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Fleck Recruiting Earns Rival’s Praise

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June 11, 2017

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When Darrell Hazell was the wide receivers coach at Ohio State more than 10 years ago, P.J. Fleck worked for him as a graduate assistant. They still have a relationship while the two have moved through career coaching stops including Fleck’s hiring this winter as the Gophers new head football coach.

“So I know P.J. very well,” Hazell told Sports Headliners during an interview. “We’ve talked quite a few times. I think he’ll do a great job. He’ll work hard and he’s a great recruiter. He’ll work hard at it.”

Fleck’s recruiting is a major offseason story this winter and spring. At times the Gophers’ 2018 recruiting class flirted around the top 10 composite national rankings by 247Sports. In the latest 247 composite rankings the Gophers are still an impressive No. 20.

Hazell was head coach at Purdue until last fall when he was dismissed during his fourth season. The Boilermakers and Minnesota are two of the teams in the Big Ten’s West Division, so Hazell knows what it takes to compete in the league.

Can Fleck’s recruiting result in enough quality players for the Gophers to soon contend for division titles? Hazell said because he doesn’t know much about the Minnesota program, he can’t predict, but he issued words of caution.

“There’s a lot of people to beat in the Big Ten in recruiting,” Hazell said. “That’s the hard part. But he’ll go after it hard.”

Hazell talked to Sports Headliners at Winter Park last week where he has transitioned from college coaching to the NFL and being the Vikings’wide receivers coach. Hazell, 53, has 30 years of coaching experience including 14 working directly with wide receivers. He’s been a career college coach, with his only taste of the NFL an internship working with wide receivers in Oakland in 1998. As a player, he was an All-American wide receiver at Muskingum College in Ohio.

Was Hazell’s ego bruised going from Big Ten head coach to an NFL assistant?

Darrell Hazell (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

“No, not at all,” he answered. “This is something I had not done (in his coaching career). That was one of the things that I said. I am not going to go back and do something I’ve done.

“Obviously coaching receivers is natural. This was an opportunity for me to do something that was exciting. Something that was new. It’s been a great three or four months.”

When Hazell was out of coaching after losing his job at Purdue, he received calls regarding other opportunities, but he was not in a hurry to decide on his next career move, and it had to be right. He had no idea that opportunity would be the Vikings, an organization where he knew no one and located in a city where he had never worked.

What was going through Hazell’s mind during the dead of winter? “Take it one day at a time, enjoy life,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about anything. Just trying to relax and enjoy the family.

“I got the phone call. I said, Hey, this is a heck of an opportunity if it’s afforded to me. I am going to look into it very closely.

“I am really elated that I did because the players have been phenomenal. Their work ethic is tremendous, and the coaching staff, it meshes so well together. Then you know we’ve got such great leadership here with Rick and Zim.”

The phone call from the Vikings to Hazell initially came on February 13 from general manager Rick Spielman. Ten days later, with the approval of Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings announced their new wide receivers coach, replacing George Stewart who joined the Chargers’ staff.

Understandably the last few months have been a period of evaluation by both Hazell and his wide receivers. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group,” he said. “We’ve got 11 guys in there and they are all eager to be really good. …”

Hazell goes about his work with intensity and the goal of excellence. Although he is no longer responsible for the entire operation of a football program, his past experience helps him understand what Zimmer is doing.

Hazell’s four years leading Purdue and two years before that at Kent State was something he talked about in his interview with the Vikings. “I said I can be a better assistant coach now that I’ve been a head coach, because I see things with a different perspective. …”

Worth Noting

Fleck and athletic director Mark Coyle meet the public at a Minnesota Alumni Association sponsored event from 5:30 to 8 p.m. June 22 in the DQ Club Room at TCF Bank Stadium. Fleck will talk about the upcoming season at the gathering which is open to both alumni association members and nonmembers. More information at 612-624-2323.

Street & Smith’s college football magazine headlined its Mid-American Conference section like this: “What the Fleck? No. P.J. means new hope in the MAC.”

P.J. Fleck

The publication also said: “Engaging, energetic and a flat-out winner, Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck rowed his boat all the way to Minnesota and the league will miss him.”

Individuals with Minnesota connections being considered for 2018 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame include Blake Elliott (Saint John’s); Ross Fortier (MSU Moorhead); Marcus Harris (Wyoming); and Bob Stein (Gophers).

The pecking order of talent in the NBA Finals is a bit muddled including the positioning of former Timberwolves star Kevin Love. Does the Cavs power forward deserve the No. 5 spot, or is Draymond Green from the Warriors a better choice? We might need to call in IBM’s Watson to figure that out, and also how to rank LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry.

Frank Deford, the acclaimed sportswriter who died recently, wrote about his career in a 2010 story for Sports Illustrated that included a night in Minneapolis when he was doing a Roller Derby article. Deford said one of the skaters, who was “flamboyantly gay,” made a move on him late night at a bar. Deford, who was straight and married to a former runway model, was more than surprised the next night in Duluth when team members approached him and sang, “Here comes the bride.”

If the Twins don’t draft Hunter Greene tomorrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft and he turns out to be a star either as a pitcher or position player, Minnesota management will hear about it for a long time including the criticism they didn’t want to spend the money to acquire the southern California phenom. The guess here is that soon after 6 p.m. tomorrow night MLB will announce the Twins have chosen Greene.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. avatar
    Dennis McGrath
    June 16, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    Dave: Another great issue. Thanks for the piece on P.J. Fleck. I'm with you 100 percent. We Minnesotans tend to be such Debbie Downers when it comes to our coaches. I knew the Jim Wacker comments were predictable. Jerry Kill wasn't exactly welcomed with hoorays either and look what this little guy achieved. Dave Mona assured me Jerry was the real McCoy and as usual, he was right. I'm very excited by Fleck and his potential and verve. Let's get behind the guy.

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