MINNEAPOLIS – Rocked by a threatened player boycott of a bowl game over the handling of a sexual assault investigation and struggling with lagging attendance at its shiny stadium, the Minnesota football program badly needed of an injection of energy and optimism.
They don’t come any more exuberant than P.J. Fleck.
Minnesota hired Fleck on Friday, hoping that “Row the boat” mantra that worked wonders at Western Michigan can unite a deeply fractured program.
“I’m not here to change the tradition,” Fleck said at his introductory news conference. “I am here to change the culture.”
The hiring comes three days after athletic director Mark Coyle fired Tracy Claeys following a standoff between players and the administration over the suspension of 10 players in connection with the assault allegations. Coyle turned to the breathlessly upbeat Fleck to help bridge the divisions that remain between the team and school leaders.
“The thing that jumps out to me is his authentic energy and his passion,” Coyle said. “I think that excites people. And obviously we want to attract fans back.”
Fleck said he had not had much time in the last 48 fast-moving hours to look into the complex issue, but said he was not going to let the past difficulties get in the way of his mission to build the Golden Gophers into a championship-caliber team. He promised that his players will wear collared shirts to class every day,
“I eat difficult conversations for breakfast, and that’s why I took the job,” Fleck said.
Fleck guided the Broncos to a 13-1 record this season and a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where they lost 24-16 to Wisconsin.
The 36-year-old coach was 30-22 in four years at Western Michigan, a program with almost no previous success before he arrived, with three bowl appearances. His relentless, youthful energy and motivational team motto “Row the boat!” helped push the Broncos into the national spotlight this fall, with the campus and city of Kalamazoo abuzz over a program that had never before won more than nine games in a season.
Fleck promised to do the same a Minnesota, a program that has been largely irrelevant for the past 50 years, with the goal of competing for national titles.
“I’m going to promise you a lot because that’s the way I live my life,” he said.
Minnesota is buzzing for different reasons.
Players threatened last month to boycott the Holiday Bowl after expressing reservations about a university investigation that led to the suspensions. Some suspended players were accused of pressuring a woman into sex during a party after the team’s season-opening win over Oregon State. Prosecutors twice declined to file charges, but the school’s investigation found that 10 players violated its conduct code and could face punishments up to and including expulsion. The appeals process is still pending.
Many players remain upset with Coyle and school President Eric Kaler for how the situation was handled. Coyle said federal privacy laws prevented him from communicating more with a confused team, but the issue has not gone away after the Gophers posted a 9-4 record and a win over Washington State in the bowl game.
“I get they’re upset. I get they’re frustrated. I understand that,” Coyle said on Tuesday. “It’s our job to find a leader who will take this program forward and unite all of them in one direction, one goal.”
Fleck, a star receiver at Northern Illinois, played briefly in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers. He has worked as a college assistant at Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Rutgers. In 2012, he was an assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before taking over the Broncos.
Mid-American Conference coaches have been plucked by Big Ten teams several times before, with mixed success. Tim Beckman started at Illinois in 2012 after leaving Toledo, and he was fired after a 12-25 record over three seasons amid allegations of player mistreatment. Darrell Hazell left Kent State to join Purdue in 2013. The Boilermakers finished 9-33 and was fired halfway through his fourth season.
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer launched his career at Bowling Green, but he had stops at Utah and Florida in between. Jerry Kill, the predecessor to Claeys, left Northern Illinois for the Gophers six years ago and went a respectable 29-29 before epilepsy forced his retirement.
The Gophers also considered former LSU coach Les Miles and reached out to Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead but were turned down early in the process, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Minnesota was not commenting publicly on its search.
“When you watch Gopher football, it will be different from this point forward,” Fleck said. “I am different.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo and AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.