P.J. Fleck took a different path than Richard Pitino to get to the highest level of college coaching, but the two now hold the shared distinction as the youngest football and basketball head coaches in major college sports.
Fleck, 36, is now the youngest head football coach among Power Five schools. Pitino, 34 and in his fourth Gophers season, has been the youngest among major conference basketball coaches since he was hired at 30 years old in 2013.
“I’m fired up about the hiring of Coach Fleck,” Pitino said Friday. “I really admired the job he did at Western Michigan. He built it from the ground up and did it the right way. His energy and enthusiasm are infectious. It’s a fun time to be a Gopher football fan.”
Fleck, in his fourth season at Western Michigan, finished 13-0 in the regular season to reach the Cotton Bowl. Pitino’s Gophers are 14-2 after a second consecutive Big Ten road win Thursday at Northwestern.
The last time two Big Ten head coaches in basketball and football were in their 30s at the same school was in 2013 when Northwestern hired 38-year-old Chris Collins, who was the same age as Wildcats football coach Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern faithful even jokingly called Collins their “Basketball Fitz.”
How successful can a pair of coaches in their 30s be at the same school in the Big Ten?
Fitzgerald had back-to-back 5-7 seasons when Collins was hired in 2013, but the 11th-year football coach got back to the Outback Bowl in 2015 and won the Pinstripe Bowl this season.
Collins went from 14 wins in Year 1 to 20 wins last season. The Wildcats lost to the Gophers in their Big Ten home opener, but they are still hoping for their first NCAA tournament appearance.
How Gophers football will do under Fleck after a 9-4 season and Holiday Bowl victory remains to be seen. But Pitino rebounded from an 8-23 season last year to put Minnesota basketball in early contention for its first NCAA tournament during his tenure.
Having the youngest head coaches in their respective sports in major conferences could be a risk, but it may reap big rewards.