Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle declared he is trying to build a “culture of excellence” within an athletic program that needs more “integrity and class” earlier this week upon firing football coach Tracy Claeys.
Three days later, in the first major hire of his tenure, Coyle entrusted 36-year-old P.J. Fleck with bringing those qualities to the on-field and off-field performances of the school’s most-visible team.
Fleck hardly bears the sole responsibility for achieving those goals. But Coyle’s message in the wake of a tumultuous recent past across Gophers sports that included the suspension of 10 football players in connection to an alleged sexual assault makes it clear that Fleck and his university coaching peers will be judged on their ability to deliver in more ways than just wins and losses.
That’s a lot of responsibility for the youngest head coach of a major conference football program in the country. But Fleck — who at one point Friday declared, “I have news for everybody: Change has arrived!” — does not seem daunted by the task.
“I look at this as a culture change,” Fleck said. “In the first year … we have to dig and find what parts of the culture we need to change.”
Fleck said he met with about 25 Gophers players in person Friday, with others joining via Facebook Live.
“I promised them every single day I’m going to find a solution to make your life elite,” Fleck said, adding that a head coach’s job “has a lot more to do with people than players.”
Though the hire came just three days after Claeys was fired, Coyle sounded confident that he learned enough about his new coach in that short time to believe he can deliver that change.
“It’s not just in the locker room, it’s around our program,” Coyle said. “We wanted someone who could bring energy and excitement back.”
His introductory news conference Friday felt at times like a sermon and at times like a sales pitch as it veered from football topics to personal topics — all the while filled with phrases from Fleck such as “I eat difficult conversations for breakfast.”
At Western Michigan in August, when confronted with the arrests of two incoming freshmen, Fleck acted swiftly to dismiss both — and then took the blame for not doing a better job of checking their backgrounds.
Fleck had never been a head coach — or even a coordinator — before landing the Western Michigan job at age 32 in 2013. He described himself with a chuckle as a “young punk” at the time he was hired.
“It’s about learning and growing from your mistakes,” Fleck said Friday of dealing with that controversy. “Going through that has made me a better football coach.”
Malik Rucker, a Twin Cities native who transferred from Iowa and played for Fleck at Western Michigan last season, gave the coach high marks for personal accountability.
“He has zero tolerance for people who disrespect women, whether it’s domestic violence or sexual misconduct,” Rucker said. “Every day, we had meetings, and they’d go for like 30 minutes. They were like life meetings. He’s kind of like a life coach. And those meetings have impacted a lot of players for their whole life.”
Fleck said he is more focused on the future than the past with his new players, but lingering questions remain about the fallout from the player suspensions. Fleck said he addressed those concerns with players Friday, but how he handles it going forward will have a greater impact on his tenure.
University President Eric Kaler said Friday that Claeys and his staff didn’t do enough to communicate important details of the investigation that they could share, leading the situation to escalate.
“I think that there was an opportunity for the coaches to learn more and help the players understand why the suspensions were put in place,” Kaler said. “And I don’t think enough of that happened.”
Kaler, who has seen multiple controversies overshadow some athletic successes, is optimistic the new coach will help change the culture.
“He has high energy, high integrity, and he understands the consequences of player behavior,” Kaler said. “It’s not going to be a hard decision for him to suspend a player who violates team rules.”
Staff writers Joe Christensen and Maura Lerner contributed to this story.