WMU claims Fleck illegally contacted former player

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Officials from Western Michigan have contacted Minnesota’s athletic department with concerns football coach P.J. Fleck has had illegal contact with at least one of his former players, a source told The Detroit News on Wednesday.

The source, in position to know about such conversations, requested anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding such allegations.

NCAA regulations prohibit any contact — whether it’s a recruiting pitch or a “happy birthday” text message — between a coach from one school and an enrolled athlete at another school without written approval from the school which is home to the athlete.

The concerns were raised in the wake of star Western Michigan linebacker Robert Spillane’s announcement this week that he is seeking a transfer.

Western Michigan has granted the transfer with zero restrictions, meaning he can play at Minnesota, or another Mid-American Conference school.

Spillane will not be transferring to Minnesota, according to the source, nor did Spillane express explicitly to Western Michigan officials that he was seeking to continue his playing career at Minnesota.

Still, Minnesota officials had assured Western Michigan officials an investigation would take place, according to the source.

Andy Pepper of WWMT, Kalamazoo's CBS affiliate, was first to report on the developments, and reported on contact between Fleck and Spillane. A Minnesota spokesman told The News on Wednesday night, "We are not recruiting any students from Western Michigan."

Fleck, Western Michigan’s football coach from 2013-16 before leaving for a five-year deal at Minnesota, could not be reached for comment.

Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard would not comment.

The source said there is no concrete evidence any other Western Michigan players were contacted by Fleck, and no other Western Michigan players have requested a transfer.

It’s unclear if the NCAA has been contacted by either institution. If a violation is found, it would be considered minor, but still a black eye for a new coach trying to turn around a Minnesota football program that’s already had its share of bad publicity pre-Fleck — including the suspension of several players amid a sexual-assault allegation, threats by other players to boycott its bowl game, and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, who was popular among the players.

Spillane didn’t return an email from The News, but did release a statement on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, going to bat for Fleck.

“Contrary to media reports this decision has nothing to do with P.J. Fleck or the University of Minnesota,” Spillane said in a statement. “I want to say thank you to the coaches, family, adminstration and fans who have helped me along the way to grow into the man I am today.

“Most of all I want to thank my teammates who have given me such an amazing experience while I was at Western, I will be cheering you on harder than anyone next year.

“I am truly excited for what my future holds.”

Spillane, 21, a native of Oak Park, Ill., whose grandfather, John Lattner, won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in 1953, was one of Fleck’s first big commitments, saying yes on the spot to a scholarship offer, despite objections from his parents, who urged him to let the process play out.

He was a huge reason Western Michigan had its best season ever this past season, stripping a ball late in the game, in the red zone, in the season opener against Northwestern. That led the Broncos to a 1-0 start.

Then, in the MAC championship game, he had an interception late in the game, with Ohio driving. That led the Broncos to a 13-0 record, their first MAC championship since 1988, and a spot in the New Year’s Six Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin. It lost the Cotton Bowl, finishing the season 13-1, and 15th in the Associated Press rankings, 18th in the coaches’ poll and 15th in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

Spillane was named second-team All-MAC.

He will have to sit out a year if he transfers to another FBS school, which he likely will. With Minnesota out of the mix, schools closer to home, like Northwestern, could take him. Notre Dame and Michigan State are other possibilities, albeit longer shots. Analysts do believe, however, Spillane can play in the Big Ten.

Fleck left a 10-year contract on the table at Western Michigan to take less money at Minnesota, a five-year deal worth between $17.5 million and $18.5 million.

Former Western Michigan quarterback Tim Lester replaced Fleck as head coach.