When Mark Coyle fired Syracuse football coach Scott Shafer in 2015, Coyle was interested in talking to Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, but he did not interview, according to a person familiar with that situation.
On Tuesday, speculation immediately turned toward a Coyle-Fleck union again, when Coyle, in his current role as Gophers athletic director, fired coach Tracy Claeys. Fleck heads a list of potential candidates who might be the fit Coyle is looking for moving forward.
Other names to watch include Boise State coach Bryan Harsin, former LSU coach Les Miles, Wyoming coach Craig Bohl and North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman, who was quarterback on Coyle’s high school team at Waterloo (Iowa) Columbus Catholic.
Coyle has made two coaching hires in a little more than three years. As the AD at Boise State in December 2013, Coyle hired Harsin to replace Chris Petersen, who had left for Washington. And as Syracuse AD, Coyle hired Dino Babers to replace Shafer in December 2015 after talks with Fleck didn’t pan out.
Fleck, 36, has been one of the hottest names in the country this season, with his name tied at one point to openings at Purdue, Oregon and Cincinnati, among others.
He took over Western Michigan’s program four years ago and went 1-11 his first season before leading the Broncos to a 13-1 record this season. Western Michigan won its first conference championship before losing to Wisconsin 24-16 in Monday’s Cotton Bowl.
After the game, Fleck was asked about other job opportunities.
“I’m going to Kalamazoo [Mich.],” Fleck told media. “If 13-1 gets you fired around here, you know ... I love where I’m at. Period. It’s as simple as that.”
Coyle mentioned recruiting, ticket sales and program culture as reasons for firing Claeys, and those are boxes Fleck could check, based on his track record at Western Michigan. Regularly featured by the national media, he has a reputation as an excellent recruiter and salesman who could help re-energize Minnesota’s fan base and inject some life into its athletes village project.
Fleck was a 5-10 wide receiver at Northern Illinois who went on to play two years for the San Francisco 49ers. As he climbed the coaching ranks, he was part of former Gophers coach Jerry Kill’s staff at NIU in 2008 and ’09. Asked about Fleck on Tuesday, Kill said he didn’t want to get into speculation, so soon after Claeys had been fired.
Fleck left Northern Illinois in 2010 to become the wide receivers coach at Rutgers and for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, under Greg Schiano, before becoming Western Michigan’s head coach.
Schiano could be another name to watch, as he has been working as Ohio State’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator, seemingly waiting for another opening.
If Miles sounds like a stretch, he’d be cost effective for the Gophers, since LSU still owes him about $10 million. At 63, Miles (born in Ohio, Michigan grad) can ill-afford to wait much longer, if he wants another Power Five head coaching job.
Bohl led North Dakota State to three consecutive FCS national titles and has led a rebuilding project at Wyoming, taking the Cowboys from 4-8 to 2-10 to 8-6 and a bowl game this year.
Klieman took over for Bohl in 2014 and led the Bison to back-to-back FCS national titles before losing in the semifinals this year.
Harsin is a Boise native who played quarterback for Boise State, and he has gone 31-9 as Broncos coach. But he’s making only $1.26 million per year, which could make a Power Five job more enticing.
Until Coyle fills the opening, other names will swirl. And the hire is likely to happen fast, with coaches allowed back on the road to visit recruits Jan. 12, and national signing day coming Feb. 1.
“I have received phone calls from people,” Coyle said Tuesday night. “But again, we will move as quickly as we can to find the best fit for Minnesota.”