Fleck speculation persists amid rampant rumors

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It’s quite possible P.J. Fleck has found his Power Five fit. Then again, it’s also quite possible he hasn’t.

Here’s what we know for sure: Fleck still hasn’t put pen to paper on the contract extension he’s been negotiating with Western Michigan since shortly after the Mid-American Conference championship game early last month. And until he does — discussions have been labeled as “close,” with assistants’ compensation the main hangup, for several weeks — the rumblings about his future employment will continue.

The University of Minnesota is the latest and biggest threat to Western Michigan, after firing Tracy Claeys on Tuesday.

Since then, there have been countless rumors and rumblings regarding Minnesota’s interest in Fleck, and his supposed mutual interest. Sources in Fleck’s camp have gone radio silent since the 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl on Monday in Arlington, Texas.

Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard has not returned numerous messages from The News. She’s been out of the office, battling bronchitis since before the Cotton Bowl. Fleck’s Chicago-based agent, Bryan Harlan, did not respond to an email for comment Thursday.

Multiple reports said Minnesota officials, including athletic director Mark Coyle and president Erik Kaler, met with Fleck and his agent in Chicago on Wednesday. There was no indication a contract offer had been made before the meeting split up.

Additional reports Thursday said former LSU coach (and Michigan man) Les Miles was traveling to Minneapolis for talks with university brass. That can be interpreted a couple different ways — one, Fleck, wildly and emotionally invested in Kalamazoo, wasn’t immediately receptive to a job offer; or two, Minnesota wanted to explore options beyond Fleck. Boise State coach Bryan Harsin could be on Minnesota’s radar, as well.

This much is certain: Whatever Minnesota and Fleck decides to do, it should be decided soon. National Signing Day is Feb. 1. If Fleck leaves for Minnesota, he’ll need every minute possible to salvage a quality recruiting class. And if he stays at Western Michigan, the sooner the better on that front, too, to assure his current collection of 25 hard commitments — including 20 three-stars — that he’s not going anywhere.

The delicacy of the situation was plenty evident on Twitter on Thursday, when one of his hard commitments, three-star offensive tackle Tyrone Chambers of Cleveland, tweeted out that he had just received a scholarship offer from Ole Miss of the SEC.

Fleck, 36, just finished his fourth season at Western Michigan, his stock rising with each season and hitting fever pitch this year, when he guided the Broncos to a 13-0 start, their first MAC championship since 1988, and a spot in the New Year’s Six Cotton Bowl.

Fleck led Western Michigan to its first-ever bowl victory in 2015, before getting the program into the national rankings for the first-ever time this season. The Broncos are 12th in the Associated Press poll, 14th in the coaches voting, and were 15th in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

After the 29-23 MAC championship victory over Ohio, to earn the bid into the Cotton Bowl, Fleck’s named was tied to numerous job openings, some which he never entertained — Purdue, Cincinnati, etc. — and some which never entertained him — Oregon, among others.

It seemed Western Michigan had dodged all the necessary bullets, until stuff hit the fan in Minnesota last month, when 10 players were suspended amid a sexual-assault allegation. The rest of the 10 team then threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl unless the suspensions were overturned. The players eventually backed off and beat Washington State, 17-12, in the bowl game Dec. 27, but Claeys’ fate might’ve been sealed when he publicly supported the players’ stance in the boycott.

Claeys, 48, and Coyle met Tuesday for the first time since the bowl game, and Claeys was canned, a season-and-a-half into the job. He took over last season after Jerry Kill resigned amid health concerns.

Interestingly, Kill just took a job as offensive coordinator at Rutgers, suggesting it wasn’t just health concerns behind his decision to leave Minnesota. Earlier this week in a radio interview, Kill blasted the Minnesota administration for its handling of the situation with Claeys, who once worked for Kill at Saginaw Valley State.

Fleck already makes $800,000 in base salary, and a barrage of bonuses this year pushed him well over $1 million. The extension-in-progress is expected to bump that base pay into the $1.5 million-$2 million range. His current buyout, were he to leave Western Michigan, is $600,000.

Asked immediately after the Cotton Bowl about his future, Fleck, 30-21 at Western Michigan, said, coyly, “I’m going back to Kalamazoo.”

Of course he was. So was the rest of the team. A charter plane was waiting. That’s typically what happens following a game on the road. Since Monday, however, there hasn’t been a peep, one way or another, not from Fleck, not from Western Michigan’s administration.

Still, the end of his saga is coming — and, perhaps, as early as Friday. Soon, it’ll all finally, mercifully, be over one way or another.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984