It was 4 degrees, the middle of winter, with TCF Bank Stadium’s field covered in snow Friday, when in rushed the Gophers new football coach, P.J. Fleck.
His voice came booming, his chin held high, as he clenched the lectern with both hands. It took all of 40 seconds to speak of his “vision of winning a national championship.”
At Minnesota — where that hasn’t happened in 56 years.
The Gophers just had their first nine-victory season since 2003, under Tracy Claeys, who got fired Tuesday, with the program torn asunder after 10 players were suspended in connection with an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle promised change. For better or worse, he delivered a revolution.
The 36-year-old Fleck, fresh off a 13-1 season at Western Michigan, signed a five-year, $18 million contract, with Minnesota also agreeing to pay up to $600,000 toward his buyout at WMU.
“People ask me all the time, why Minnesota?” Fleck said. “Because we share a vision of winning a national championship. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten West. We share a vision of winning the Big Ten and having Rose Bowls. And I’m not afraid to say that because that’s the way I live my life.”
Coyle quickly zeroed in on Fleck, conducting a five-hour interview Wednesday in Chicago before meeting with former LSU coach Les Miles that night in Minnesota. Miles, 63, emerged as the top fallback plan, according to sources familiar with the search, though the Gophers weren’t sure how those negotiations might go.
Instead, Coyle stayed focused on Fleck, with the sides agreeing to a deal that will pay him an average of $3.6 million per season, slightly more than the Big Ten average of $3.52 million, according to Forbes. If Fleck were to leave early for another job, he would owe the university about $1 million per remaining year on his contract.
“Minnesota’s a good fit for him and his family,” Coyle said. “And I expect him to be here a long time.”
Fleck was born in Sugar Grove, Ill., in 1980, and made it into Division I football at Northern Illinois as a wide receiver, despite standing about 5-9. He spent two years in the NFL, mostly on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad.
“I’m the runt,” Fleck said. “I’m the king of the toos — too small, too smart, too young, too inexperienced. That’s been my life.”
But he quickly climbed the coaching ranks after starting as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006, under Jim Tressel. Two years later, he was the wide receivers coach at Northern Illinois under Jerry Kill. He spent two years on Kill’s staff, along with Claeys, before latching on with Greg Schiano, first at Rutgers and then with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Fleck said Kill “taught me how to care through the head coach’s eyes. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That is Jerry Kill to a ‘T.’ ”
In 2012, Western Michigan made Fleck the youngest head coach in major college football. The Broncos promptly went 1-11. But he filled their coffers with the Mid-American Conference’s top-ranked recruiting classes each of the past three years, going 8-5 and 8-5, setting up this season’s Cinderella run.
With a high-powered spread-option offense and a significantly improved defense, Western Michigan won its first MAC championship and was 13-0 before losing to Wisconsin 24-16 in the Cotton Bowl on Monday. A mere four days after that game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Fleck was in Minnesota with his wife, Heather, a Kalamazoo, Mich., native, saying goodbye to old friends.
He specifically thanked Western Michigan AD Kathy Beauregard for taking “a shot on a 32-year-old punk that had never been a [head] football coach before and had never even been a coordinator.
“I apologized to her before I left, but I had to chase my dream as well, and the University of Minnesota is my dream.”
Fleck explained that by noting how badly he always wanted to play or coach in the Big Ten, and how much he has enjoyed coming to the Twin Cities on recruiting visits. Now, he will be devoting his high-energy tactics to bring talent to the Gophers.
On Friday night alone, he took six recruits who had made commitments to Western Michigan and flipped them to the Gophers.
“We’re going to recruit the finest student-athletes in the country,” he said. “And you know where we’re going to start? Our elite state of Minnesota.
“We’re going to draw a circle six to seven hours around the Twin Cities area, and then we’re going to go to work because we want to fill the Bank every single game.”
After arriving on campus, Fleck gathered Gophers players for a meeting. With many of them on winter break, about 25 attended, with others patching in via a Facebook Live feed.
“The first thing I did tell them was simple: ‘Guys, you did not pick me, but I picked you.’ ”
Gophers linebacker Carter Coughlin later tweeted: “We can’t change what has happened because it’s in the past, we can only focus on the future. I’m excited to be led by Coach Fleck! Ski-U-Mah.”
Fleck’s news conference lasted more than 30 minutes, with his confident voice never wavering. Later, Coyle was asked if he felt like Gophers fans needed an energy jolt.
“Nine wins is a good season, and the Holiday Bowl was good,” Coyle said. “But we needed to shake the tree. We needed to do something different.”
That’s Fleck to a “T.”