I remember Tim Brewster all too well. (If you don’t, I envy you.)
I remember all of the bluster about winning a Big Ten championship and leading Gopher Nation to Pasadena. (The patch of Rose Bowl turf was a nice touch.)
I remember his repeated and excessive abuse of the word “tremendous.” (I counted six in total during his introductory press conference.)
I remember the Insight Bowl meltdown that led to the firing of Glen Mason, and the feeling that the program had grown stagnant with him at the helm. There was this sense that Mason had reached his ceiling at Minnesota, and that the program needed a new leader to reach the next level. Athletic director Joel Maturi believed that Brewster — then a tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers with no head coaching experience — was that leader.
He was wrong.
I remember 1-11. I remember the humiliating non-conference losses to Florida Atlantic, North Dakota State, and South Dakota (to name a few). I remember Brewster’s 0-9 record against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan. I remember 55-0.
I remember rock bottom.
So believe me when I tell you that P.J. Fleck is not Tim Brewster. Not even close.
I’ve heard multiple people — both Gopher fans and members of the Twin Cities press alike — make the comparison, and I can’t help but shake my head. The comparison seems to come from the fact that both have reputations as outstanding recruiters and motivators. Brewster lived up to his reputation as an elite recruiter, bringing in multiple highly-touted recruiting classes during his tenure. And this now laughable video is but one of example of his ability to deliver an inspirational pre-game speech.
Fleck is indeed an outstanding recruiter. All three of his full recruiting classes at Western Michigan have been tops in the Mid-American Conference according to 247 Sports. Nationally, none of them have ranked higher than 71st, but the on-field performance speaks for itself. Scout published an article last night highlighting his best recruits at Western Michigan, including offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who had offers from Florida, Oklahoma, and Arkansas but ended up signing with the Broncos.
Sports Illustrated published a National Signing Day feature on Fleck back in February 2015, detailing his approach to recruiting and following him on a day’s trip across the recruiting trail. Here is an interesting excerpt that speaks to his recruiting acumen:
Freshman safety Asantay Brown, a three-star gem of the 2014 recruiting class who picked Western Michigan over Minnesota, says Fleck directly contacted him 60 percent to 70 percent more than any other head coach. When three-star quarterback recruit Chance Stewart stopped by Kalamazoo on the way back from a basketball game last year, he arrived after 1 a.m. Fleck rallied 15 members of the coaching staff to greet him. “That’s the point,” Fleck says, “we really captured him.” Stewart chose Western over Wisconsin and Illinois. Two-star defensive end Andre Turner had late interest from Michigan State around Signing Day 2013, but seven Broncos-coaches -- instead of the usual one or two -- shoehorned into his home visit. “That sealed the deal,” Reynolds says.
Fleck is also well known for his ability to rally the troops and motivate his players. If you’ve heard of Fleck, then you’ve undoubtedly heard of his mantra, “Row the Boat.” Now, having survived the Brewster era and endured four years of endless Brewster-isms (“Get that chili hot!” comes to mind), you might dismiss “Row the Boat” as a gimmick that looks good on the wall of a weight room but is devoid of actual meaning. Before you condemn it as mindless rah-rah coachspeak, I encourage you to watch the following video, where Fleck explains that the phrase was actually inspired by the death of his son:
For me, “Row the Boat” is a far cry from the empty platitudes that we were inundated with from Brewster. It’s an actual life philosophy that holds some weight.
But I haven’t even mentioned the most important difference that separates Fleck from Brewster: head coaching experience, and success as a head coach on top of that. Brewster had none when he was hired at Minnesota. Fleck had none when he was hired at Western Michigan, and like Brewster, finished 1-11 in his first season. But the two paths diverge after that. Fleck would amass a 29-11 record over the next three years, including a 13-0 regular season record in 2016 with a MAC Championship under his belt and a trip to the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin.
It’s very possible that Fleck’s MAC success won’t translate to the Big Ten — we’ll actually be taking a look at recent examples in the next couple days — but to call him Tim Brewster 2.0? No. That’s a reach. Brewster was a phenomenal recruiter and a good motivator, but he was a disastrous head coach. Fleck is also a phenomenal recruiter and a good motivator, but unlike Brewster, he has proven himself as a head coach at some level prior to Minnesota.
And trust me, if Fleck were the second coming of Brewster, I’d be the first one having nightmares. But I’ll be sleeping soundly tonight. You should, too.