Jon Gordon is a best-selling author and motivational speaker who inspires with the power of positive thinking. P.J. Fleck is a football coach and motivational speaker who's instilled his positive thinking "Row the Boat'' culture into the Gophers football program.
So, it seemed expected, if not inevitable, that the two someday would team up, and now they have.
Last week, the Gordon and Fleck co-authored book, "Row the Boat: A Never-Give-Up Approach to Lead with Enthusiasm and Improve Your Team and Culture'', was released by Wiley publishing. It's a quick read at 144 pages and sells for $23 hardcover ($14 on Amazon Kindle). Proceeds of the book help support the Fleck Family Fund that benefits the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.
Fleck, who calls Gordon a longtime friend, worked with the author in the spring of 2020, during the downtime after the COVID-19 shutdown of college sports. Fleck said the charitable aim was the primary reason to write the book, but the timing worked well, too, with the coach's contributions taking a handful of days.
"I've always liked his books; they're very simple to the point,'' Fleck said of Gordon's work. "They all have a certain message that they're getting across. And I always thought if I ever wrote a 'Row the Boat' book, either a children's book or just 'Row the Boat,' Jon would be a perfect author.''
Gordon, whose best-sellers include "The Energy Bus'', "The Carpenter'' and "The No Complaining Rule'', was impressed with Fleck's work as Western Michigan's coach and how he developed the culture that continues to be front and center with the Gophers.
"P.J.'s back story is very powerful,'' Gordon writes. "I didn't know how he got his start or all he had to endure to become a coach. … I just knew he was the 'Row the Boat' guy. I was now even more intrigued and wanted to know where 'Row the Boat' came from.''
Fleck explains early that he was the "King of the Toos'' growing up in Illinois – too small, too short, too slow, etc. – but he persevered to become an All-State football, basketball and track athlete in high school before becoming an All-Mid-American Conference wide receiver at Northern Illinois. That led him to a two-year stint as a San Francisco 49ers receiver, which put him on his coaching path.
The most powerful message in the book comes when Fleck explains the inspiration to "Row the Boat.'' On Feb. 9, 2011, Fleck's son, Colton, died shortly after birth because of complications with his heart and lungs. Fleck, an assistant coach at Rutgers at the time, was told of Colton's prognosis during a visit to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia after prenatal testing.
"How could this be? How could he not make it,'' Fleck writes. "How come a doctor couldn't fix it. Where was God? I was filled with questions, confusion and anger. … Then, when he was born, everything seemed fine. 'Look … he's breathing,' I said with excitement and hope. 'Is there anything we can do now to save him.' There was nothing they could do. After a few minutes on Earth, Colton James Fleck had passed away.
"… Holding your son as he takes his last breath changes you for the rest of your life, whether you're ready for it or not. I felt like my life was over.''
Fleck grieved but eventually found a moment "when my pain became the major part of my purpose.'' Out of that came the "Row the Boat'' mantra, a way Fleck found to handle "adversity, tragedy, triumph, failing, conquering and doubting.'' His boss at Rutgers, coach Greg Schiano, had a slogan of "Keep chopping,'' and Fleck, a lover of boats and the water, came up with the nautical analogy.
In 2013, Fleck, at 32, became the head coach at Western Michigan, giving him a chance to instill the "Row the Boat'' culture. The Broncos went 1-11 in his first year, and Fleck was going through a divorce. "Nobody in Kalamazoo wanted to Row the Boat anymore,'' Fleck writes. "RTB became a joke and a punchline.'' He admits he struggled with the mocking of RTB because of how it originated from his son's death.
Fleck stuck with his mantra, and three winning seasons followed at Western Michigan, capped by a Cotton Bowl berth and a 13-1 record. He landed the Gophers job following the 2016 season, and "Row the Boat'' joined up with "Ski-U-Mah.''
There, of course, were skeptics in Minnesota. Many Gophers fans, stung by the failed Tim Brewster regime, weren't quick to warm up to another coach who they felt was talking a big game.
"We knew storms would come from players, opponents, faculty, administrators, alumni, donors, media, critics, community, fans and old staff members inside the program trying to sabotage and influence the daily agendas and the current players so that we wouldn't succeed,'' Fleck writes.
The waters were choppy in 2017 when Fleck's Minnesota debut produced a 5-7 record. The program began a turnaround late in the 2018 season, winning three of its final four games, including the first win at Wisconsin since 1994 and a bowl triumph over Georgia Tech to finish 7-6. That momentum helped fuel the 2019 breakthrough – 11-2 with a signature win over Penn State, the Outback Bowl victory over Auburn and a No. 10 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. Last year, the Gophers went 3-4 amid early defensive struggles and COVID-19 issues, providing a test for the "Row the Boat'' culture.
Fleck has often said his style isn't for everybody, and if you're someone who bristles at slogans and the power of positive thinking, this book might not be for you. However, if you're looking for a pick-me-up and a reminder of the power of perseverance, "Row the Boat'' has you covered.