Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck signals plays during the Mid-American Conference championship game against Ohio. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)
MINNEAPOLIS — Rocked by a threatened player boycott of a bowl game over the handling of a sexual assault investigation and struggling with lagging attendance at its shiny stadium, the Minnesota football program badly needed of an injection of energy and optimism.
They don’t come any more exuberant than P.J. Fleck.
Minnesota hired Fleck on Friday, hoping that "Row the boat" mantra that worked wonders at Western Michigan can unite a deeply fractured program.
"I’m not here to change the tradition," Fleck said at his introductory news conference. "I am here to change the culture."
The hiring comes three days after athletic director Mark Coyle fired Tracy Claeys following a standoff between players and the administration over the suspension of 10 players in connection with the assault allegations. Coyle turned to the breathlessly upbeat Fleck to help bridge the divisions that remain between the team and school leaders.
"The thing that jumps out to me is his authentic energy and his passion," Coyle said. "I think that excites people. And obviously we want to attract fans back."
Fleck said he had not had much time in the last 48 fast-moving hours to look into the complex issue, but said he was not going to let the past difficulties get in the way of his mission to build the Golden Gophers into a championship-caliber team. He promised his players will wear collared shirts to class every day,
"I eat difficult conversations for breakfast, and that’s why I took the job," Fleck said.
Fleck guided the Broncos to a 13-1 record and a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where they lost 24-16 to Wisconsin.
The 36-year-old coach was 30-22 with three bowl appearances in four years at Western Michigan, a program with almost no previous success before he arrived.
His relentless, youthful energy and motivational team motto "Row the boat" helped push the Broncos into the national spotlight this fall. The campus and city of Kalamazoo were abuzz over a program that had never before won more than nine games in a season.
Fleck promised to do the same at Minnesota, a program that has been largely irrelevant for the past 50 years, with the goal of competing for national titles.
"I’m going to promise you a lot because that’s the way I live my life," he said.
Fleck, a graduate of Kaneland and 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 at Western Michigan.
The Gophers also considered former LSU coach Les Miles and 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.
"When you watch Gopher football, it will be different from this point forward," Fleck said. "I am different."
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo and AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed.
This article was sourced from http://emptynestmagazine.com