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Notre Dame Could Target P.J. Fleck

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November 30, 2021

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The surprise news yesterday that Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly is leaving for LSU prompts speculation Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck will be on the candidate list to become the next head football coach of the Fighting Irish. There are more prominent names than Fleck for Notre Dame to consider but his name could be top 10.

Several years ago Kelly was going through a difficult stretch at Notre Dame and Fleck—then at Western Michigan and among the hottest young coaching names in the country—was in the rumor mill as a successor in South Bend. Fleck’s energetic personality and success making the Broncos a national story had drawn impressive media coverage including in-depth features by the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

Notre Dame’s legacy is all about rah-rah and few coaches can give a butt-kicking Friday night campus pep-talk better than the creative and passionate Fleck. Critics might scoff that his Row the Boat mantra wouldn’t be accepted by the conservative Catholic school in South Bend, but not so fast with that. Fleck could dump Row the Boat at “Touchdown Jesus,” explaining that program building at Western Michigan and Minnesota required cultural changes, but not at storied Notre Dame.

The Irish coaching history has often focused on leaders from the Midwest whose background and values fit the school and team. The list includes national championship coaches Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine (from Proctor, Minnesota), and another colorful personality who coached the Gophers, Lou Holtz. Fleck, an Illinois native who has made his coaching reputation in the Midwest, fits the Irish coaching profile in multiple ways from leading a faith-based life to relishing recruiting to demanding accountability from his players. And, oh yes, his conservative run-first offense, is a perfect fit on those snowy, sleeting Saturdays at Notre Dame Stadium.

Maybe Luke Fickell, Dave Aranda, Matt Campbell, Lane Kiffin or another headliner will be the next Notre Dame coach. Maybe Fleck, the 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year, doesn’t even want the job if offered. “America’s team” is a pressure cooker assignment where every year the playoffs are the expectation. The annual schedule serves up few “cupcakes,” and the Notre Dame environment, with its emphasis on church and academics, isn’t a fit for certain recruits.

Fleck has a new seven-year contract with the Gophers. He likes working for his boss, athletic director Mark Coyle. He and wife Heather are genuine in their liking for the lifestyle here, including summer celebrations at Lake Minnetonka. They refer to Minnesota as home. Their commitment could also get a test in coming days and weeks.

Worth Noting

Fleck planned to celebrate his 41st birthday Monday night at a local restaurant accompanied by Heather and Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

That was state senator Paul Gazelka tweeting Sunday about the Axe being back home and showing a photo of himself with the famed rivalry trophy.

The Golden Gophers held Wisconsin 17-year-old freshman phenom Braelon Allen to just 47 yards rushing in Minnesota’s 23-13 upset win last Saturday. The UW tailback had rushed for over 100 yards in seven consecutive games. Minnesota defenders swarmed Allen and consistently tackled him low.

In 12 games the Gophers have allowed 100.2 yards rushing per game. That’s a program best since the 1962 Gopher defense held opponents to 52.2 yards, a school record. Minnesota’s figure of 100.2 yards ranks 10th nationally and second in the Big Ten to Wisconsin.

Since defensive coordinator Joe Rossi succeeded Robb Smith after a blowout 55-31 loss to Illinois on November 3, 2018, the Gophers have a 25-11 record. Rossi and his staff excel at player development, game preparation and in-game adjustments. Minnesota didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in the Wisconsin win.

Among the assistants on the Gopher staff is tight ends coach Clay Patterson who had an impressive resume with offenses at smaller programs. As the coordinator at Trinity Valley Community College in 2015 his offense broke the all-time yards per game record at any level with an average of 656.1. Could he be in the mix to succeed Mike Sanford as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator?

Tanner Morgan

Quarterback Tanner Morgan, born April 17, 1999, will be 23 years old before the Gophers play their opening game next season. Quarterback Trey Lance, the Marshall, Minnesota native drafted in the first round this year by the 49ers, will be 22 next spring. In NFL history there are a number of quarterbacks who started for their teams when 21 including Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick.

Morgan drew speculation about being a second round draft choice in 2019 when he was second team All-Big Ten and a contender for two national QB of the year awards. He has solid mechanics and more opportunities to pass next season compared with 2021 will help him. And so, too, would an improved receiver corps. All of that could position him to be either a draft choice or free agent invite.

Morgan’s work ethic is admired. “No one works harder than him,” Rossi said.

Morgan’s leadership among teammates is also praised. “They don’t want to let him down,” Rossi said.

The last quarterback drafted out of the Gopher program was Craig Curry, an eighth round pick in 1972 taken by the Dolphins.

At least as important for success in 2022 as the return of Morgan is the decision by All-American tailback Mo Ibrahim to pass on the NFL Draft and play one more season at Minnesota. “He’s going to have an unbelievable year next year,” Sanford said recently.

In retrospect, it looks like the Gophers should have targeted a wide receiver in the transfer portal last winter. Fleck and the coaches scored with transfer help from linebacker Jack Gibbens, defensive lineman Nyles Pinckney and field goal kicker Matthew Trickett.

Minnesota will be active in the portal this offseason likely searching for help at linebacker, in the offensive and defensive lines, and perhaps wide receiver.

How about Christmas in the Big Apple? Richard Johnson from SI.com predicts Minnesota will play Miami (Florida) in the December 29 New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

The Gophers start the 2022 season football season with five consecutive home games, then play only two games in Minneapolis from October 8 thru November 26. Included in the early slate is a rare September date with Iowa.

The Hawkeyes match up better with Michigan than Ohio State for this Saturday’s Big Ten championship game. If the Buckeyes had won the right to advance to the title game, their explosive offense figured to have Iowa playing from behind early on, and catch up is not an Iowa strength.

This writer’s Big Ten power rankings: Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State, Illinois, Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska, Indiana and Northwestern.

Former Gophers wildcat quarterback Seth Green is a tight end at 11-1 Houston where he has caught 12 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns. The Cougars play undefeated Cincinnati Saturday in the AAC championship game.

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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.

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