Big Ten football: New coach P.J. Fleck eager to revive Minnesota
CHICAGO — Minnesota hasn’t claimed a Big Ten Conference football title since 1967, and it has won 10 games in a season just once during the modern era.
The Golden Gophers haven’t beaten their biggest rival, the University of Wisconsin, in the past 13 tries. It’s a program that, for years and even decades, can’t break into the conversation with the rest of the conference’s top teams.
The project may be perfect for P.J. Fleck, Minnesota’s new coach with a unifying leadership style and energetic personality. Fleck led Western Michigan to a 13-1 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl last season — a 24-16 loss to the University of Wisconsin — behind his “row-the-boat” mantra, and, if nothing else, has already garnered added attention for his new program before even coaching a game in Minneapolis. ESPNU is even airing a four-part documentary series called “Being P.J. Fleck” that premieres Aug. 2.
Fleck’s first step, before helping Minnesota evolve into a Big Ten contender, is simply making the program relevant again.
“You’re the front porch of the institution,” Fleck said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. “You’re not the most important thing on campus, but you’re the front porch of nationally what everybody sees, and you’re representing a ton of people.
“One thing I am hired to do is bring national exposure, national attention to the University of Minnesota. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
While Fleck tries to change the outside perception of the program, he’s also having an early effect on those within the team. Multiple Minnesota players said Tuesday it was easy to buy in to what Fleck is selling — not only because of his success at Western Michigan but also the energy he brings on a daily basis.
“His energy is fanatical,” Minnesota linebacker Jonathan Celestin said. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s something that makes me want to make sure I get up every day and match his intensity level.”
Despite Western Michigan’s impressively balanced offensive attack last year, Fleck believes offense begins with the run game and will likely elevate that side of the ball for Minnesota, which lost quarterback Mitch Leidner.
Western Michigan had a top-25 rushing offense last year, and its top two backs, Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan, combined for 2,276 yards and 20 touchdowns, while quarterback Zach Terrell added 249 yards and seven scores.
Minnesota’s top two rushers from last year, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, return, and Fleck expects the duo to carry a heavy load this season.
“We love to run the football,” Fleck said. “I think our backs are going to flourish in our system. I think they’re going to really enjoy it. … I think they’re really impressed with (Western Michigan) guys like Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin and LaVante Bellamy and Davon Tucker, and our guys get excited about that because they know they’re going to be very involved in our system.”
If Minnesota takes a leap in the coming years, however, it likely won’t happen overnight. The Gophers still need to catch up in recruiting, another big strength for the likable Fleck. The coach also said 22 impactful players had offseason surgery.
Fleck isn’t afraid to discuss the program’s long-standing drought of winning the Big Ten title.
“It’s a wonderful challenge here at the University of Minnesota, one we look forward to attacking as we go forward,” Fleck said. “We’re not shying away from what we haven’t necessarily accomplished in terms of championship feel of 50 years without a championship, but we want to be that bridge. We want to be that bridge that connects the past with the present and also the future moving forward.”