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Minnesota Football Coaching Candidate: P.J. Fleck

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Fleck led the Western Michigan Broncos to a conference championship in his fourth season at the school.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach Tracy Claeys has been fired, the search for a new head coach begins. Over the next few days, we’ll be profiling potential candidates for the position. We begin with Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, a name that has been mentioned quite a bit in the last 24 hours.

P.J. Fleck
Current Position: Head Coach at Western Michigan
Contract: Six-year contract worth a guaranteed salary of $800,000, signed in December 2014
Buyout: $210,000 before Jan. 31, 2017 ($147,000 thereafter)
Age: 36

Coaching Career

In four seasons at Western Michigan, Fleck has amassed an overall record of 30-22. The Broncos finished 13-0 in the regular season in 2016, defeating Ohio 29-23 in the Mid-American Conference Championship to claim the program’s first conference since 1988. As the lone undefeated Group of 5 program, Fleck and Western Michigan earned a bid to the Cotton Bowl, where they were defeated 24-16 by the Wisconsin Badgers.

Fleck was a wide receiver at Northern Illinois from 1999 to 2003, before a brief two-year stint with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent signing. His coaching career began in 2006 as an offensive graduate assistant under then head coach Jim Tressel at Ohio State. The following year, Fleck returned to his alma mater to coach wide receivers under then head coach Joe Novak. Novak retired in 2008, but Fleck was one of two Novak assistant coaches retained by his successor, Jerry Kill — a name Gopher fans will obviously be familiar with. In 2010, Fleck left Northern Illinois to coach wide receivers at Rutgers under then head coach Greg Schiano.

After two years at Rutgers, his coaching career took a bit of a strange turn. On February 2, 2012, Fleck accepted the offensive coordinator position at Northern Illinois under then head coach Dave Doeren. But then on February 3, exactly one day later, Fleck resigned to follow Schiano to the NFL, where he would be coaching wide receivers for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But his stint in the NFL was short-lived, as he accepted the head coaching position at Western Michigan on December 17, 2012.

Fleck replaced previous head coach Bill Cubit, who led the Broncos from 2005 to 2012. In eight seasons at Western Michigan, Cubit led the Broncos to four winning seasons and three bowl games, losing all three. He failed to win a division title during his tenure, finishing second in the MAC West just twice in eight years. His overall record at Western Michigan was 51-47, including 4-8 in his final season at the helm.

Fleck has been linked to several head coaching vacancies this offseason, including Oregon and Purdue. But Oregon and Purdue ended up hiring South Florida’s Willie Tagart and Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm, respectively. Fleck was mentioned as a potential candidate for the opening at Cincinnati, but it was reported that Fleck would only leave Western Michigan for a position at a Power 5 program.

Western Michigan

The following are the S&P+ rankings for Western Michigan over the last four seasons under Fleck. For anyone unfamiliar with S&P+, the lower the number, the better the ranking. Here is a link to their official website, Football Outsiders.

Western Michigan Broncos (under P.J. Fleck)

Western Michigan 2013 2014 2015 2016
Western Michigan 2013 2014 2015 2016
Record 1-11 8-5 8-5 13-1
Conference Record 1-7 6-2 6-2 8-0
Overall 117 62 53 36
Offense 120 52 24 22
Rushing 120 65 35 36
Passing 116 34 22 5
Success Rate - 62 49 17
IsoPPP - 40 16 17
Defense 109 90 88 68
Rushing 117 87 103 94
Passing 89 66 76 62
Success Rate - 62 62 89
IsoPPP - 95 104 74

For me, the defensive rankings are a concern. The Gophers have developed into the one top defensive units in the Big Ten under Tracy Claeys and Jay Sawvel the past several years, and I’d hate to see that side of the ball regress. I firmly believe that good defense is what enables programs to win championships, and I’m not particularly excited about the prospect of a return to the Glen Mason years, when the defense was constantly a liability.

Recruiting

Fleck has a reputation for being an outstanding recruiter, and his recruiting classes at Western Michigan attest to that. Aside from his first recruiting class — which is typically a wash when you’re a new head coach — Fleck has signed the best class in the Mid-American Conference the last three years according to 247 Sports.

2013: 7th in the MAC (112th nationally)
2014: 1st (71st)
2015: 1st (76th)
2016: 1st (71st)

With 25 commitments, his current recruiting class at Western Michigan is tops in the MAC and 64th nationally. For comparison, Minnesota’s current recruiting class — which is very much in flux at the moment now that Tracy Claeys and his coaching staff have been fired — ranks dead last in the Big Ten and 68th nationally.

Final Take

Because of his reputation as a motivator and talent for recruiting, I’ve heard more than a few people compare Fleck to former Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster, who talked a lot about the Rose Bowl for a coach who never even came close to Pasadena. But whereas Brewster had no prior head coaching experience, Fleck has had obvious success as a head coach at Western Michigan. Whether or not he can translate that success to a Big Ten program is the question, as Tim Beckman (from Toledo to Illinois) and Darrell Hazell (from Kent State to Purdue) have proven that success in the MAC is not a surefire sign that a coach can compete in the Big Ten.

In his press conference last night, Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle cited declining attendance as a factor in his decision to fire Tracy Claeys. Due to his personality, Fleck would certainly energize the fan base, especially as an up-and-coming young coach who has become somewhat of a household name this year.

The fact that he has worked under Jim Tressel, Greg Schiano, and Jerry Kill is certainly a plus, but the fact that he hadn’t spent more than two years at one school prior to Western Michigan is bit of a concern for me. And I question whether Minnesota would be a destination job for him or a stepping stone to a helmet school.

The Gophers would need to act quickly to secure the services of Fleck, as Western Michigan is close to signing him to an extension. It is rumored that Fleck has agreed in principle to the extension, but has not signed on the dotted line, so there is an opening for Minnesota to woo him before the contract extension is finalized.