By Jeff Wald

We’re less than a week into a new era of Gopher football, and what a change it appears to be.

University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle made a splash last week, parting ways with Tracy Claeys. In the immediate aftermath, it did not sit well with players on the team and some fans. Others saw it coming, but uncertainty about the program’s future filled the air.

After all, you don’t fire a college football coach four weeks away from National Signing Day without a plan and a vision for that program. Just three days after Claeys was fired, the hottest name in college coaching appeared in Minneapolis. P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a historic 13-1 season, is now the Gophers coach. With a guy like Fleck, you’re either all in right away or you wait to see the product on the field before deciding.

His energy and passion make most want to latch on, but ultimately winning will determine if it was the right move. Here are four reasons why P.J. Fleck is a great hire for Minnesota.

P.J. Fleck (credit: CBS)

P.J. Fleck (credit: CBS)

Changing The Culture

It took P.J. Fleck about a minute in his introductory news conference to talk about going to the Rose Bowl and competing for national titles. It seemed like the word “elite” is a constant in everything he does, from coaching to his daily life. For Gophers football fans, it’s polarizing. Some love the passion and energy he’ll undoubtedly bring, others fear Minnesota football will regress to the Tim Brewster days. Gophers fans will be more than happy to let him use the phrases “Ski-U-Mah” and “Row the Boat” as long as he never says “Gopher Nation.”

The reality is that the culture needs changing not only in the U of M athletic department, but across Gophers fans in general. We’ve always waited for the next mistake, the other shoe to drop, the inevitable collapse to happen. Because it always does. But what if all that, and the expectations, changed? We’re afraid to buy in and have our heart broken. But what happens if you buy in and they win? We never stop to think about that, and it might be time.

Fan Interaction

It hasn’t taken long for fans to fall in love with P.J. Fleck. His energy and enthusiasm for football and life basically give you two options: Love him or hate him. And if you’re going to choose the latter, he’ll do everything in his power to win you over. Fans came away from his first day at the U impressed, and he won over Williams Arena during halftime of the Gopher basketball team’s win over Ohio State. He led students in “Row the Boat” chants, and who doesn’t love a guy who pitches into help the Red Panda at halftime? There simply aren’t many coaches who would do that.

Fleck made it clear that he wants fans involved in the program as much as possible. He wants fans at team practices, he wants to fill TCF Bank Stadium for the annual Spring Game and he wants Gophers football to become a national brand. He took Western Michigan from being virtually unknown to a 13-0 season this year before a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin. Winning solves everything, but it’s hard not to like what he envisions at Minnesota.

Gophers Make An Investment

Times have changed at the University of Minnesota. They’re building a brand new athletic facility for all sports, and the move to hire Fleck shows that administration is investing in its athletics. Fleck signed five-year contract north of $20 million to take over Gophers football. He’ll be paid about $3.5 million annually, ranking fifth among Big Ten coaches. That’s never happened at Minnesota, so it’s clear that President Eric Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle have made an investment in Fleck and think he can win here. Fleck sold them on his passion, energy and his vision for what Gophers football can become.

Fleck also made it clear what he will invest into Gopher football. His practices will be fast, crisp and intense. His wife says she’ll be constantly around the team, almost like a mother to the players like Rebecca Kill was. Fleck’s family will also be out in the community, both giving their time and promoting his Gopher brand.

At his introductory news conference, he stressed “Changing the Culture” and that “Change is here.” Given the investment, maybe it’s time for the fan base to get invested and help change that culture.

Unlike Brewster, Fleck Can Win

It’s time to stop comparing P.J. Fleck to Tim Brewster. When Brewster was hired, he had zero experience as a head coach. None. He didn’t even have experience as a coordinator. He had been a tight ends coach at the collegiate and high school level. Brewster talked of the Rose Bowl and taking “Gopher Nation to Pasadena.” What followed was 1-11, 7-6, 6-7 and 1-6 before his dismissal. His defenses were largely terrible and his teams made mistake after mistake.

Fleck has a tireless and passionate approach to football and life. He can match it with how his team plays on the field. After going 1-11 in his first season as the head coach at Western Michigan, he went 8-4 in 2014 and 8-5 in 2015, including the program’s first bowl victory. But this year changed everything. Fleck and the Broncos went 13-0 in the regular season and beat Ohio in the MAC title game. They got to the Cotton Bowl, where they lost to Wisconsin 24-16. The Broncos finished in the top-15 in every national poll, and Fleck is a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. The guy can motivate, and he can coach.

Fleck wants to change the culture for the Gophers. But for that to happen, we need to reciprocate and buy into what he’s selling. He’s the hottest name in college coaching, and there’s a reason. He can win, and now just needs to prove it at the Big Ten level. But as he said in his first news conference, he has always run into the fire and never away from it.

Just imagine what happens if he beats Iowa or Wisconsin.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

More From WCCO | CBS Minnesota

Good Question
Best Of Minnesota

Watch & Listen LIVE