P.J. Fleck held up an errant piece of sheet music after the Gophers beat Maryland to improve to 8-0. The notes to Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” had floated in front of the coach on the field, having blown away from some member of the marching band.
The Gophers football coach said that was no coincidence, as his 13th-ranked team is on fire with its best record in nearly 80 years and a two-game lead in the Big Ten West.
But that could also apply to Fleck himself — not because he’s on the hot seat but rather because he might become one of the hottest commodities on the coaching market again. No wonder Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said Thursday he has been discussing Fleck’s future, an indication yet another contract could be coming.
Fleck has been a head coach for seven years, notably taking Western Michigan from 1-11 in 2013 to 13-1 by the time he left for the Gophers after the 2016 season. In three seasons here, he has taken the program from 5-7 to 7-6 to undefeated in 2019, with No. 6 Penn State visiting next week and a possible ESPN “College GameDay” visit in the future.
“My future at Minnesota is to make sure Minnesota is getting the attention that it deserves getting on a national level for our team, for our coaches, for our state, for our Twin Cities area. That’s my responsibility. And I know Heather and I absolutely love it here, and we’re very grateful to our fans and very grateful to our administration and very grateful to our community that have accepted us with open arms. And we’ve got a lot of things to finish here this year.”
The Maryland victory was Fleck’s 50th, making him at 38 the second-youngest active FBS coach to reach that milestone. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” culture focuses on producing good players as well as good people, which makes him an attractive choice for any AD in search of a new football coach.
That’s what Coyle saw in 2017 when he hired Fleck to take control of a program in crisis following a sexual assault scandal and player boycott.
“We talked about having a program that competes academically, athletically and socially, and there is no doubt that he and his student-athletes have done just that,” Coyle said in a statement Thursday.
At Western Michigan, Fleck was making $800,000 per year with incentives to reach $1 million, and he departed with four years left on his contract. With the Gophers, he signed an $18 million contract for five years — averaging about $3.6 million per season — and garnered a one-year extension in November 2017 to bring his contract total to $21.75 million for six years. He received another extension in December 2018, keeping him with the Gophers through 2023 for a total of $25.5 million.
Fleck’s $3.6 million salary for this season ranks 37th among all 130 FBS coaches and 11th of 14 coaches in the Big Ten Conference, according to USA Today.
Given the history of late fall/early winter contract extensions, Coyle and new University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel could be preparing to offer another re-up for Fleck, possibly timed with the Board of Regents meeting scheduled for Dec. 12-13.
Purdue hired Jeff Brohm as Boilermakers coach about a month before the Gophers hired Fleck. Brohm signed a similar contract, at $19.8 million for six years. But ahead of this season, he earned a new contract worth $36.8 million through 2025. Fleck could garner something similar, as the Gophers have beaten Purdue in each of the past two seasons.
Coyle does not typically address coaches’ contract statuses publicly during the season, but in the statement, he said the pair “will continue to have conversations” about Fleck’s long-term future leading the program.
Despite the terms of his current contract, Fleck could still leave after this season, as long as he pays the school his $4 million buyout. And with potential job openings at SEC schools such as Arkansas and South Carolina or traditional powerhouses such as Southern California, Fleck likely will be a candidate for some of the highest-profile jobs in the country.
The coach addressed his future on WCCO radio on Sunday, though his comment wasn’t exactly definitive.
“My future at Minnesota is to make sure Minnesota is getting the attention that it deserves getting on a national level for our team, for our coaches, for our state, for our Twin Cities area,” Fleck said. “That’s my responsibility. And I know Heather [Fleck, his wife] and I absolutely love it here, and we’re very grateful to our fans and very grateful to our administration and very grateful to our community that have accepted us with open arms.
“And we’ve got a lot of things to finish here this year.”
Even with the Gophers’ perfect season so far, including a Big Ten championship and major bowl game as visceral possibilities, fans can’t just enjoy the ride without questions of if the coach who brought them such delight might depart.
But at least the past is on the fans’ side: The Gophers haven’t lost a football coach to another team since Lou Holtz went to Notre Dame in 1985. But then again, the Gophers have been making a lot of history this year.