Fleck adjusts to role at big-time program

DeKALB - In a manner of seconds, P.J. Fleck received a double-shot of irony earlier this month. In mid-July, the former Kaneland and Northern Illinois star wide receiver was calling San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan. After leaving a message for his former coach, Fleck immediately received a call from Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. “I think I even called him 'coach' thinking it was coach Nolan," Fleck said of his first words to Tressel. “I was very surprised to get a call from coach Tressel (at that moment). It was really weird. I don't know if that was a sign or not." The second dose of irony came when Fleck accepted the position of graduate assistant coach for the Buckeyes. Who does Ohio State open the 2006 season against? Naturally, the Huskies on Sept. 2 in Columbus. The uniqueness and timing of the non-conference clash, the first-ever between the Huskies and Buckeyes, wasn't lost on Fleck. “It's not like I hunted down the Ohio State job," Fleck said. “It just happened that way that the Buckeyes open up against the Huskies in the first week. I had a great opportunity to go to a great school." Fleck might be donning enemy colors for the season opener, but he won't be changing his allegiance. He takes pride in driving around Columbus with his vanity Huskie plates. His dad plans on wearing Fleck's NIU jersey (82) with an OSU hat at the game, while his wife, Tracie, most likely will be sporting a neutral red T-shirt. “I know where I came from and will always be a Huskie and so will my family," Fleck said. “Hopefully, one day I will be coaching at Northern Illinois. This job is a natural step for me. I would love to coach at Northern Illinois sooner or later. That's something I would love to do. This is the first step of possibly many for me on the coaching carousel." Don't expect Fleck to dish out any inside information to the Ohio State coaching staff and players. Fleck did make a point of telling the Buckeyes to not overlook the Huskies, but he quickly dismissed speculation of possessing inside knowledge of NIU's offensive system and players. “When I played at Northern Illinois, we ran a completely different system than they do now," Fleck said. “I don't even really know what offense (NIU's) running now. Football is football. It comes down to the players not the coaches." Fleck, who was cut by the 49ers in June, had the option of returning to the 49ers as an assistant wide receivers coach. Nolan told Fleck to make his decision before the start of camp. Northern Illinois running back coach Thomas Hammock and defensive ends coach Mike Sabock, a lifelong friend of Tressel, helped Fleck land the Ohio State job. Already, less than a month into his new job, Fleck understands why the Buckeyes are fighting for the national title nearly every season. “Everything is so hard-core here," Fleck said. “I usually get here at 6 in the morning and leave around 10 at night. You can see why Ohio State is ranked so high from the moment you step in the offices here and see the talent and how hard everybody is working. Everybody is striving to be the best. This is a great place to pay my dues and learn as much as possible." The main duties for Fleck will be coaching the tight ends and wide receivers. The Buckeyes, led by dual-threat quarterback Troy Smith, are ranked No. 1 in the country by numerous preseason magazines. Smith, a Heisman Trophy candidate, combined to pass and run for 263 yards-per-game last year, and will be aided by the return of star receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and tailback Antonio Pittman. “I'm going to be helping out with the passing game," Fleck said. “Everything has been great. I really like it. They run a completely different system here. The terminology is a lot different. That's what coaching is about. You learn different philosophies and systems." The transition from mid-major to big-time college football has opened Fleck's eyes. Fleck spent two years with the 49ers, but remains surprised at the atmosphere in Columbus. “Everybody here lives and dies with Ohio State football," Fleck said. “There is no professional football team here. I've heard their pre-game is very exciting. It's just so different. Northern Illinois is starting to get there, though." The season opener against the Huskies allows Fleck to meet some of his former teammates, friends and coaches. Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak took a risk by offering the undersized small-school standout a scholarship in 1999. Novak didn't listen to his assistant coaches, electing to use a scholarship at his own discretion on Fleck. The decision to sign Fleck coincided with the rise of the Huskies. Fleck, who won back-to-back Class 3A state titles at Kaneland, was a key part of the Huskies starting their current string of six consecutive winning seasons. Fleck caught 179 passes for 2,162 yards in a five-year career at Northern Illinois. Now, Fleck will get an opportunity to coach against his mentor. “Coach Novak took a big chance on me," Fleck said. “If not for him, I would never be at this level. Coach Novak gave me my start. I'm forever thankful to him. I'm looking forward to seeing him and watching him coach on the field (from the other sidelines). It will be really cool seeing so many people in my first collegiate coaching experience against my alma mater. That makes it so special. I'm excited to see coach Hammock and Sabock again." Bobby Narang can be reached at bnarang@daily-chronicle.com.