Minnesota coach PJ Fleck gets contract extended through 2026

<p>
              FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2019, file photo, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck celebrates a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. Fleck believes keeping an open line of communication is the key to allowing him to redshirt a player without resistance, and avoid having an athlete make the decision himself. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
            </p>

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota made a major commitment toward keeping coach P.J. Fleck in place for the long term.

He sure hasn’t hidden how happy he is here.

Undefeated and 13th-ranked Minnesota agreed with Fleck on a contract extension through the 2026 season, including an annual raise of more than 25% from his current salary and an eight-figure buyout for the first year to cover the university if he were to leave.

Fleck signed his new deal on Tuesday afternoon, delaying his regular weekly news conference by a half-hour. The contract, which is pending final approval by the Board of Regents, will pay Fleck $4.6 million in 2020 with a $50,000 raise scheduled for each season thereafter.

“This is a very fun team. It’s a very fun culture, very different, but I love these young men. I love them as my own sons,” Fleck said. “A lot of times it’s easy for coaches to pick up and leave, go different places. These are very, very special people. I believe in what we can do here.”

Referencing Big Ten West Division foes Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin and the low turnover on their coaching staffs, Fleck spoke of establishing the same type of continuity with a program that has lacked it for decades. Senior linebacker Thomas Barber, whose father and two older brothers also played for the Gophers, noted that his family has been associated with seven head coaches.

“That contract extension is pretty awesome for me to see, just having stability in the program and seeing what he’s built up right now,” Barber said.

The Gophers (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) host sixth-ranked Penn State on Saturday, the first time they’ve been a part of a game with two top-15 teams in The Associated Press poll since 2004, when Michigan visited Minnesota.

The success Minnesota has had this season made a natural addition to the speculative lists of potential candidates for higher-profile programs filling vacancies at the end of the year. Fleck, after all, made the jump from Western Michigan just three seasons ago.

“I didn’t want to be a transitional program,” Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle said.

Fleck and his wife, Heather, who have four children, have done their best to put any concern to rest about him simply using the Gophers as a steppingstone to a place like, for example, Florida State where coach Willie Taggart was fired this week.

“Do you want to make a living, or do you want to live a life? Here you can live a life, plus have the job you love, in the area you love, with people that you love working with. It’s a tremendous combination,” Fleck said. “I think we’re starting to see all over the country how hard that is, how quickly coaches can leave, get fired. Things can go sideways quickly.”

Fleck, who turns 39 on Nov. 29, was making $3.6 million this year. He’ll move from 10th to seventh in the 14-team conference in total compensation. The original contract also called for a $1 million payment to Minnesota per remaining season on the deal if Fleck were to skip out, but now it would cost him $10 million to do so any time before Dec. 31, 2020.

The buyout for a departure by Fleck drops to $4.5 million in 2021, $3.5 million in 2022, $3 million in 2023, and $2 million in 2024 or 2025. If he were to be fired for performance, without cause, the university would owe him 65% of the remaining base salaries and supplemental compensation. That’s a big bump from the $2.5 million figure the initial deal called for if he were to be dismissed in 2019.

Fleck is 20-13 at Minnesota, including a 10-game winning streak that started on Nov. 24, 2018, with a victory at Wisconsin that was the first for the Gophers over the rival Badgers since 2003. The Gophers are tied with Baylor for the third-longest active winning streak in the FBS, behind defending national champion Clemson (24) and defending Big Ten champion Ohio State (14).

With a winning percentage of .606, Fleck is third in Gophers history among head coaches with 30 or more games and the best since Bernie Bierman, who last coached at Minnesota in 1950 and led the Gophers to five national championships.