COLLEGE FOOTBALL: For P.J. Fleck, a contract extension has never been too far away
Gophers coach said he loves it at Minnesota and wants to continue building the program
MINNEAPOLIS — Two weeks before the Gophers were set to play Northwestern, head coach P.J. Fleck needed some advice, so he picked up the phone and called Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“I was going through something,” Fleck said. “You don’t have many of those (relationships) in the profession, especially within the same conference, same division. It had nothing to do with football. I needed (to ask) a question about something, and he picked up the phone immediately.”
Fitzgerald was gracious with his time just like he was 15 years ago when Fleck, then an assistant coach at Northern Illinois, asked him to go to lunch. Back in 2007, they went to a small burger joint in Evanston, Illinois, and that started the basis for their collegial bond.
Early on in his now six-year tenure at Minnesota, Fleck often pointed to “cultural sustainability” within other Big Ten West Division programs for what he wants to establish at Minnesota. But when looking around the room these days, there are fewer examples to share.
Nebraska canned Scott Frost in September, Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst in October and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has dealt with accusations of unchecked nepotism with his son Brian’s leadership of a stagnant and often sluggish Hawkeyes offense this season.
Fitzgerald is in his 17th season at his alma mater, but his current Northwestern team comes to Huntington Bank Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. Saturday kickoff, having lost eight straight games, the program’s worst skid since 1998. They are in the division’s basement at 1-5 in Big Ten play after reaching two of the past four Big Ten Championship games.
Fleck said this week the Gophers are treating the Wildcats as if they are the defending Big Ten West champions — even if they are two years removed from that title and went 1-8 in league play a year ago.
Part of the reason for that no-let-up approach is Minnesota has slipped up a few times in the division in the past two years. A 20-10 loss to Purdue on Oct. 1 and a 26-14 defeat to Illinois on Oct. 15 still gnaw at the Gophers roughly a month later — just like the 14-6 loss to the rebuilding Illini wounded Minnesota’s division hopes a year ago.
Both defeats this year have forced Minnesota to play catch up within the division. Second-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema has the Illini sitting atop the West, but an upset loss to Michigan State last week put them at 4-2 in the conference. That loss opened the door, albeit just a crack, to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue; each team is one game back at 3-3.
If Minnesota continues to finish strong — with a home game vs. Iowa on Nov. 19 and a trip to Wisconsin on Nov. 26 — and receive substantial help elsewhere in the division, the Gophers still could represent the West in the Big Ten Championship Game.
If Minnesota is able to overcome those long odds with the division logjam, Fleck’s name likely would again be mentioned as the amount of coaching vacancies is expected to grow after the regular season.
This has become a nearly annual tradition, and so have contract extensions for Fleck.
Fifty-one weeks ago, Fleck’s team was 6-2 when he signed a seven-year contract extension through the 2028 season. The deal gave Fleck a raise to $5 million per year and included a buyout of $10 million, if Fleck were to leave before Dec. 31.
But that buyout figure drops to $7 million on Jan. 1 — a time when the coaching carousel might be spinning wildly.
Fleck has repeatedly shared how much he loves it at Minnesota and wants to continue building the program. Meanwhile, he is having a new home built in the Twin Cities suburbs.
Fleck’s contract has six more seasons remaining, but the minimum length of any college coach’s contract is only as viable as a recruit-turned-player can be on campus (typically five years). This means extensions for any successful coach within this timeframe are never too far away.
Even if Minnesota was to fall short of winning the West, Fleck has shown what he can do, with a 26-9 record across the last three full seasons (2019, 2021 and so far in 2022). University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle has continually re-upped Fleck’s contract, and Fleck’s agent Bryan Harlan was spotted attending the Gopher game in Champaign, Illinois, last month.
The Gophers defense has been the bedrock of their success, and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s unit is again in the Top 25 in multiple categories this fall. Rossi said that doesn’t happen without the standard Fleck sets for his players, holding them accountable for their actions both on and off the field.
One recent example is Dylan Wright being suspended for an undisclosed reason for the Penn State loss despite the team’s clear need for his skills and contribution among the shorthanded and struggling receiving corps.
Rossi said players are required to practice hard, exhibit toughness and show fine attention to detail. “He does all of that to allow the schemes to really come to life,” Rossi said.
Fleck’s forte is on the offensive side, with a background playing receiver and then coaching the position group. “I think great leaders do this, and he is a tremendous leader: He puts people in position, empowers them and allows them to go do their job,” Rossi said.
“Now, if we are not doing something up to the standard, he is going to let us know about it, trust me,” Rossi continued. “Whether it’s in a staff meeting or it’s out on the field or it’s one-on-one in your office. For the most part, we have good coaches who do their jobs, and so he just fosters that environment.”
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca returned to Minnesota in December and three key assistants were there to welcome him back — offensive line coach Brian Callahan, running backs coach Kenni Burns and receivers coach Matt Simon.
“Continuity is a great thing,” Ciarrocca said. “It’s a hard thing to establish in this profession. … Guys are moving all over the place.”
When Ciarrocca returned after spending 2020 at Penn State and 2021 at West Virginia, he was able to soon get on the same page with with his old colleagues, while the majority of the players, everyone outside of the recent transfers, have only known how things are done within Fleck’s culture at Minnesota.
“The players apply it,” Ciarrocca said. “It’s not the message, it’s really the messengers when you are trying to establish something, and P.J. has a lot of messengers here.”
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