The campuses of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Syracuse are more than 1,200 miles apart, but when the Gophers and Orange meet in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29 at Yankee Stadium, the ties between some of the key figures involved will be up close and personal for a variety of reasons.

Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle hired both head coaches in this game — P.J. Fleck for Minnesota in 2017 and Dino Babers for Syracuse when Coyle was the Orange's AD in 2015. In addition, both Fleck and Babers earned their coaching chops in the Mid-American Conference, Fleck with Western Michigan from 2013 through '16, and Babers at Bowling Green in 2014 and '15.

And if you ask Babers, he just can't shake Fleck, who has an uncanny habit of ending up wherever Babers is during the offseason.

"It's almost like he's got my phone, he knows where my location is,'' Babers said during Tuesday's Pinstripe Bowl news conference. "It's been spooky how many times it's happened.''

"I'm not stalking the guy,'' Fleck responded with a laugh.

While Fleck's Gophers (8-4) and Babers' Orange (7-5) prepare to match wits in a bowl game, Coyle has his fingerprints all over both sidelines.

Coyle was hired as Syracuse's AD on June 19, 2015, after spending the previous four seasons as Boise State's AD. He fired football coach Scott Shafer in late November 2015 as the Orange went 4-8, then hired Babers, who just had led Bowling Green to a 10-3 record and MAC championship and an 18-9 mark in two years with the Falcons.

"When it comes to Mark Coyle, he has a fantastic discernment when it comes to first judgment in hiring good coaches,'' Babers said with a smile.

Babers, however, never got to coach a game for his new boss. Coyle, a Waterloo, Iowa, native, cited family reasons for leaving Syracuse after 311 days and returning to the Midwest when he took the Gophers job on May 11, 2016. Babers found out the news from a reporter upon leaving an ACC meeting that day, responding: "Are you serious?''

Back to the Midwest

On Tuesday, Coyle reflected on his time at Syracuse and why he left.

"Obviously, an opportunity came here at Minnesota. We took that opportunity to be with my family,'' Coyle said. "… We are just very grateful for our time at Syracuse. It was a wonderful place. We have great, great memories there, great friends back in Syracuse.''

As he did at Syracuse, Coyle made a football coaching change in his first year in Minnesota, firing Tracy Claeys and mining the MAC again to hire Fleck, who had led Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and Cotton Bowl berth. Coyle sees parallels in the two hires.

"The one thing that really stood out about Dino and Coach Fleck is they're even better people behind the scenes,'' Coyle said. "They're wonderful men with great, great character.''

They meet again, and again

Fleck and Babers coached against each other twice, with Western Michigan beating Bowling Green 26-14 in 2014 and the Falcons responding with a 41-27 win in 2015. "They came out and put it on us,'' Babers said. "The second year, we got a chance to reciprocate. That was cool.''

They'll meet again Dec. 29, and regardless of the outcome, Babers will be on the lookout for more chance encounters with Fleck.

"You're in this restaurant, nobody knows you, it's great. You're just a normal person,'' Babers said. "You look over, and it's, 'P.J.'s here.' ''

"He's got this infectious personality, and he can talk about anything any time, anywhere,'' Fleck said of Babers and their meetings that turn into group dinners. "He just draws you in closer all the time. We always call him the governor of college football.''