleck, the youngest head coach in the nation.
“PJ has a lot of energy,” Hazell said. “He coaches that way. Every time he coaches, it’s on his sleeves. You know his emotions. He’s a hard worker. He’s got personality. He does well in the community and recruiting. I’m happy for him, and hopefully he has some success after Week 1.”
Saturday, Hazell and Fleck meet as mentor and pupil.