P.J. Fleck is officially rowing his boat to Minneapolis.
Minnesota announced Friday that the 36-year-old Fleck would take over the Gophers football program as head coach. Minnesota fired coach Tracy Claeys on Tuesday and worked quickly to secure a deal with Fleck, the Western Michigan head coach. The program announced Fleck had agreed to a five-year deal.
Welcome to Minnesota, @Coach_Fleck.
— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) January 6, 2017
“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.”
Added Minnesota AD Mark Coyle: “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. 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.”
Fleck was one of 2016’s biggest names in college football as he turned Western Michigan into the top non-Power 5 team in the country. The Broncos started the season 13-0 and won the MAC title before falling to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl on Monday.
The Broncos were 1-11 in 2013, his first season, but they went 29-11 over the last three seasons, reaching a bowl game in each. His mantra “Row the Boat” also gained national recognition this season (though he’ll have to leave it in Kalamazoo), and ESPN even took “College GameDay” to a WMU home game in November.
A former Northern Illinois wide receiver, Fleck started his coaching career at Ohio State as a graduate assistant in 2006. He was then a wide receivers coach with Northern Illinois, Rutgers and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers before landing the job at Western Michigan.
At Minnesota, Fleck will inherit a messy situation.
In the last month, the following have happened around the Gophers program:
- 10 players were suspended after a school investigation into an alleged sexual assault
- players staged a short-lived boycott over the suspensions that drew national headlines
- Claeys publicly supported the boycott through his Twitter account
- Minnesota beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27
- Claeys was fired on Jan. 3
Fleck will take over a locker room that is at odds with its current administration. Many players voiced their anger toward the school’s leaders on social media after Claeys was fired earlier this week.
Fleck, 36, is now the Big Ten’s youngest head coach — the next closest are Maryland’s D.J. Durkin (38) and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (42). If Fleck’s energy carries over to his new team the way it did at Western Michigan, the Gophers could become a regular contender for the Big Ten West title. But he definitely has his work cut out for him.
“I look forward to meeting my new players and getting to know them as quickly as possible,” Fleck said in the statement. “I am excited to put together a staff and turn my efforts to recruiting, but also want Gopher fans to know that my wife, Heather, and I and our four children will be visible in the community and we are eager to connect with them. I am ready to go. Ski-U-Mah!”