P.J. Fleck is the perfect choice to right the reeling Minnesota program
Minnesota just pulled off the heist of the century.
Honestly, that’s the only reaction I had to the college football bomb that dropped on Friday morning. Just a few days after Minnesota elected to fire Tracy Claeys in the midst of a tumultuous final few weeks on the job, it went out and stunned the college football world by hiring Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck. What started off as rumors became official Friday with FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman confirming the report.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 6, 2017
And when Fleck is officially introduced as the Gophers’ next head coach, all I will be able to say is wow. In a coaching carousel where Texas, Oregon and Purdue all roped in hot, young coaches, Minnesota – relative to where it is in the college football hierarchy – just got the best one.
Most folks know Fleck’s background, but for the Minnesota fan that might not, here’s what you need to know.
Fleck is a self-made coaching star, a man who came to Kalamazoo with a short resume (he had never even been a coordinator at any level, let alone head coach) and completely flipped the program on its head. After going 1-11 in year one, Fleck led the Broncos to back-to-back eight-win seasons in 2014 and 2015, before this year’s breakthrough 13-1 campaign that included a trip to the Cotton Bowl. Ironically, Fleck’s last game at Western Michigan was against his new Big Ten West rival, Wisconsin. And for those scoring at home, yes, his Broncos actually played the Badgers tougher than than Minnesota did this season, only losing by eight (the Gophers lost by 14).
But after interviewing Fleck a handful of times, I can tell you that he isn’t just about numbers on a piece of paper; instead, he is defined by the life he immediately pumps into every room he enters. Fleck has the “it” factor, the ability to go someplace and immediately get everyone to believe in him and buy into his vision. It was proven when he took a program from 1-11 to 13-1 in a 36-month span and in his ability to bring in – quite literally – the best recruiting classes in the history of the MAC. Whatever Fleck is selling, everybody else is buying. That is something that will largely come into play at Minnesota, a program that was rocked by an ugly sexual assault scandal and near-boycott that resulted in Claeys’ firing. In the immediate future, the Golden Gophers need someone to heal this program. If there’s one man who can do it, it appears to be Fleck.
Beyond that, though, just sit back, close your eyes and think about this hire for a second. Think “P.J. Fleck” and “Minnesota,” and you get the genesis of why this hire is so great.
This was a guy who seemed – and still does – destined for one of the premiere programs in the sport. Only now, he’s going to one of the most uninteresting programs in all of college football and will immediately make it relevant.
Now that’s not to knock Minnesota, but in my lifetime, the Golden Gophers have always been one of those football programs that’s kind of just “been there.” Not great, not awful, just kind of there. I frankly can’t remember a relevant player the Gophers have had since the Marion Barber/Laurence Maroney days of over a decade ago. And while it has played in 14 bowl games in the past 18 years, what is the last meaningful memory you have of Minnesota football? Outside of the situation that sprung up in the past few weeks, when have you thought about Minnesota football at all?
Believe me, you will now. Fleck won’t give you a choice. He’s about to row his boat right into the harbor of Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin, and take his oar and smack you on the side of the head with more Minnesota football than anyone can possibly handle. If you haven’t thought about the Golden Gophers before, you will now, with Fleck turning into the Big Ten’s proverbial little brother, tugging at the coattails of Meyer and Harbaugh and Franklin and Paul Chryst, forcing them to pay attention to him and his program.
It will be annoying at first. Then frustrating, when he starts to win big later.
That’s not to say that Fleck will win national championships at Minnesota, but it seems likely that he could be competing with Wisconsin for supremacy of the West soon. Let’s not forget that despite all the turmoil, the Golden Gophers also won nine games last season. This program isn’t a total tear-down project, but more a fixer-upper. And with the way Fleck recruits – incredibly, his class at Western Michigan is currently ranked higher than the one at Minnesota – he’ll be able to get players at a school that hasn’t had them before.
In time, Minnesota will win under Fleck.
So with all due respect to Claeys, this is the home-run, can’t-miss hire of the college football season. Trade in a coach who was “good enough” for a proven winner, dynamic recruiter and overall life of the party, and we’re talking major upgrade. Like going to bed with a 1996 Honda Accord in your driveway and waking up with a Corvette. Like getting divorced from a broken marriage and starting a relationship with Beyonce a week later.
Congratulations to the Golden Gophers, who not only got a better coach, but got more interesting in the process.
So, too, did the Big Ten and college football as a whole.