P.J. Fleck is the coach the Minnesota Golden Gophers needed to become relevant again for the right reasons. And he’s the type of personality Big Ten football needs more of.
Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle exudes about as much energy as a piece of Styrofoam. He’s the kind of guy who has to tell you he’s excited because you’ll age years waiting for him to wear it plainly.
The Gophers’ football program had roughly the same appeal this past season. Winning nine games should get people revved up, but beating no team of significance and capping the season with an extremely boring bowl victory doesn’t exactly attract attention.
And when the most attention the program had received over the last couple years came because of one head coach’s health problems and a sexual assault investigation that got the next coach canned, a proverbial fire needed to be lit under the frozen butts in Minneapolis.
That’s why Minnesota went out and snagged P.J. Fleck, a man who’s the complete antithesis of Coyle and represents more energy than has been invested in the entire Gophers football team in the last 25 years.
Fleck is just the right kind of crazy. His bordering-on-corny shtick is either loved or hated, but the results it yields can’t be argued against. He uses Row the Boat and “change your best” and “grow higher” and whatever phrase he can think of to instill the will to win inside his players and increase fan support. Positive attention becomes the norm under his watch.
Fleck talking about Minnesota football the way he did at Friday’s introductory press conference had everyone wondering what spirits were served on the private plane that took him from Kalamazoo to the Twin Cities. Winning national championships? Brother, that talk is saved for guys named Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh in a Big Ten dominated by the two figureheads.
But could either of them up and flip such a ridiculous amount of recruits to join him like Fleck did in his first few hours on the job? No, we’re not talking about the top high school players in the country, but few kids will willingly head to a place like Minnesota without at least visiting first.
Make no mistake, Meyer and Harbaugh win – a lot. That’s why they’re always in the spotlight. Yet when it’s cast upon them, they give off an air of aloofness. Smiles are few and far between, adding to the dreary stigma Big Ten football has received.
Fleck is a relief from the Meyers, Harbaughs, Mark Dantonios, Kirk Ferentzs, Lovie Smiths and Paul Chrysts of the conference. Good coaches – or rather, “elite” coaches in Fleck-speak – who couldn’t induce a smile from you if they were carrying around a tank of laughing gas. Ferentz thinks so out-of-the-box that he hired his own son to be his offensive coordinator.
The 36-year-old Fleck not only lights up a room, he makes you want to run through the walls for him soon after. That’s why Fleck is the perfect coach for Minnesota and a man the Big Ten needs to bring some life and energy into a conference that’s viewed as playing boring football.
He’s likely not going to compete for a Rose Bowl right away or a national championship maybe ever during his tenure at Minnesota, but it’s going to be fun watching him try.
Whether it’s Row the Boat, the more Minnesota-traditional Ski-U-Mah battle cry, or both that Fleck decides to embrace, the Golden Gophers are becoming relevant again for the all the right reasons.
And that’s anything but a bore.