Minnesotans still were trying to process P.J. Fleck’s blowtorch introduction when the Gophers new football coach revealed a different side of himself. His shark recruiter side.
Hours after stepping off a private plane for his first day on the job, Fleck began salvaging a recruiting class by poaching recruits that had verbally committed to his previous employer, Western Michigan.
He flipped one, then two, then three, then four. By the end, nine members of Western Michigan’s recruiting class changed allegiances and decided to flock with Fleck.
In one fell swoop, Fleck drained his former team of some of its best incoming talent. Some observers decried that kind of pilfering as bad optics.
News flash: Of course it looks ruthless. Since when did recruiting become our moral compass?
I’m not saying Fleck was right or wrong. But nobody should be knocked over by a feather that something like this happened anywhere.
Recruiting is a dog-eat-dog pursuit, even among friends. No matter how much Fleck professes his undying affection for a school that gave him his first head coach job, he also vowed to deliver elite results here.
Poaching happens all the time under normal circumstances. The hunt for talent becomes especially awkward during coaching changes.
Rest assured that within minutes of Tracy Claeys being fired, other schools were contacting Gophers recruits encouraging them to decommit. That’s life in the recruiting swamp.
Recruits often are told they should choose a school, not a coach, because a coach can always leave. That’s wonderful advice in theory but not practical. Fleck’s commits from Western Michigan followed him without even seeing Minnesota’s campus. His message apparently struck a chord with them.
At its core, recruiting is cutthroat competitive and occasionally messy. Fleck wouldn’t have needed to reach backward — at least to this extent — if the recruiting class he inherited was in better shape.
Recruiting under Claeys this season was floundering. Several recruiting websites ranked the Gophers at the bottom of the Big Ten and behind Western Michigan in national rankings.
A handful of Claeys’ commits either de-committed after his firing or reached a conclusion with Fleck that they should look for another school.
That’s another sticky situation that arises with December (or later) coaching changes. The new coach might not view a recruit in the same light as the former staff. The reason might be talent, fit with scheme, personality, whatever.
Rescinding an offer leaves the recruit with only a few weeks to find a new school, which doesn’t seem fair. However, a clean break is probably better than having a kid come to campus, be largely ignored by a coaching staff that didn’t recruit him (or want him) and then transfer after one or two years. Why not be honest up front?
Fleck needs to sign a large class in anticipation of heavy personnel losses to graduation and possibly nine players that have been recommended for expulsion or one-year suspensions as part of the university’s sexual assault investigation. He continued to add to his class over the weekend by securing a commitment from former Oregon recruit Demetrius Douglas, who also held an offer from Notre Dame.
Without plucking his Western Michigan commits, Fleck would have had to find 15 or more recruits in three weeks starting from scratch. That’s not realistic.
Some probably are wondering if the recruits that Fleck flipped are Big Ten-caliber. Time will tell. But the Gophers’ national ranking jumped about 20 spots after those additions, not surprising since recruiting websites had Western Michigan rated higher than Gophers.
Tanner Morgan, a quarterback from Kentucky, initially picked Western Michigan despite having an offer from Louisville. So did offensive guard John Michael Schmitz. Defensive end Esezi Otomewo held offers from multiple Power 5 schools.
Fleck presumably targeted commits that he believes belong in the Big Ten. Their defections severely deflated Western Michigan’s recruiting class. It’s understandable if those left behind aren’t in the mood to row the boat.
But one would be naïve to think Fleck wouldn’t want to keep players he spent months recruiting just because he has a new home.