P.J. Fleck leaving Western Michigan to coach Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- P.J. Fleck is leaving Western Michigan and heading to Minnesota to coach a football team reeling from a threatened boycott of a bowl game and the handling of a sexual assault investigation.

Both schools announced the move Friday. Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle cited Fleck's "infectious energy and passion" and work building "a unique, positive culture" at Western Michigan. Fleck is to be introduced at an afternoon news conference at Minnesota.

The hiring comes three days after Coyle fired Tracy Claeys following a standoff between the team's players and the administration over the suspension of 10 players in connection with the sex assault allegations.

Coyle promised to quickly find a replacement for Claeys despite this being late in college football's hiring season. He needs a coach to plunge into recruiting and address the deep divisions between the players that remain and the school's administration. Coyle and President Eric Kaler flew to Chicago on Wednesday for meetings. The two sides reached an agreement two days later.

Now Fleck has little time to waste in beginning to repair a fractured program.

Players threatened last month to boycott the Holiday Bowl after expressing reservations about the university's investigation that led to the suspension of their teammates.

Some were accused of pressuring a woman into sex during a party after the team's season-opening win over Oregon State. Many of those players continue to be upset with Coyle and Kaler for how the situation was handled. Coyle said federal privacy laws prevented him from communicating more with a confused team.

That issue isn't going away soon, with appeals hearings for the 10 players expected to be held this month.

"I get they're upset. I get they're frustrated. I understand that," Coyle said on Tuesday. "It's our job to find a leader who will take this program forward and unite all of them in one direction, one goal."

Fleck guided the Broncos to a 13-1 record this season and a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where they lost 24-16 to Wisconsin.

The 36-year-old coach is 30-22 in four years at Western Michigan, with three bowl appearances. His relentless, youthful energy and motivational team motto "Row the boat!" helped push the Broncos into the national spotlight this fall, with the campus and city of Kalamazoo abuzz over a program that had never before won more than nine games in a season.

Fleck, a star receiver at Northern Illinois, played briefly in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers. He has worked as a college assistant at Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Rutgers. In 2012, he was an assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before taking over the Broncos.

Mid-American Conference coaches have been plucked by Big Ten teams several times before, with mixed success at best. Tim Beckman started at Illinois in 2012 after leaving Toledo, and he was fired after a 12-25 record over three seasons amid allegations of player mistreatment. Darrell Hazell left Kent State to join Purdue in 2013. The Boilermakers finished 9-33 and was fired halfway through his fourth season.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer launched his career at Bowling Green, but he had stops at Utah and Florida in between. Jerry Kill, the predecessor to Claeys, left Northern Illinois for the Gophers six years ago and went a respectable 29-29 before epilepsy forced his retirement.

When Coyle announced his decision to fire Claeys, who led the Gophers to a 9-4 record and a win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, the athletic director was applauded by victims' rights advocates and many academics at the university for responding emphatically to troubling allegations.

He was also criticized by some donors, alumni and players for reacting too harshly after Hennepin County twice cited a lack of evidence as the reason for declining to press charges.

The Gophers reached out to Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead but were turned down early in the process, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Minnesota was not commenting publicly on its search.

"I think we all need to take a deep breath," Coyle said Tuesday. "We'll go out; we'll find a great football coach for the University of Minnesota. We'll have a chance to move forward in a positive direction."

P.J. Fleck, 36, became the youngest head coach in a Power 5 conference. Fleck agreed to a five-year deal worth $18.5 million.
Minnesota Hires Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck to Instill a Winning Culture

MINNEAPOLIS — The digital thermometer on the TCF Bank Stadium scoreboard read 5 degrees when P. J. Fleck, hours into his tenure as head football coach at the University of Minnesota, stood behind a lectern to address a room full of reporters, university officials and boosters.

Grabbing the lectern with both hands, the 5-foot-9 Fleck, wearing a charcoal suit, a maroon tie with diagonal white stripes and a gold pocket square, opened by bellowing, “Ski-U-Mah!” — a slogan used to cheer on the university’s sports teams. Commanding the room like a preacher in a revival tent, he devoted the next 13 minutes to thanking people and selling his vision for Gophers football. He said he always dreamed about coaching in the Big Ten, which led him to depart Western Michigan, where he was comfortable.

“I’m going to promise you a lot, because that’s the way I live my life,” said Fleck, who, at 36, became the youngest head coach in a so-called Power 5 conference. He went on to describe his vision of winning conference titles, the Rose Bowl and even a national championship.

Fleck, one of the country’s most desirable coaches this off-season, arrived at Minnesota three days after Athletic Director Mark Coyle fired Tracy Claeys after a 9-4 season marred by a sexual assault investigation and a brief player boycott. Fleck elevated unheralded Western Michigan from a 1-11 record in 2013, his first season as a head coach, to 13-1 this season, losing only to Wisconsin, 24-16, in the Cotton Bowl.

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Claeys coached the Gophers to a Holiday Bowl victory, 17-12 over Washington State, in his first full season but fell short of a Big Ten West title despite a favorable schedule. Average attendance fell to 43,814, the lowest since 2002, and the final home game drew the smallest crowd (38,162) since TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009.

“Nine wins is a good season, and the Holiday Bowl is good,” Coyle said. “When we made the change, I made the comment to my wife, ‘We needed to shake the tree.’”

He added: “P. J., you just heard him talk. The thing that jumps out to me is his authentic energy and his passion. I think that attracts people. Obviously, we want to attract fans back.”

The introduction of Fleck, who agreed to a five-year deal worth $18.5 million, was an uplifting moment for an athletic department still reeling from 18 months of well-publicized problems.

Norwood Teague resigned as athletic director in August 2015 when a university investigation determined he sexually harassed two female university employees. Coyle, his successor, fired the wrestling coach J Robinson — who led Minnesota to three national championships — in September 2016 for allegedly interfering with police and university investigations into whether his wrestlers had sold Xanax, a prescription sedative.

Last month, after an inquiry by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, 10 Gophers football players were suspended in connection with a sexual-assault investigation. The rest of the team, claiming a lack of due process, boycotted practices and demanded the players be reinstated. The boycott was called off two days later, shortly after the equal opportunity office’s 80-page report was leaked to a Minneapolis television station.

The suspended players, who were not criminally charged, await appeal hearings.

A tweet by Claeys supporting the boycott put him at odds with the administration. Coyle said Tuesday at a news conference that multiple factors contributed to the decision to fire Claeys, including the team’s eight targeting penalties and blown halftime leads in losses to Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Claeys, a longtime defensive coordinator under the former Gophers coach Jerry Kill, was in his first full season after Kill stepped down for health reasons in October 2015.

The task awaiting Fleck is a little easier because Minnesota plays in the Big Ten’s West Division, which was formed before the 2014 season. Without annual games against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, it offers a less onerous path to the conference title game.

The Gophers’ inability to win the division this year, with the Buckeyes and Wolverines off the schedule, was viewed as a disappointment inside and outside the program. Minnesota last won a Big Ten championship outright in 1941 (it shared titles in 1960 and 1967) and has not been to the Rose Bowl since 1961, when Ohio State declined an invitation.

Several times Friday, Fleck referred to his slogan, “Row the Boat,” a hook for getting players to work toward a common goal. Fleck said he met with about 25 players earlier in the day and more via a live Facebook chat.

“I am not here to change tradition,” Fleck said. “What I am here to do is change a culture, to change a movement, for us to create and experience things that the University of Minnesota has only dreamed of, and hasn’t accomplished since the late ’60s.”


P.J. Fleck takes coaching job at Minnesota

P.J. Fleck will row his boat to Minneapolis.

The Western Michigan coach, who engineered a turnaround in Kalamazoo and a Cotton Bowl bid this season, will leave to take the job at Minnesota. Both schools announced the move Friday, confirming an earlier report from USA TODAY Sports.

"It's an honor to coach at Minnesota and be part of the Big Ten conference," Fleck said in a statement. "I want to thank president Eric Kaler, athletic director Mark Coyle and the Board of Regents for this opportunity. I also want to thank Western Michigan, my players and the great fans and city of Kalamazoo for a wonderful four years.

Coyle cited Fleck’s “infectious energy and passion” and work building “a unique, positive culture” at Western Michigan. Fleck was introduced at an afternoon news conference at Minnesota.

"P.J. is a proven winner and a strong leader. He's built a unique, positive culture that gets the best out of his students on the field and in the classroom," Coyle said in a statement. "His infectious energy and passion make him a terrific coach and dynamic recruiter. I am excited he will be leading the Gophers for years to come."

The 36-year old Fleck spent four seasons at Western Michigan and leaves with a 30-22 record. He brought the program from 1-11 in his first season to the national spotlight this year, finishing 13-1 with a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin at the Cotton Bowl.

His trademark slogan "Row The Boat" and his boundless energy made him an instant sensation, but the fact he also delivered results in the Mid-American Conference this season made him an obvious candidate for several jobs.

The problem was that few this year were good fits for him — until Minnesota unexpectedly came open last week when the school parted ways with Tracy Claeys after a 9-4 season.

Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle fired Claeys following a standoff between the team’s players and the administration over the suspension of 10 players in connection with sexual assault allegations.

Players boycotted team activities last month and threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl after expressing reservations about the university’s investigation that led to the suspension of their teammates.

Some were accused of pressuring a woman into sex during a party after the team’s season-opening win against Oregon State. Many of those players continue to be upset with Coyle and Kaler for how the situation was handled, and Coyle acknowledged his frustration over federal privacy laws that prevented him from communicating more with a confused team.

Appeals hearings for the 10 players expected to be held this month.

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