P.J. Fleck gathered his Gophers football team after Wednesday morning's practice for a quick ceremony. Then he took out a pen and signed a contract that could keep the coach in Minnesota through the 2028 season.
"I just told them why we signed it and what we did,'' Fleck said. "It's about them and thanking them and all that they do."
The seven-year, $35 million contract adds two years to Fleck's last deal in 2019 and includes an average salary of $5 million.
This year, Fleck's total compensation is $4.65 million. His new contract, pending Board of Regents approval, will put him in a four-way tie for fifth among Big Ten coaches, behind Ohio State's Ryan Day ($6.75 million), Penn State's James Franklin ($6.7 million), Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald ($5.75 million) and Michigan State's Mel Tucker ($5.63 million).
“It was important for me to send a message to our fan base, to send our message to our recruits, to our current student-athletes, that we are committed to football, we're committed to winning at a high level, and we're committed to doing the right things.”
Fleck's pay would match the 2021 pay of Nebraska's Scott Frost, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, all of whom make $5 million.
Along with hoping to build a long-lasting program, Fleck wanted to end any talk about him leaving for other jobs. In past years, his name was mentioned in openings at Florida State and Tennessee. When USC fired Clay Helton early this season, Fleck was mentioned in media speculation as a potential candidate.
"As things start to come about, especially when you know you want to be somewhere, you make that happen and eliminate the external noise because that can be a distraction for your players,'' Fleck said. "I don't want to be that distraction.''
The university got protection from Fleck, 40, leaving early for another job in the form of increased buyouts. Should Fleck leave for another coaching job before Dec. 31, 2022, he would owe the university $10 million, and it would still be $7 million the next season, followed by $5 million in 2024 and decreasing from there.
His previous buyout for this year was $4.5 million, and it was to drop to $3 million the next two years.
"That's helpful, and P.J. is being genuine when he talks about wanting to be here,'' athletic director Mark Coyle said. "… From an institutional perspective, having that high buyout obviously provides the protection.''
Fleck, an Illinois native, stressed his affinity for the Twin Cities area as a reason to commit.
"I absolutely love the state of Minnesota,'' he said. "My wife [Heather] loves living here, our kids love being here, and it's a really special place. It's home to us. … We get to make a life here, not just make a living. And that is very difficult to find in our profession.''
Fleck and Coyle began preliminary contract talks this summer, and negotiations picked up in the past few weeks.
"It was important for me to send a message to our fan base, to send our message to our recruits, to our current student-athletes, that we are committed to football, we're committed to winning at a high level, and we're committed to doing the right things,'' said Coyle, who hired Fleck in January 2017 with an original five-year, $18 million deal, then gave the coach one-year extensions in November 2017 and December 2018 and the seven-year deal in 2019.
Setting recruits' minds at ease also was a positive for Fleck.
"Whatever you are hearing, whatever people are recruiting against us with, whatever you are hearing outside, the speculations, that is why you do it now,'' he said. "You put that to bed.''
Fleck's previous deal called for annual $50,000 raises that would have pushed his salary to $4.9 million by 2026. Now, he'll make an even $5 million each year through 2028.
Fleck's new deal also increased pay for assistant coaches and staff members, who'll share from an additional $350,000 beginning Feb. 1.
The contract has holdover incentives for accomplishments such as winning the Big Ten championship ($150,00) or winning or finishing in a first-place division tie ($100,000). Two new incentives bring $100,000 each for winning eight and nine regular-season games.
“ We get to make a life here, not just make a living. And that is very difficult to find in our profession.”
The Gophers are 6-2 this season and sit atop the Big Ten's West Division with a 4-1 record entering Saturday's home game against Illinois.
On Tuesday, they were No. 20 in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season. In 2019, the Gophers went 11-2, won the Outback Bowl and finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press Top 25, their best poll showing since 1962.
Fleck is 32-21 overall at Minnesota, including 24-10 in his past 34 games.
"I said from Day One: 'We're not going anywhere, we're not going anywhere,' '' Fleck said. "This just keeps proving that.''