The University of Minnesota has hired P.J. Fleck as its new coach, the school announced Friday, confirming an earlier report from SI.com. Fleck led Western Michigan to an undefeated regular season and MAC title this year before losing in the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin. Western Michigan finished the season 13–1, and Fleck solidified himself as one of the most sought after coaches in college football.
Fleck met with Minnesota officials in Chicago on Wednesday, according to a source. This year, he drew interest from Purdue, Houston and Cincinnati but declined to interview with all of them as he was hoping to pursue a better job. Both Rutgers and Syracuse reached out to Fleck last year, but he declined to pursue those jobs.
Fleck, 36, led Western Michigan to bowl games in each of the past three seasons. He’s earned a reputation as a prolific recruiter, bringing in the best class in the MAC the past three seasons and frequently beating low-tier Big Ten schools for prospects. Fleck’s upcoming 2017 recruiting class ranks No. 38 nationally, more than 20 spots ahead of any other program outside the Power 5 conferences. (Minnesota ranks No. 67, one of five teams in the Big Ten West that trail Western Michigan in the recruiting rankings.)
Fleck’s hallmark is his energy and enthusiasm, as his “Row The Boat” mantra has emerged as the identity for an anonymous directional program. Fleck so captivated the college football world this season that he got invited during a Western Michigan off-week to spend a day at ESPN to do a car wash, an unprecedented opportunity for a coach from the MAC.
Fleck replaces Tracy Claeys, who went 9–4 in his first season as a full-time head coach and 11–8 overall. Claeys’s dismissal was tied in part to his poor public handling of a sexual assault scandal in his program. Minnesota players considered skipping the Holiday Bowl this season because of the university’s treatment of the 10 players involved in the sexual assault investigation. Claeys drew fire when he sent a insensitive tweet in support of the players that said he’d “never been more proud of our kids.” Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle said in a statement: “Coach Claeys’ tweet later that week was not helpful.”
Fleck’s hiring should be considered a coup for Minnesota, which has just two seasons of nine or more wins since 1905. One of the allures of the Minnesota job is that it’s in the exponentially easier side of the Big Ten, as Fleck will walk in the door as one of the West division's most energetic and established recruiters. Along with his on-field success at Western Michigan, Fleck’s personality and enthusiasm captivated the community. That’s something that will help distinguish Minnesota football in a competitive market.
Fleck came to Western Michigan from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he coached wide receivers for Greg Schiano. Prior to Tampa Bay, he worked at Rutgers, Northern Illinois and as a graduate assistant at Ohio State. Fleck also played briefly in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers in 2004 and 2005.