Early this January, the University of Minnesota athletic department made the decision to fire head football coach Tracy Claeys, and most of his staff. While I was not a big fan of this move, as the last thing Gopher football needed was another major coaching turnover in the middle of their largest uninterrupted stretch of 8 or more win seasons in history, it happened regardless.
Within a few days, however, Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle had already found his new man. Enter P.J. Fleck. Fleck was certainly a hire that went in a different direction than Claeys, considering his outspoken, brash personality is a near polar opposite of Claeys, and even Claeys predecessor Jerry Kill's, more relaxed and calm appearance.
A native of Illinois, and wide receiver at both Northern Illinois University and with the San Francisco 49ers, Fleck got his start coaching wide receivers at Northern Illinois (ironically working with Jerry Kill's and Tracy Claeys staff in their time at NIU). Then to the same position at Rutgers, and then again with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before landing his first head coaching job at Western Michigan. He held his post at WMU for 4 seasons before now joining Minnesota. Fleck, at 36, is also among the youngest college head coaches in the country.
Not surprisingly, there was both praise and criticism for the hire. Some praised Minnesota for hiring a person like Fleck, while others bashed Minnesota for, well, hiring a person like Fleck.
Opponents attacked his claims of making the Golden Gophers truly 'Golden' once again, vowing to bring them back to the Rose Bowl and win the Big Ten Conference championship (things which haven't happened since the 1960s), as they said it sounded too much like another former Gopher boss, Tim Brewster. Brewster made the claim that he was going to have Minnesota winning the Rose Bowl again within a few seasons. In Brewster's run from 2007-2010, he was only able to get a win/loss record of 15-30, and was fired after going 1-6 midway through the 2010 season.
While Fleck certainly talks more like Brewster than Claeys, he actually has college head coaching experience. Tim Brewster was the tight ends coach for 2 NFL teams and 2 college teams, but he had never ran a program from the the top, or even been a coordinator on either side of the ball. While Fleck had a similar resume when he started at Western Michigan, the story clearly turned out different. In 4 seasons, Fleck took WMU from 1-11 to 13-1, coming within 1 score of defeating powerhouse Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl and ended the season ranked #15 in the country. Seems to be a decent resume for such a short tenure.
Others believed that Minnesota should have hired former Louisiana State head coach Les Miles for the position. Miles was certainly an attractive option, as he produced many winning seasons while at LSU including 2 appearances in the BCS National Championship Game (and a win in 2007). The problem with Miles, however, is that there was clearly a reason why we was fired by LSU midway through this past season. It seemed that Miles' offense wasn't putting up the numbers it used to, and his more recent win-loss record was showing it. Les Miles is also 63, and would probably be viewing Minnesota as a 'retirement' gig rather than a long-term position.
Another characteristic that made P.J. Fleck a more attractive candidate was that he fit into the mold of 'successful' Big Ten coaches as discussed in this recent Sports Illustrated article http://www.si.com/college-football/2016/12/07/big-... which in general, makes a point that the Big Ten Conference teams winning the most games have coaches familiar with the region. Les Miles might hail from northeast Ohio, and he did play at Michigan, however all of his head coaching experience took place in the south at Oklahoma State and LSU. P.J. Fleck is from, and played college football in Illinois, and his only head coaching experience occurred in the state of Michigan.
One critic through sports talk radio pointed out that Dan Monson was hired from Gonzaga under similar circumstances when taking over Minnesota's men's basketball team. While Monson was only the head coach at Gonzaga for a couple seasons, he laid the foundation for what became a powerhouse team in college basketball. This success, however, was not to be found by Monson at Minnesota, and after 7 seasons and 1 NCAA Tournament appearance, he resigned. While there are good reasons to make this comparison, remember that Fleck meets the standard of Big Ten coaches coming from the region, something which Monson didn't necessarily have.
Others have pointed out that Fleck brings too many people from Western Michigan, and that players and coaches from that level will have trouble in the Big Ten. This would be a more valid claim, except that the last time Minnesota made an external coaching hire, they brought in Jerry Kill, who had almost his entire staff from Northern Illinois follow him to the Twin Cities. As any fan will know, this led to the Gophers most successful multi-year stretch ever.
Whatever the critics say, P.J. Fleck will likely prove to be the right hire at the right time for Minnesota Golden Gopher football.