Of course he won the news conference. Putting a microphone in front of P.J. Fleck is like putting an easel in front of Picasso, a guitar in front of Hendrix.
As a rallier of men and author of sound bites, Minnesota’s newest football coach makes Winston Churchill look demure. Brick walls run through him.
“I’m not here to change tradition, but to change the culture…I eat difficult conversations for breakfast.”
– P.J. Fleck #Gophers
— Amina Smith (@aminajadeTV) January 6, 2017
— Melissa Colorado (@melissacolorado) January 6, 2017
I have a crack on my shoulder not a chip. #quote PJ Fleck
This guy makes solid gold sound bites all day every day.
— Julie Bane (@TheBaniac) January 6, 2017
Fleck: “Everyone wants change until change arrives. Well I’ve got news for everyone. CHANGE HAS ARRIVED.”
— Doug Samuels (@CoachSamz) January 6, 2017
Fleck says this program will “out care, out give, and out how everyone.”
— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) January 6, 2017
In the macro, Friday was a win for everybody, at least short-term. Fleck, 36, reportedly has a five-year deal that averages $3.5 million per season, or about four times what he was making at Western Michigan a week ago. Minnesota gets a star. The Big Ten gets a pulpit master, a mile-a-minute quote machine and a shot of caffeine injected into one of the sleepier way stations on the league map. Jim Harbaugh with less gravitas and more Red Bull.
The short version of P.J. Fleck is that he comes off, at first blush, as Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to graft Jim Tressel and Pat Fitzgerald into one coaching body. As the youngest head football coach at a Power Five program, he understands the power of social media, and the willingness to throw yourself in front of it, better than most.
This past summer, he put on pads and took part in an Oklahoma drill against Broncos walk-on Kasey Carson in front of an end zone. Carson stopped his coach short, and Fleck gathered his charges around and pointed to a nearby video board, where actor Sylvester Stallone (eventually) magically appeared to tell Carson that he was to be presented with a full scholarship:
Western Michigan head coach PJ Fleck shows up in full uniform (& hits) & Sylvester Stallone has an announcement! https://t.co/kpG0ygcCE8
— Perfect Fit Athletic (@PerfectFitAR) August 15, 2016
I present to you: PJ Fleck’s Sylvester Stallone impression. pic.twitter.com/QVqfcUc11a
— Brian Kaufman (@BrianKaufmanTV) August 15, 2016
It was a viral slice of absolute brilliance, pure showmanship.
Fleck gets showmanship. The lead-ins for the Battle for the Little Brown Jug, with Harbaugh, the big dog, in one corner and Fleck, the Boston Terrier who won’t back down, in the other, have the potential for epic — if unintentionally hilarious — theater.
His hiring almost makes us wish Kirk Ferentz and Paul Chryst had Twitter accounts. Almost.
You will not out-sizzle P.J. Fleck.
The steak part remains to be seen.
Fleck’s critics see, in Texas terms, an act that’s all hat and no cattle. The trouble with sugar rushes and adrenaline buzzes — the coach’s Minneapolis debut and subsequent Big Ten Network splash served as both — is the crash that follows. Gophers football ended the week with rare public-relations win, but, internally, the program is trying to put out small dumpster fires all over the place.
Current and former players don’t trust Minnesota President Eric Kaler or athletic director Mark Coyle any farther than they can throw them, and they’ve been sorely tempted to do both. The Gophers feel they were betrayed by the school, citing a lack of consistency and transparency. Minnesota boosters are dumbfounded at the firing of a coach in Tracy Claeys who just won a Holiday Bowl and produced only the eighth season of nine wins or more the program has seen since 1900. The rest of the world is largely dumbfounded at how insensitive Claeys’ comments ring given the comparative seriousness of the sexual assault investigation that eventually led to the coach’s undoing.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press and TwinCities.com reported this week that the players said they acted on their own in electing to boycott the aforementioned Holiday Bowl, a decision made while Claeys was at a news conference in San Diego. It looked as if the kids were running the day care.
Meanwhile, the university is trying to raise $169 million for football infrastructure, including a new indoor practice facility, new locker rooms, new coaches’ offices and a 24-hour training table that would be available to all student-athletes.
Which is why you could sense Coyle wanted, more than anything, a unifying force — someone compelling enough to make everybody stop pointing fingers at one another and get behind. “Row the boat” is Fleck’s favorite phrase, his mantra, and the Gophers oars, at present, are pointed in about six different directions.
The man knows how to command a room, which helps. Commanding a program at this level, a world in which Michigan and Ohio State and Penn State and Wisconsin are the main course, as opposed to the appetizer or the dessert, is the question.
While putting together a Western side good enough to win at Northwestern, crush Illinois in Champaign and hang with the Badgers in the Cotton Bowl is a good start, enthusiasm alone can only bridge so much of the talent gap. If the Gophers’ top talents with flexibility to bolt decide to bolt — and they might — the climb will only become longer and more arduous.
Long-suffering Minnesota fans see institutional stability as the only thing keeping the Gophers from joining the rival Badgers and Hawkeyes among the division’s bulwarks, but the truth is, they’re a lot closer to the Illinoises and Purdues of the neighborhood: They need the right man, the right plan and a lot of help. A Big Ten with Urban Meyer and James Franklin and Mark Dantonio and Harbaugh trying to one-up one another does not suffer rebuilding peers gladly.
And if you don’t believe us, just ask Chris Ash how his first autumn at Rutgers went.
Fleck’s track record as an evaluator of prospective talent is pretty good; his radar as to their respective moral fiber, somewhat less so. This past summer, two Broncos players, freshman Ronald George and Bryson White, were arrested after allegedly holding up a female student with a semi-automatic weapon and a knife. They were dismissed from the program just before the season opener in Evanston.
The details were unsavory, and Fleck took the heat for recruiting both young men. From Freep.com on Aug. 29:
Western Michigan has kicked Bryson White and Ron George off of the football team, and fourth-year coach P.J. Fleck has placed the blame on himself.
Police arrested the freshmen during a traffic stop that followed an off-campus armed robbery Friday.
They are accused of forcing their way into a woman’s apartment near WMU’s campus, holding her up with a semi-automatic gun and a knife and ransacking her home.
Bond was set today at $100,000 each. They’re charged with armed robbery, first-degree home invasion and larceny in a building.
George asked for a court-appointed lawyer. White said he has an attorney, but he appeared by video from jail without one.
Fleck said that the incident was his fault, claiming he didn’t do enough homework on White’s and George’s backgrounds while recruiting them.
“It falls on one person, and it falls on me, as the head football coach,” he said during the Mid-American Conference teleconference today. “I’m the one who offers scholarships. I’m the one who brings people in here. I’m the one, in the last four years, who brought in the type of student-athletes that we want to be very proud of here at Western Michigan.
“Somewhere along the line, obviously, I didn’t go a good enough job and thorough enough job on a few guys.” …
The pair were part of Western Michigan’s heralded 2016 recruiting class, which was ranked 70th nationally and No. 1 in the MAC.
Fleck said the incident was a learning moment for him.
“It’s unfortunate, but it falls on me,” he said. “And I take responsibility for it, as the head football coach, because this is my football team. I’ve got to be completely better.
“We talk about failing is growing in our program, and that goes along with me, too. I told my team that, as well. If you quit, you’re a failure. The one thing about us is that we will never quit. We don’t elect to be around quitters. We’re going to continue to grow higher.”
In 2014, two other Western Michigan players, Eddie Rolle and Devante Lee, were charged with second-degree retail fraud after allegedly shoplifting at a local Walmart. In August 2013, Broncos senior running back Tevin Drake was arrested and charged with domestic battery, resisting with violence, resisting without violence and battery of a law enforcement officer, according to a news release, charges that led to Fleck suspending him, too. From MLive.com on August 10, 2013:
The release states that officers responded at 12:33 a.m. on Aug. 1 to a residence in Brooksville, Fla., in reference to a battery, where a woman told officers Drake battered her.
The press release says Drake became uncooperative and combative as he pushed an officer out of a doorway before fleeing on foot. After a 20-minute foot pursuit Drake returned to the original residence and resisted officers, who used a Taser to subdue Drake before transporting him to the Hernando County Jail, where he is held without bond.
Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck said Monday Drake was suspended indefinitely from the team and he said Saturday he will wait for the legal process to take its course before making a final decision on Drake’s future with the team.
“He made a very very poor choice,” Fleck said. “I am so proud of his progress he had made up until that decision. We hadn’t had one issue with Tevin in seven months. He really bought into this program, but it shows one decision can truly turn around your entire future. I think it’s important for our football program to see that, even with an elite player like himself. It’s not like he was some guy that never played and it’s easy to get rid of him. We’re going to suspend him indefinitely.
“I talk to him almost daily and we have elite conversations and he understands everything and truly takes accountability for it. … You can make your life what it is, but you’re going to make mistakes and there will be consequences for them. How long, I’m not sure. We’re going to gather all of the facts and wait for the legal process to take its course.”
From DeKalb, Ill., to Kalamazoo, Mich., Fleck has always talked a good game. Now we’re going to see if he can back it up.
Because if the Gophers’ latest reset button can’t get everyone rowing the same direction, and quickly, the conversations are going to be less about the boat. And more about the life preserver.