P.J. Fleck vows to lift fortunes of Minnesota football

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Growing up in small-town Illinois, P.J. Fleck, a small boy who would become a still-small young man, often would allow his mind to wander. Among those dreams and aspirations were playing football in the Big Ten, and coaching football in the Big Ten.

Peaking at 5-foot-9, he never got to accomplish that as a player. An undersized receiver, he got his year's last scholarship offer from Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference.

But in the wee hours of Thursday night and the early hours of Friday morning, Fleck, achieved the second dream, moving from Western Michigan and the MAC to the University of Minnesota.

After a lightning-quick courtship that lasted around 48 hours, Minnesota and Fleck on Friday morning agreed on a five-year contract worth about $17.5 million. Fleck, 36, leaves Western Michigan after four seasons, and a 30-22 record which culminated with a 13-1 season and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl earlier in the week.

Fleck first met with Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle on Wednesday in Chicago, and the formal offer was made Thursday. The deal was done Friday.

"Why Minnesota?" Fleck said at his introductory news conference in Minneapolis. "Why not?

"We (Coyle and Fleck) both share a vision of winning a national championship, we share a vision of winning the Big Ten West, we share a vision of winning the Big Ten and having Rose Bowls. And I'm not afraid to say that, because that's the way I live my life.

"I'm gonna promise you a lot, because that's the way I live my life."

Fleck takes over for Tracy Claeys, who was fired Tuesday, after his second season — and first full season — on the job, having replaced Jerry Kill, a Fleck mentor who stepped down in 2016 amid health issues.

Claeys guided Minnesota to a 9-4 record and a victory in the Holiday Bowl, but his fate was in flux after he publicly supported the team's threatened boycott of the bowl game unless the university overturned the suspensions of 10 players tied to a sexual-assault investigation. The players eventually dropped the effort, and Minnesota played in its fifth consecutive bowl game, and beat Washington State, 17-12.

But it wasn't enough to save Claeys, and after his firing, attention immediately turned to Fleck — with fired LSU coach Les Miles, a former Michigan assistant, viewed as Minnesota's fallback plan.

Western Michigan has had to fend off schools coming after Fleck every season he'd been in Kalamazoo, even after he went 1-11 in Year 1, 2013, as a 32-year-old, the youngest coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

And Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard had thought she'd dodged every bullet this year, too — including interest from Cincinnati and Purdue, and less-logical Oregon buzz, following the 29-23 victory over Ohio in the MAC championship game in early December.

Western Michigan and Fleck were well down the road on a contract extension that would've more than doubled his $800,000 base pay, and added several years onto a contract that ran through 2020.

With the assistance of donors based in Kalamazoo and around the nation, Western Michigan made Fleck an "incredible" offer. He chose to wait things out so not to distract from the Cotton Bowl, which Western Michigan lost, 24-16, to Wisconsin on Monday. Assistants' compensation also was a holdup, and Fleck never signed the deal.

"Conversations were very real," said Beauregard, battling pneumonia after a bout with bronchitis over the weekend. "This is a situation, and I know Coach Fleck will speak for himself, honestly he felt this was his next step, his next opportunity.

"I know it was not easy for him. Change, as he would be the one to say, is difficult, and we know that."

Beauregard said a search for Fleck's replacements begins immediately, and she'll use the counsel of other athletic directors, including Northwestern's Jim Phillips, in making the hire. WMU will not use a search firm; it didn't when it made the Fleck splash in December 2012, just like it didn't when it hired Jeff Blashill — now the Red Wings coach — to be the hockey coach in April 2010.

Internal candidates could be considered, if they don't, instead, choose to follow Fleck to Minnesota. Beauregard said she expects several assistants to follow Fleck. Defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca are candidates to join Fleck at Minnesota.

Beauregard called the Western Michigan opening "a great job," and has plans for the compensation to remain the top in the conference, again with the help of donors, who remain willing amid the Fleck news, she said. After achieved bonuses this season, Fleck earned well over $1 million.

Fleck or Minnesota will be on the hook to pay Western Michigan a $600,000 buyout.

WMU's 2017 recruiting class may be tough to salvage

The next Western Michigan coach will have to work quickly to salvage a recruiting class that was on track to be Fleck's highest-ranked, at least by and At least 25 recruits have committed, with at least 20 rated three stars or better.

The Minnesota development caught Beauregard by surprise, she admitted Friday. School officials had long, and privately, expressed the most fear about Notre Dame.

"However, it is a Big Ten school, it is an incredible university," Beauregard said. "They have challenges ahead of them, and P.J. likes challenges.

"Certainly, we wish him the best."

Fleck returned the praise to Beauregard, whom he called, "more than an athletic director to me, she's a mother, she's a friend and she's a mentor."

"I apologized to her before I left," Fleck said. "But I had to go chase my dream, as well. And the University of Minnesota is my dream."

Fleck also thanked Western Michigan president John Dunn, the university's board members and the players he's leaving behind.

Several underclassmen felt blindsided by the move, as they have been under the impression for several weeks that Fleck was staying.

Graduating Western Michigan players, meanwhile, had a different take, including quarterback Zach Terrell.

Terrell wrote on Twitter on Friday that Fleck, "changed my life forever. Changed this university and community forever. We should be thankful & grateful forever."

At Minnesota, Fleck walks into a dicey situation, where Coyle, the athletic director since last spring, fired Claeys — who made $1.4 million, less than half Fleck's new salary — despite the protest of some on the university's board, and many, many Minnesota players and recruits.

Several Minnesota commitments already have re-opened their recruiting process, and some players on the active roster have threatened to transfer.

While the program has been to bowl games 14 of the last 18 seasons, it hasn't made a Rose Bowl since the 1961 season. It hasn't won the Big Ten since 1967.

Fleck has a reclamation project ahead of him. That's the type of stuff that gets him going, though. He took Western Michigan from rubbish in 2013 to its first bowl win in 2015, and its first appearance in the national rankings in 2016. College football fans who couldn't tell you what state Kalamazoo was in four years ago now can tell you what "Row the Boat" means.

Fleck opened his news conference Friday with the phrase, "Ski-U-Mah," a longtime Minnesota battle cry. "Row the Boat" is trademarked by WMU.

WMU would consider selling 'RTB' to Fleck, Minnesota

"We're gonna connect people to Gopher football that don't even like football," said Fleck, whose Minnesota team will host Michigan State on Oct. 14, and visit Michigan on Nov. 4 next season. "They're gonna want to be a part of it.

"I am not here to change tradition, what I am here to do is change a culture, to change a movement, for us to create and experience things that University of Minnesota football has only dreamed of, and hasn't accomplished since the late 1960s.

"My entire life has been about running into the fire, not away from the fire.

"For every reason not to take a job, that's why I took it. That's the story of my life."