Gophers name P.J. Fleck as next head football coach
MINNEAPOLIS -- The microphone provided to P.J. Fleck wasn't audible during his introductory news conference in the upper suite level of TCF Bank Stadium on Friday. But the new University of Minnesota head football coach's boisterous voice didn't ...
MINNEAPOLIS - The microphone provided to P.J. Fleck wasn't audible during his introductory news conference in the upper suite level of TCF Bank Stadium on Friday. But the new University of Minnesota head football coach's boisterous voice didn't need further amplification.
Before Fleck took the podium, Mark Coyle described Fleck as having "authentic energy" as the Gophers athletics director introduced his lightning-fast hire of starling Fleck, who took Western Michigan from a one-win season in 2013 to a one-loss year in 2016.
Coyle picked Fleck within three days to lead what he was deemed to be a necessary cultural overhaul of the football program tainted by 10 players suspended for varying levels of suspected involvement in an alleged sexual assault in September. Coach Tracy Claeys and most of his staff were fired Tuesday, in part, for their support of the player-led boycott over suspensions made by Coyle.
Fleck was given a five-year, $18-million contract to steward the wounded Gophers program. Fleck has received national attention for how he took Western Michigan, a lower-tier Mid-American Conference (MAC) school, to the prestigious Cotton Bowl with his unique, turbo-speed brand of collectivism.
On Friday, Fleck tried to marry the "row the boat" catchphrase he popularized in Kalamazoo, Mich., with Minnesota's rallying cry of "Ski-U-Ma."
"I am not here to change tradition," Fleck said. "'Ski-U-Mah' is going to be all over the place. 'Row the boat' will be mixed (in). I am not here to change tradition. What I am here to do is change a culture. To change the movement, for us to create and experience things that the University of Minnesota football has only dreamed of and hasn't accomplished since the late '60s."
Fleck talked about his players wearing collared shirts and sitting in the front row of class, and a program that will serve the community. He mentioned winning Big Ten and national championships and making a return to the Rose Bowl, an accomplishment unheard of for the U since 1962.
Fleck's work has begun to get a fractured locker room to buy in. They've shared how players have become disillusioned with the school's administration and the Title IX investigation that recommended the suspensions.
In an online meeting Friday with players, who are away on winter break, Fleck said he asked a question about the turmoil that hit a boiling point in mid-December and had been stirring since police opened an investigation in September. The Hennepin County attorney's office has twice declined to press charges based on sufficient evidence.
"We talked about it and we moved on," Fleck said. "But I did tell them the same thing ... that my focus is on them now, not them back when, it's them now. That's why I'm here. I'm a solution-driven guy, and that's what I want to continue to do as we move forward through Gopher football."
Since Coyle was hired in May, he has dealt with a Gophers athletic department that also has endured a drug scandal within the wrestling program that cost legendary coach J Robinson his job. In firing Claeys, Coyle said he wanted to compete with great character and integrity "academically, athletically and socially."
"I feel like (Fleck's) teams have done that," Coyle said.
Fleck's enthusiasm reminds some Gophers supporters of former coach Tim Brewster, who came in with gusto in 2007 and flamed out with a 15-30 record before he was fired during the 2010 season.
Former Gophers wide receiver Ron Johnson said he doesn't compare Fleck to Brewster because Fleck has a track record.
"Brewster was never a head coach but he had a million slogans," Johnson said. "The difference is Fleck's have actually worked. He has some substance behind it because he can say I took a 1-11 team to 13-1. I just played Wisconsin (and lost 24-16) in the (Cotton) bowl - so he hates Wisconsin already."
Western Michigan defensive back Malik Rucker, who attended Robbinsdale Cooper High School, heard the news of Fleck leaving on Twitter, but said he wasn't disappointed to not hear it directly. Rucker also said that although he's going into his senior year, he understands why Fleck would go to Minnesota.
Rucker described Fleck as a "life coach."
"He's not going to (not) deal with any off-the-field issues and he will handle them," Rucker said. "He's big on discipline. ... His lessons will teach the players to be responsible off the field."
Philip John Fleck, 36, became the Western Michigan coach before the 2013 season. The Broncos went 1-11 in his first season but improved to consecutive 8-5 records in 2014 and '15 and then went 13-1 in 2016. Western Michigan was undefeated and won the MAC title.
Fleck played wide receiver at Northern Illinois from 1999-2003 and was named first team all-MAC during his senior season in 2003. He was on the San Francisco 49ers' roster for two seasons after signing as a free agent and returned one punt for 10 yards in his only game in 2004.
After a graduate assistant role at Ohio State, Fleck returned to Northern Illinois as a wide receivers coach from 2007-09, with former Gophers coach Jerry Kill coming to NIU in 2008 and leaving for Minnesota after the 2010 season. Fleck coached with many members of the Gophers staff who were let go along with Claeys on Tuesday.
"Coach Kill did tell me, 'Hey, tell him you're a Kill guy,'" Fleck relayed. "I said, 'I'm a Kill guy!' I'm part of the Kill tree, I do know that. Coach Kill taught me a lot about how to care for players. When I already did care for players, he taught me how to care more."
Fleck went on to be the receivers coach at Rutgers in 2010-11 and followed then-Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for one season in 2012 before moving to Western Michigan at the tender age of 32.
Fleck said Gophers players were "looking me up and down, left and right, measuring me up" when they met Friday.
"But I can feel the energy and I could feel they've embraced the change," Fleck said. "And I know there's going to be a lot of challenges ahead. I know there's going to be people that fit with the change, that don't fit with the change, that like the change, that don't like the change. Everybody wants change until you get change. Well, I got news for everybody. Change has arrived!"