P.J. Fleck is leaving Western Michigan to take over a Minnesota football program reeling from a threatened player boycott of a bowl game and the handling of a sexual assault investigation.
Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle said Friday he is bringing in Fleck in hopes that his seemingly boundless enthusiasm would help unite a program and school that have been fractured over the last month.
“P.J. is a proven winner and a strong leader,” Coyle said in a statement issued before an afternoon news conference. “He’s built a unique, positive culture that gets the best out of his students on the field and in the classroom. His infectious energy and passion make him a terrific coach and dynamic recruiter.”
Coyle is a former Boise State athletic director who also targeted BSU head coach Bryan Harsin, according to media reports in Minnesota. BSU Athletic Director Curt Apsey said on KTIK on Thursday that Harsin wasn’t interested in the Minnesota vacancy.
The hiring of Fleck comes three days after Coyle fired Tracy Claeys following a standoff between players and the administration over the suspension of 10 players in connection with the assault allegations that date to September. Coyle needed to quickly find a replacement who could plunge into recruiting and he found someone he hopes can help bridge the deep divisions that remain between the team and school leaders.
“I look forward to meeting my new players and getting to know them as quickly as possible,” Fleck said. “I am excited to put together a staff and turn my efforts to recruiting, but also want Gopher fans to know that my wife, Heather, and I and our four children will be visible in the community and we are eager to connect with them. I am ready to go.”
Fleck guided the Broncos to a 13-1 record this season and a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where they lost 24-16 to Wisconsin.
The 36-year-old coach is 30-22 in four years at Western Michigan, with three bowl appearances. His relentless, youthful energy and motivational team motto “Row the boat!” helped push the Broncos into the national spotlight this fall, with the campus and city of Kalamazoo abuzz over a program that had never before won more than nine games in a season.
Minnesota is buzzing for different reasons.
Players threatened last month to boycott the Holiday Bowl after expressing reservations about a university investigation that led to the suspensions. Some players were accused of pressuring a woman into sex during a party after the team’s season-opening win over Oregon State. Prosecutors twice declined to file charges, but the school’s investigation found that a number of players violated its conduct code and could face punishments up to and including expulsion. The appeals process is still pending.
Many players remain upset with Coyle and school President Eric Kaler for how the situation was handled. Coyle said federal privacy laws prevented him from communicating more with a confused team, but the issue has not gone away after the Gophers posted a 9-4 record and a win over Washington State in the bowl game.
“I get they’re upset. I get they’re frustrated. I understand that,” Coyle said Tuesday. “It’s our job to find a leader who will take this program forward and unite all of them in one direction, one goal.”
Fleck, a star receiver at Northern Illinois, played briefly in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers. He has worked as a college assistant at Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Rutgers. In 2012, he was an assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before taking over the Broncos.
Mid-American Conference coaches have been plucked by Big Ten teams several times before, with mixed success. Tim Beckman started at Illinois in 2012 after leaving Toledo, and he was fired after a 12-25 record over three seasons amid allegations of player mistreatment. Darrell Hazell left Kent State to join Purdue in 2013. The Boilermakers finished 9-33 and was fired halfway through his fourth season.
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer launched his career at Bowling Green, but he had stops at Utah and Florida in between. Jerry Kill, the predecessor to Claeys, left Northern Illinois for the Gophers six years ago and went a respectable 29-29 before epilepsy forced his retirement.
The Gophers also considered former LSU coach Les Miles and reached out to Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, but were turned down early in the process, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Minnesota was not commenting publicly on its search.