Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021


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USC Seems Right for Fleck, But

 

There is so much interest in whether P.J. Fleck will ultimately be offered and accept the USC head coaching job that he is a betting favorite of odds-makers.

I get it.

Before the season my analysis of Power Five coaching jobs that could open up in 2021 and be of interest to the Minnesota head coach placed USC at the top. No other school was even close. The Trojan job became available last week with the surprising dismissal of Clay Helton after just two games.

College football media guru Paul Finebaum lists USC, along with Alabama, Ohio State and Texas, as the best jobs in college football. At age 40 Fleck might want to make a long stay at USC where the school is strategically placed to recruit in the talent-rich state of California. A private school, USC is expected to make all kinds of resources available to its next coach with the intent of restoring the football program to its customary elite national status.

Do the Trojans want him? I’d wager a new keyboard USC athletic director Mike Bohn has Fleck on “radar” but hasn’t made him a target yet. It doesn’t require hiring an expensive search firm to place Fleck on a list of a dozen potential candidates. His impressive 11-2 season in 2019, Minnesota’s best showing since 1967, put Fleck’s name on the national coaching map and in the database of athletic directors from Power Five conferences.

However, Fleck needs a shiny record this fall to captivate the USC fan base and almost certainly to tantalize Bohn. Fleck, now in his fifth season at Minnesota, has an overall record of 28-20 and in Big Ten games is 15-20 (only one winning season). But his overall career winning percentage of .583 is the best at Minnesota in the last 50 years. And since the beginning of the 2019 season his overall record is 16-7.

Fleck earned his best Gopher career nonconference victory last Saturday against Colorado, winning 30-0. The Gophers this season are 2-1 including a conference loss to top-10 ranked Ohio State.

Would Fleck leave Minnesota for USC where he might one day draw national mention among the most successful coaches? It would not only be much easier to win football games at USC than Minnesota, but the Trojans are likely to offer superior compensation to Fleck and also his assistant coaches and support staff. If caught in a financial bidding war, don’t bet on the U.

Fleck will take his “Row the Boat” culture anywhere he goes. It resonates deep in his being and he would promote it in La La Land both internally and in the community. Some Minnesotans still haven’t warmed to the hyper-charged coach but maybe you have noticed the more he wins, the quieter his critics are. Same thing will happen in Hollywood. If the Trojans become elite, “Row the Boat” won’t sound very corny to the cynics.

After several seasons in Minneapolis, Fleck knows what he has for assets and what he is up against. He and athletic director Mark Coyle, the man who hired him at Minnesota, remain close. The relationship between a head football coach and his boss can mean everything in determining the success of both. Fleck is a power player in the athletic department and the U is committed to his future.

The Gopher job is a challenge, starting with the limited number of quality high school prospects in the state and region. For 20 years or so, many of the best preps in Minnesota have chosen programs other than the Gophers.

Recruiting could get a boost at Minnesota if businesses become responsive in rewarding Gopher players via Name, Image and Likeness deals. Fleck knows this could be a game changer in recruiting but so far I can’t detail much support at all, including any outside organizing group trying to make this work for the Gophers. Under NCAA rules, head coaches can’t orchestrate NIL and it will be a sad story if the business community Minnesotans like to brag about doesn’t get on board with NIL.

Fleck preaches “never let your circumstances dictate your behavior.” It’s interesting to think about that when considering things that might discourage him in Minnesota. As strong as his makeup is, Fleck has feelings and wants to be liked. He notices what is going on with NIL. He has heard the media and public naysayers who criticize his personality and coaching. In his fifth season he sees empty seats in Huntington Bank Stadium and knows fan support changes on a dime.

Things can add up over the years, and not just challenges, but also positives like quality of life experiences. Fleck is a Midwestern native and seems to have embraced life in Minnesota including summers on Lake Minnetonka. He and his wife Heather have devoted a lot of volunteer time to community causes. Their relationships with organizations and friends are meaningful.

Fleck has bonded with his players here and encouraged a culture of doing for others, including in the community. Sportscaster Mark Rosen wrote on Facebook that he received handwritten notes of condolences about the recent passing of his wife from every Gopher football player.

P.J. Fleck

And then there is this: if Fleck wants his coaching legacy to be that he turned Minnesota into a Big Ten power and national force then he will stay here. The USC Trojans won their last national championship in 2004. In Los Angeles, Fleck would be the guy who reignited the flame. At Minnesota, without even a Big Ten title since 1967, Fleck could be the man who made the Gophers a 21st century legacy program.

Worth Noting

During the last 50 years only Lou Holtz among nine Gopher head coaches (Fleck included) has ever departed Minnesota for another school.

The estimated attendance of Gophers fans at the Colorado game includes over 10,000. It was possibly the largest regular season road total for the Gophers in a long time. “I’ve been to about 20 road games, not including bowl games…and this was by far the loudest and energized contingent I have seen,” said Minnesotan Steve Hunegs via email.

Greg Joseph’s missed field goal Sunday has produced a media frenzy and Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer responded yesterday to a reporter’s question by saying “…let’s give this kid a break, okay?”

Vikings radio network analyst Pete Bercich reacting to a fourth quarter holding penalty on maligned left tackle Rashod Hill during a running play to the other side of the offensive line: “Oh, my God!”

Trending: media predictions are that the Gopher men’s basketball team will finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten standings next winter.

Former Minnesota Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario, now with the Atlanta Braves, hit for the cycle on just five total pitches Sunday.

Nick Anderson, the Crosby-born Minnesota native with the Tampa Bay Rays, had an elbow injury earlier this year that sidelined him but in three short relief appearances earlier this month he has given up only one run.

The Twin Cities Dunkers will have their largest live and silent auctions ever this week. All of the auction funds go to the athletic programs at Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools.

The Gopher women’s hockey program, with seven national championships, is celebrating 25 seasons in 2021-2022. First game this fall is October 1 at home against Ohio State.

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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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