In recent conversations with P.J. Fleck, former Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak said his former receiver "hinted" hesitation with his readiness to become a first-time offensive coordinator, but never told him he felt unprepared.
Announced as NIU's offensive coordinator Thursday, Fleck was supposed to fill a void that was left after Matt Canada accepted the same position at Wisconsin. Novak said he thought the former NIU and Kaneland star was ready for the next step in his young coaching career. He figured Fleck took the job with confidence.
But one day after the hire was official, Fleck resigned Friday after telling NIU coach Dave Doeren he wasn't ready. Novak learned of Fleck's resignation like most NIU fans – over the Internet. At first, he thought it was just a rumor before eventually realizing it wasn't.
"It was a shock," Novak told the Daily Chronicle on Friday night. "I've talked to him several times the last couple weeks, and the last I talked to him was [Thursday] or the day before. He was excited and anxious."
Doeren and Fleck did not return multiple phone messages Friday night.
NIU spokeswoman Donna Turner told the Daily Chronicle that Doeren will not comment until he hires Fleck's replacement, and she did not know when that would be. Turner said Fleck resigned over the phone on Friday morning, and Doeren informed players after hanging up. Turner said Doeren worked on finding a replacement throughout Friday.
Turner also said Fleck gave no indication of what his next career move would be. Tampa Bay Times Bucs beat reporter Rick Stroud tweeted there was "speculation" Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano – who hired Fleck as a receivers coach from NIU two seasons ago – would hire Fleck as Tampa Bay's receivers coach, the same job he held at Rutgers, but nothing was confirmed as of presstime Friday.
Novak said he would wait to call Fleck until this morning, and that he did not know what the future held.
"Does he have another job?" he asked. "I don't know."
In a news release Thursday, Doeren said Fleck was the first candidate he thought of to replace Canada. Fleck said Thursday he didn't know Doeren well, but called his new relationship under the Huskie coach a "perfect match" and said the chance to return home was a "no-brainer." Apparently, those opinions changed 24 hours later.
“P.J. called today and said he does not feel he’s ready to be an offensive coordinator,” Doeren said in a news release. “It’s unfortunate, but what’s best for our program is to move in a different direction and that’s what I’m going to do.
"Everything happens for a reason and the result of this will make NIU football even better."
Fleck was beloved by fans as an NIU receiver from 1999-2003. He led the Huskies with 77 catches for 1,028 yards and six touchdowns his senior year, helping NIU ascend to a No. 10 BCS ranking before finishing the season 10-2. His reception total still ranks second on the school's single-season list.
After a brief NFL playing career with the San Francisco 49ers, Fleck returned to his alma mater to be a receivers coach under Novak and former coach Jerry Kill. He added recruiting coordinator duties in 2009 before leaving to become Rutgers' receivers coach. Fleck felt prepared enough to interview for NIU's head coach position last year after Kill left for Minnesota.
Novak, who kept a bond with Fleck since his playing days, said he encouraged his former player he was ready for offensive coordinator duties.
"We talked a little bit about that. I said, 'You know what, before you become a head coach, you have to become a head coach for a first time. There's a first time for everything,' " Novak said. "P.J's a very intelligent young guy, and he has a lot of experience. I thought he was ready, but it's a little nerve-wracking to anybody stepping into a role like that."
Novak has long held a special place in Huskie history, even after retirement in 2007. He attended NIU's Mid-American Conference Championship games in Detroit the past two seasons, and is never shy about his love for the program.
But he said he loves the people more, especially former players. And he will never hesitate to give Fleck more encouragement.
"I want what is best for him," Novak said. "I was excited [Thursday], and I was excited for him. As much as anything, I'm concerned for him and what is next in his future.
"When I talk to P.J., I don't tell him what to do. We talk about different things and consequences about situations. But I support him, always."