With P.J. Fleck’s Gophers riding an 8-0 start, athletic director Mark Coyle accelerated contract talks that had begun in July, determined to fend off any speculation that his fast-rising football coach could soon head elsewhere.
By Tuesday, the two sides agreed to a new seven-year, $33.25 million contract — the largest financial coaching commitment in University of Minnesota history — pending approval at the next Board of Regents meeting on Dec. 13.
Coyle built in a key buyout provision. If Fleck leaves next year, he must repay the university $10 million, a number that drops to $4.5 million the following year, and $3 million in 2022.
“A lot of times, it’s easy for coaches to pick up and leave, go different places,” Fleck said. “These are very special people. I believe in what we can do here at the University of Minnesota because of them, because of the recruits we have committed … because of our players now.”
Fleck’s current $3.6 million salary ranks 11th among 14 Big Ten coaches, and starting next year he’ll likely rank in the conference’s upper half, at $4.6 million.
The new contract comes at a pivotal time for the Gophers. The No. 13 team faces undefeated No. 5 Penn State (No. 4 in Tuesday’s first BCS rankings of the season) Saturday in the program’s biggest game in more than a decade. And with the program gaining attention, so was the 38-year-old Fleck as a hot prospect on the coaching market. Florida State inquired about Fleck after firing Willie Taggart on Sunday, a source told the Star Tribune.
Coyle said when a team is winning, it is natural for other programs to chase that coach. But he insisted Fleck’s dedication to Minnesota has never concerned him.
“You may not believe me,” Coyle said. “P.J. and I are very different people. But what we have in common is a very strong relationship and a lot of trust. … I wasn’t worried about it because he and I have had conversations almost daily.”
Coyle has given Fleck a contract extension all three years the coach has been with the school. Fleck signed a five-year, $18 million deal when the Gophers hired him away from Western Michigan in 2017, with subsequent one-year extensions.
Coyle said he first approached Fleck and his agent, Bryan Harlan, about this latest contract at Big Ten Media Days in July. Coyle credited new University President Joan Gabel for green-lighting those efforts.
“She has come in here and done an unbelievable job supporting not only our football program but all of our programs,” Coyle said. “Obviously when you start these conversations you have to have your president up to speed, and President Gabel’s been incredibly supportive of these conversations.”
Fleck’s new deal also takes care of his 10 assistant coaches. The university agreed to raise the salary pool for his assistants by $1.05 million next year, with another $200,000 added for 2021. Fleck nearly lost offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to West Virginia last offseason, for example, but now there is more money to keep each assistant.
“I wanted them to feel security they can be here,” Fleck said. “We can have that security and camaraderie for a long time, that cultural sustainability we talked about when we first got here, that is really important. That is how the Iowas have become the Iowas, Wisconsins have become the Wisconsins.”
Those Gophers rivals have done what the Gophers have struggled to do: established stability. At Wisconsin, it’s longtime coach-turned athletics director Barry Alvarez, who has been with the school since 1990. For Iowa, it’s coach Kirk Ferentz, who’s been around since 1999.
Coyle said he wants each Gophers program to be a “destination” job for coaches.
“First of all, you have to be happy where you live,” Fleck said. “… At the University of Minnesota, it’s a complete package for [wife] Heather and I. We love the Twin Cities area. We love Minnesota. We’re Midwestern people. We love how the community welcomes us with open arms.”