Minnesota is hiring Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck to the same job, he confirmed in a statement Friday morning. It comes after Fleck’s team had a 13-1 season that brought the Broncos their first MAC title since 1988 and a berth in the Cotton Bowl, where they lost to Wisconsin.
Fleck replaces Tracy Claeys, whom Minnesota fired after his support of a player boycott over a series of player suspensions.
It’s a pretty exciting hire. Fleck became a popular man in national circles when he guided WMU from 1-11 in his first year, 2013, to back-to-back 8-5 marks in 2014 and again in 2015. Fleck then led the Broncos to their best season in school history.
In total, he’s 30-22 at WMU. Among Group of 5 head coaches, he was one of the hottest names, along with Houston’s Tom Herman, who took the Texas job, and now-Oregon head coach Willie Taggart. Now Fleck has joined both in the Power 5. It had looked like Fleck would stay at WMU for at least another year, but with the Minnesota job coming open, he won’t.
Just how good was his WMU tenure?
Not only did the team’s record improve nearly every year, but so did the advanced numbers, as well as recruiting. Fleck got Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl this year with an undefeated run through the MAC title game, and he’s signed the MAC’s top classes for the last few years.
Having the brand recognition of a Power 5 school like Minnesota, Fleck can recruit even better. Fleck recruited a lot from the state of Michigan itself, but he’s still in Big Ten country now. Fleck thrived at WMU by building a depth chart almost entirely of recruits from Big Ten states. Long story short: Fleck has recruited the Midwest before, and has recruited well.
Fleck is young and extremely energetic, which is something that any recruit will respond positively to. Not to mention the former NIU receiver and Buccaneers assistant is personally active on social media and a creative motivator who’s known for emotional pregame speeches.
Where was he before all this?
Fleck is only 37 years old, so he’s one of the youngest head coaches in the country. His coaching career has risen quite rapidly. Fleck got his start at Ohio State as a graduate assistant in 2006. From there, he joined Northern Illinois, where he coached the wide receivers and was later the Huskies offensive coordinator from 2007-09.
Next, he spent two seasons at Rutgers, coaching the wide receivers. After spending the 2012 season as the wide receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was hired at Western Michigan.
As The Daily Gopher pointed out after Claeys’ firing, Minnesota has made positive strides in recent years, both under Claeys and former head coach Jerry Kill.
The last four seasons have seen eight wins, eight wins, six wins, and then nine wins. Not exactly Rose Bowl caliber seasons, but it’s not like you are following Tim Brewster’s three-win season. There is some talent on the roster and there is a recent trend of success to build upon.
Fleck’s walking into a situation that should be pretty good, as long as he can change a culture that seems to have gotten pretty unhappy.
Fleck’s program’s national profile has grown a great deal in just the last year.
Kalamazoo got to have ESPN’s College GameDay in town the first time in November, for an otherwise boring regular season game against Buffalo. Fleck has a mantra, “Row the Boat,” that’s become a big thing for WMU’s recruiting and branding. (The school’s even trademarked it, so Fleck might be able to take it with him to his new school.)
The jump from the MAC to Fleck’s new digs isn’t a small one. Plenty of head coaches have excelled against lesser competition and failed to cut it in the biggest leagues. But Fleck’s combination of tactical smarts and recruiting savvy makes him a good bet in a business that’s virtually devoid of sure things.