P.J. Fleck aims to preserve tradition; change culture of Gophers football team

Fleck addressed the media Friday for the first time since assuming the role of head coach.

Newly appointed Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck speaks during a press conference on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Carter Jones

Newly appointed Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck speaks during a press conference on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Mike Hendrickson

P.J. Fleck is well aware of the situation he has gotten into — that’s why he wanted to be the Gophers’ new head football coach.

Fleck was granted the position Friday morning, ushering in a new era for the team, which shortly staged and then ended a boycott over the suspension of ten players connected to an alleged sexual assault. The incident, among others, led to former head coach Tracy Claeys’ termination Tuesday.

Fleck said in a press conference Friday at TCF Bank Stadium that he wants to bring Big Ten titles, Rose Bowl victories and national championships to Minnesota — feats the program hasn’t mustered since the 1960s.

“My entire life has been about running into the fire, not away from the fire,” he said. “I eat difficult conversations for breakfast and that is why I took this job. For every reason not to take a job, that’s why I took it.”

Fleck agreed to a five-year contract worth $18 million, at least $2 million more a year than what Claeys’ contract stipulated. He said his assistants would be hired very quickly. The hiring of Fleck is the first head coach hired by Coyle, who started his job in May.

The University is also paying $600,000 towards Fleck’s buyout for leaving Western Michigan.

The 36-year-old coach came to Minnesota with one-of-a-kind energy and brought high expectations as well.

“We wanted somebody who could bring energy and excitement back,” said Athletics Director Mark Coyle.

Fleck was the head coach at Western Michigan for four seasons, accumulating a 30-22 record. The team finished 13-1 this year and made an appearance in the Cotton Bowl.

He’ll be the youngest head coach in the Power 5 conferences, and has been asked to guide a program through heavy turmoil.

Age is just a number, Fleck said, and the 36 year old said being the runt growing up taught him that and instilled him with a crack on his shoulder, rather than a chip.

“I’m the king of the toos. Too small, too smart, too young, too inexperienced,” Fleck said. “That’s been my life.”

Fleck said he addressed the program’s recent turmoil with the Gophers football team after they asked him about it in a brief team meeting prior to Friday’s press conference. He answered their question by saying he was only focused on the team now, not the past.

Along with the boycott, this season, football attendance was at its lowest in over a decade, and the current recruiting class was at the bottom of the Big Ten, according to multiple websites.

Fleck’s recruiting classes were consistently high during his time at Western Michigan among other Mid-Atlantic Conference teams.

Recruiting will have nationwide scope, but the plan is to start in the Twin Cities, and to get attendance numbers up in the process, Fleck said.

Those are some of the reasons Athletics Director Mark Coyle brought in Fleck.

“We needed to shake the tree. We needed to do something different,” Coyle said. “The thing that jumps out to me [about Fleck] is his authentic energy and his passion.”

An elementary education major, Fleck taps into his schooling to teach old lifetime lessons in a current fashion; Michael Jordan and Larry Bird can’t be taught anymore, it’s about Kanye West and Drake, Fleck said.

“I’m a teacher of life and I’m a teacher of football,” Fleck said.

Fleck gained national recognition for his “Row the Boat” slogan, a battle cry he has used to inspire his team before games.

“Row the Boat” will come to Minnesota, Fleck said, but he wants to combine it with Minnesota’s slogan, “Ski-U-Mah.”

“Ski-U-Mah is going to be all over the place,” Fleck said. “I am not here to change tradition. What I am here to do is change a culture.”