The P.J. Fleck era at Minnesota has officially begun! Of course, it’s only January, so it’s hard to make too many concrete statements about Gopher football under Coach Fleck. We have a lot of questions though, and for answers we turned to Brandon Fitzsimons. Brandon manages Western Michigan content at SB Nation’s Hustle Belt, the place for all your #MACtion needs. You can also find Brandon on Twitter, where he does business as @broncofitz.
So, without further ado...
TheDailyGopher: Western Michigan and P.J. Fleck have been in the news a lot this year thanks to a magical 13-0 run. Congratulations on that! But I suspect a lot of Minnesota fans didn't really watch WMU in action this year except for the Cotton Bowl. What can we expect in substantive football terms on game day from a Fleck-coached team?
Brandon Fitzsimons: Energy for one. It's what Fleck brings to the table as head coach, and what he preaches the most of. After that, you can expect a balanced offense that relies on ball control—both in terms of clock management and limiting turnovers ("the ball is the program"). On the defensive side of things, really it's a good team defense in the box, but the Broncos have relied heavily on man or two-deep coverage in the passing game, with varying results throughout the years. We've been calling it a "bend but don't break" defense the past two seasons.
TDG: During his introductory press conference (which he knocked clear out of the park), Fleck said that recruiting was the #1 thing in the culture change he hopes to make at Minnesota. What's Fleck like as a recruiter? What can you tell about his philosophy?
BF: He's all about the system and his vision. He wants "ELITE" players, and will sell them on his championship vision. Remember, he once said that he "wants to bring a National Championship to Kalamazoo." Obviously, the FBS playoff system is set up to prevent that barring a miracle, but he can easily preach that at Minnesota, and kids can listen. From what I hear from our recruiting expert at Hustle Belt, Fleck looks purely for recruits that want to be a part of his system. He has demands such as recruits "can't take visits to other schools", so if you're in, you're really in.
And he's damn good at it.
TDG: We all know about Row the Boat, Elite, and F.A.M.I.L.Y now. That stuff is fun and obviously helps with PR and marketing a lot. I know RTB has personal meaning for Fleck (and is trademarked by WMU, so that should be interesting!), but is the rest mostly fluff? The concern is that we've had Tim Brewster here. He was very good at bluster and not so great at everything else, and some fans are understandably nervous.
BF: That stuff seems like shtick, but it's more of the smaller stuff you don't see ("Ball is the program," "Change your best every day," etc) that rings loudest. The RTB and FAMILY are more for the whole program and togetherness towards one direction, but the kids buy in. What you'll see is the head of the sales pitch to recruits. The ones that buy in will be ones that truly buy in. Fleck won't have anyone that isn't ELITE enough to RTB. Now excuse me while I cry in the corner after saying that last sentence in the post-Fleck era.
TDG: Do you have a sense for how Fleck might staff up here, based on things he's done at WMU? Is he likely to bring anyone with him?
BF: Yeah, a good portion. Really, you want Fleck to bring his OC and DC with him, because they run the show on their respective sides of the ball. Ed Pinkham isn't a great DC, but his defenses have been substantially better than the ones Bronco fans saw during the Bill Cubit years. The run defense improved immensely (outside of an occasional rough game here and there) and the pass defense started to get better in coverage schemes. Again, bend-but-don't-break. As for the offense, Kirk Ciarrocca is a master at ball control. WMU has owned T.O.P. the past three years with a solid run game (again, something not seen during the Cubit years) and a nice West Coast passing attack that relies on short-to-medium throws and letting the receivers do the rest. Really, it was beautiful.
As for other coaches, it's tough to say. I could see a good deal, if not all, of his position coaches coming with him due to how tight knit his program is. Rob Wenger (Special Teams Coordinator) has had his name thrown around WMU circles as Fleck's replacement, but I don't see that happening. If he ends up at Minnesota, he's really good at getting those players to perform at a high level, and he's a good follow during spring/fall camp.
TDG: In his statement to WMU on his departure, Fleck said "I'll always be your fan and friend." Do fans and the WMU community feel the same way? Will you be just slightly Gopher fans this next season?
BF: It's funny you mention that, because one of our writers is a WMU grad and is completing (completed?) his graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, so he retains Fleck in full. Personally speaking, I'll probably be a Minnesota fan next year. I grew up a Notre Dame fan, and thus hated another U of M with such vigor. Next year might not be a great season, but the year after could see the dividends of the Fleck hire paying off. Go get that Little Brown Jug, boys.
TDG: What did you like most about Fleck (on any level: fan, neutral observer, media member, whatever)? What did you like the least?
BF: I'm going to start with "least", and that is the constant "Bronconese"--otherwise known as the mantras of RTB, FAMILY, etc. It's just so much, and it started on Day 1. It's jarring to go from "Go Broncos" and "The PoWer of Gold" to "Row The Boat". Remember, the meanings didn't come at first, it took time, so it seemed stupid as the team went 1-11 that first season. Oh, and getting meme'd by him on national TV is up there for "least favorite moment" as well.
As for "most"? There are some good memories. However, what I liked about him most is that he genuinely had a passion for the fans. After road games, it wasn't uncommon for him to go celebrate with the fans who made the trip (especially at Central Michigan, our most hated rival). He took time to be a part of the community. He truly was committed to Kalamazoo and Western Michigan. And yes, he even thanked media for attending road games and covering the team. I remember him personally thanking me for coming to an Eastern Michigan game on a Thursday night......and I was the only WMU reporter there. It wasn't even the only time that would happen.
TDG: Share your favorite P.J. story.
BF: There are a few good ones. Nothing too great, but one of my favorite press conferences to do was right after the Toledo game last season, when the Broncos won 35-30 over the then #24 Rockets in the Glass Bowl (so a road game). WMU had been eliminated from the MAC West race the week before, but prevented the Rockets from winning the West. It was a chippy game, but it ended up being WMU's first (and so far, only) Top 25 win in program history. Afterwards, either the reporters or Fleck himself would keep getting interrupted by players going "Fleck for President!" and jumping with him. There was so much joy for seemingly a meaningless victory (it moved the team to 7-5). It was also the first win of the 15 game win streak that ended in the Cotton Bowl.
Many thanks to Brandon for sharing his expertise on all things and for being a good sport about it. Best of luck to Western Michigan!