Former Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck at his first Big Ten media day event as Minnesota coach.
Chicago — The Big Ten must have been up to something early Tuesday morning at the second session of its football media days.
Starting bright and early, the first coach at the podium was Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and it didn’t take long for the former Western Michigan coach to infuse a little energy into the room.
Complete with a newly shaved head thanks to losing a bet to his wife, Heather, Fleck flashed his familiar high-energy style as he talked about how humbled he was to get a shot to be a head coach in the Big Ten, one that gets underway in earnest when preseason camp opens next week.
“This is the honeymoon stage, and it's coming down to the end here,” Fleck said. “It's been a fabulous six months. I've enjoyed that and I just want everybody in here to understand how honored I am to be the head football coach at the University of Minnesota. I think I speak for our entire coaching staff, the ability and the honor it is to coach in the Big Ten, one of the most prestigious conferences academically, athletically, socially and spiritually in the country is really a dream come true for a lot of our guys.”
Fleck’s high-octane style came in handy at Western Michigan as he went 1-11 in his first season with the Broncos in 2013 before capping things with a 13-1 mark last season, the only loss coming to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
Whether Fleck’s fire works in Minneapolis remains to be seen. He admitted there were some wide-eyed looks when he first met with this team, but he also said it’s exactly what he expected.
“We had one side of the room that was like, ‘No way. I’m not gonna be here. He’s not for me. This is way too intense,’” Fleck explained. “Another part of the room said, ‘I wanna feel him out, see him for a few weeks and see if this is real and consistent.’ Then the other group was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed saying, ‘Yup, this is my guy. I’m in.’
“It happened the same way at Western Michigan. Any time any coach takes over, caffeinated or not, he gets those three responses.”
Getting those players to come together and create what Fleck did at Western Michigan will be the challenge.
At Minnesota, Fleck is not taking over a program in trouble, at least in terms of wins and losses. The Golden Gophers won nine games last season under Tracy Claeys and have played in five straight bowl games.
Getting to the championship level, however, is the goal as Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten title since sharing first place in 1967.
“It's a wonderful challenge here at the University of Minnesota, one we look forward to attacking as we go forward,” Fleck said. “We're not shying away from what we haven't necessarily accomplished in terms of championship feel of 50 years without a championship, but we want to be that bridge. We want to be that bridge that connects the past with the present and also the future moving forward.”
Fleck will have his work cut out to not only create that bridge to a championship but to keep the Gophers in the mix in the Big Ten West — at least initially. He’s in the midst of trying to find a new starting quarterback while still learning his personnel, something that’s tougher to do when taking over a program.
However, it’s something he and most of his staff did at Western Michigan and it’s something he’s confident they can do once again at Minnesota.
“It’s not our first year one ever together,” Fleck said. “This is really our second year one. We can take what we learned in year 1, 2, 3, 4 (at Western Michigan) and be able to respond and make it the best year one it can be. We have the opportunity to hit the reset button and start back over at a new program with our culture kind of picking up and placing at the University of Minnesota.
“We love that challenge. We love the chaos. We love the dirty water. We love walking in a situation like that and that is why I took the job. It fits me. I’m the king of the toos, t-o-o — too small, too short, too inexperienced, too young … whatever. That's who we are and that who our staff is.”