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What I like and dislike about P.J. Fleck’s new Minnesota contract extension

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There’s a lot to like in this new deal if you’re a Gophers fan.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

As has already been reported here at TDG and in many other places across the interwebs, P.J. Fleck and the University of Minnesota have come to an agreement over a contract extension. After taking some time to review it, I have to say that I think it’s a pretty good deal for everyone. So I thought I’d take a moment, refresh us all on the new terms, and then talk about what I like and don’t like about this deal.

The terms

The key topline bullet points are as follows:

  • The new contract raises Fleck’s annual salary from $4.65 million to $5.1 million. His buyout if he leaves Minnesota is $10 million before Dec. 31, 2022, then drops down to $7 million following year, $5 million the next year, and $4 million the year after that.
  • If the University terminates him without cause, they will owe him 65% of the 5.1 million times the number of years left on the deal.
  • The contract makes an additional $350,000 available for assistant coach salaries.

Fleck’s new deal also includes the following incentives:

  • $150,000 for winning the Big Ten Championship
  • $100,000 for winning outright or tying for the Big Ten West division championship
  • $100,000 for being named a National Coach of the Year
  • $50,000 for being named Conference Coach of the Year
  • $100,000 for winning eight regular season games
  • $100,000 for winning nine regular season games

Here’s a tweet with the official amendments to his existing contract:

What I like

I think that overall this is a win/win contract for both Fleck and the U. Both sides get protection in the event of an outcome they don’t like, and both give up something to get it. It feels like Fleck gave the U favorable buyout terms in exchange for a longer contract and some easier sweeteners.

Fleck gets:

A lengthy contract term. Seven years gives him some really solid buyout protection against a rash firing in the future. Or, if the U makes a move earlier in the deal he walks with a nice parachute. Plus if he struggles at some point in the next 2-3 years it lets him sell optics on the contract length to recruits.*

Some soft bonus payments. Offering Fleck bonuses for 8 and 9 win seasons allows him to cash in on some incentives fairly easily given the current makeup of the B1G West. It’s notable to me that the payment for an 8 win season is the same as NCOY or a division title. I’d argue that the win total payment can be seen as the U is laying a marker that “only” winning 7-8 games won’t be seen as underperforming many years because of the fact that he starts bonusing at 8 wins. This gives him attainable and ideally sustainable levels of success to hit over the long term of this deal.

*NOTE: I’ve never been sold on this as a huge thing but if it does exist as successful tactic he’s got the receipts he needs.

The University gets:

Stronger immediate protection against Fleck leaving. If someone wants to poach Fleck over the next 2-3 years, it’s going to cost them. As noted above, for the next 14 months the Fleck-side buyout is $10 million. For all of 2023, it’s 7 million. And for all of 2024, it’s 5 million. There are certainly programs willing to pay those figures, but the list isn’t huge and if any of those schools are paying to poach him he’s done great things here. Also, if Fleck continues to succeed, I’d expect another renegotiation that reups the protection in exchange for a pay-bump and another long contract term.

A lower top-line number in exchange for soft bonuses. I’m going to guess more than a few folks will scoff at giving Fleck bonus payments for winning 8 or 9 games. But what this really does is allow the U to offer Fleck more money with less risk. Why? Because that money isn’t part of any potential buyout if the U fires him. So Fleck has attainable extra cash on the table if he gives the U a good to great season and the U gets a slightly softer landing if he starts to tank and they need to fire him.

More favorable buyout terms for firing Fleck. Want to know what a really bad deal for a university looks like? Look at Scott Frost’s contract. Frost is paid $5 million a year under the extension he signed in 2019. His extension says Nebraska owes him EVERY PENNY of that compensation for any years remaining until 2024 (i.e. for each of the first 5 years of the contract). For the last two years of the deal, the cost to the University drops to a fixed $2.5 million per year remaining. To give a sense of scale, had they terminated him immediately in 2019 without cause, he’d have been owed $30 million. After this season? It would cost them $20 million.

What does Fleck’s deal look like? The U only owes him 65% of his 5.1 million compensation package times the number of years left on the deal. That means they owe him about $23 million if they fired him after this season, with the buyout dropping by $3.315 million each year after that. In other words, it softens the blow a little if Fleck struggles mightily over the next few seasons.

What I don’t like

Ultimately if I had to list any “cons” for this agreement it would come down to two items:

The length of the deal. 7 years is a long time when the compensation package is $5.1 million a season. Even with the 65% buyout x years remaining terms, it still leaves a pretty hefty figure on the table if Fleck and Co. bomb out over the 2022-2024 seasons (the earliest I’d expect him to hit the true hot seat is 2024, and even then it would take repeated years of failure). After 3 seasons in this deal the U would still owe Fleck $13.26 million, which is not a pretty number. Was the strong “poaching protection” buyout money worth this? That’s up for debate. I’d argue yes, but your mileage may vary. This deal isn’t without risk for the University and the #1 risk is the length of the deal.

The size of the assistant coach salary pool increase. In my mind, $345,000 isn’t a large enough increase. Whether or not Fleck is comfortable with it (my guess is yes) I don’t think it does much to change the overall hiring picture for the U when it comes to assistant salaries, if Fleck makes a change in the near future.

TL;DR

  • Fleck, his agent, and Coyle seem to have a good relationship and that has resulted in another extension that I would argue is “win/win” for both parties.
  • The deal is not without risk for the University. There is an assumption here that Fleck and his staff will not have multiple successive bad seasons in a row over the next 3-4 years. I think that’s a risk worth taking, but there are no guarantees in this life.
  • Fleck gave the U stronger protection against his leaving in exchange for protecting himself/his bank account, but he did it on terms that I would argue are pretty favorable to the school overall.