Mike Sherels was among the throng at TCF Bank Stadium on Friday, listening to P.J. Fleck’s rousing opening remarks as the new Gophers coach. Earlier in the day, he heard Fleck address a more intimate gathering: the players.
Sherels, a former captain who is now the team’s linebackers coach, thought Fleck “knocked it out of the park” with the larger audience — and made a strong first impression on the players during a time of unrest. Like many in the crowd at Fleck’s news conference, Sherels was delighted by the coach’s energy. He also saw Fleck connect with players who are still upset over the fallout from a sexual assault investigation.
Fellow Gophers alums Ron Johnson, Justin Conzemius and Pete Najarian joined Sherels in praising the hire. Sherels said “time will tell” if Fleck can mend wounds, but he said the coach’s energy and authenticity give him optimism.
“I’m excited, and I think the players are excited,” Sherels said. “I think they’re still a little apprehensive [about the coaching change], but not quite as combative. Change won’t happen in a day, and Coach Fleck did a good job of acknowledging that.
“He didn’t over-promise anything. He didn’t make them guarantees. He said, ‘It’s going to be different, but everything is going to be geared toward making you into the type of man we want to put out.’ That’s something I think resonated with them. They felt his honesty and that he was genuine.”
Johnson, who ranks second in school history in receiving yards behind Eric Decker, said he thinks Fleck was a big hire from a national standpoint. He and Conzemius view Fleck’s combination of youth, vigor and success as a coach as a good fit.
“He’s going to be on the (College Football Playoff) national championship show Monday,” Johnson said. “So he’ll be wearing maroon and gold. He’ll be talking about Minnesota. That’s going to shed a lot of light on Minnesota. It’s going to help some of the recruits who are maybe on the fence. They might see a bigger opportunity here more than somewhere else. But only time will tell.”
Conzemius, a linebacker from 1992 to ’95, views Fleck as the kind of coach who will be able to take lower-ranked recruits and build them. He said Fleck “is in the prime stage of his career” and will be a relatable leader. Conzemius also thinks Fleck’s drive can boost fundraising efforts.
“He’s very exciting, energizing and positive, and he’s engaged with the public,” said Conzemius, who added that he got more excited about the hire the more he learned. “This is going to be a lot of work. But I’m optimistic, because you can see the fire in that guy. He’s excited to take on a challenge.”
Ex-Gophers linebacker Najarian, a successful options trader and No. 2 all-time tackler at the U, was an athletic director candidate before Mark Coyle was hired in the spring. Najarian said if he was in Coyle’s role, Fleck probably would have been his pick.
As an ESPN color analyst, Najarian covered some of Western Michigan’s games.
“I know as much about him as probably anybody here,” he said. “You look at how well he’s able to recruit. He’s got charisma. People will fall in love with that side of him because we haven’t seen that kind of charisma probably since Lou Holtz was here.”