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P.J. Fleck puts Jerry Kill saga to rest by taking the high road

Fleck was the winner on and off the field Thursday night

NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

In the locker room after the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ season-opening 38-0 victory over the New Mexico State Aggies, head coach P.J. Fleck awarded game balls to Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts. Both running backs had bounced back from season-ending injuries a year ago to combine for 221 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the season opener.

But defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had one game ball left to give.

“Hold on, coach,” Rossi can be heard saying near the conclusion of a video shared by the team’s Twitter account Friday night. The video is edited so that we don’t get the full context of what he said next, but the note Rossi ends on is certainly telling: “We knew you’d be the utmost professional, because that’s what you are. You got the last game ball.”

I doubt anyone in that locker room would ever confirm it, but I would venture to guess Rossi was referring to the elephant in the visitor’s locker room at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Former Minnesota head football coach Jerry Kill’s return to Minneapolis has been a popular topic of discussion from the moment he was hired to rebuild the football program at New Mexico State in November of last year. At his introductory press conference, Kill predicted he would get booed upon stepping foot in Huntington Bank Stadium — and he was not wrong, as a chorus of boos could be heard as he led his team out on to the field Thursday night.

I’m not going to rehash the series of unfortunate events that led to Kill becoming persona non grata at Minnesota despite giving the football program new life in the wake of Tim Brewster’s disastrous tenure. But I will point out Kill has been his own worst enemy. His comments leading up to Thursday night’s game are a perfect example. Kill declined to commit to shaking hands with Fleck during an interview with KARE 11’s Randy Shaver, before telling reporters after the Aggies’ season-opening loss to Nevada that he didn’t want the Minnesota game to be about him.

Fleck, to his credit, has been diplomatic in his public comments about Kill. Rather than return fire, he has reiterated how much respect he has for him. Fleck was an assistant coach under Kill at Northern Illinois and has frequently said he learned a lot working for him.

Prior to kickoff Thursday night, Fleck sought out Kill and shook his hand, failing to betray even a hint of bad blood as the two head coaches exchanged on-field pleasantries.

Fleck did the same after the game and was not shy about sharing what he said to Kill when asked about the exchange in his postgame press conference.

“I respect Jerry Kill wholeheartedly,” he said. “I know you’ve all done broadcasts and I’ve never said one thing, ever, negative about Jerry Kill. In fact, in my opening press conference, I said I’m a Jerry Kill guy. Right? So what I told him at the beginning was, and I don’t have to keep it between him and I because I told him, I said, ‘Thank you for all that you’ve done in my career. I’ve always had the utmost respect for you, always will.’ Simple as that.”

To his point, Fleck has never added fuel to this particular fire, which is why this has never really qualified as a “feud.” If Fleck has a problem with Kill, you’d never know it from his public comments. The seeming eagerness with which Kill has aired his grievances with Fleck has generated more headlines likely to draw clicks, but it has also given Fleck the opportunity for an easy public relations win — in addition to the win on the field.