P.J. Fleck isn't afraid to talk about how he's unique and different.
"I'm not for everybody," Fleck said on the Big Ten teleconference Wednesday. "So the last thing I want to do is get somebody in here and hire somebody and not know them. The next thing you know; they didn't fit with me and you have to make changes as you go."
Fleck was talking about the process of hiring assistant coaches, but the critics might say almost the same thing about the process in which he was brought to Minnesota. Or how the rest of the Big Ten might feel about him. LeavingWestern Michigan for Minnesota wasn't exactly expected this offseason, but then again neither were the circumstances that led to Fleck's hiring.
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That sets up an interesting storyline in the Big Ten West heading into 2017. Can the coach who coined "Row the Boat" and took the Broncos to the Cotton Bowl Classic last season bring a similar jolt to a program that finished 9-4 last season before a sexual assault investigation and ensuing player boycott led to the departure of Tracy Claeys.
How does Fleck fit at Minnesota? In the Big Ten?
It's an intriguing play for Minnesota, for sure. Fleck, 36, talks fast, and that's just the start. He's younger than everybody else in the conference, and he'll certainly be unique and different. It works in the social media age.
— Rachel Chazin (@RachelChazin) April 12, 2017
P.J. Fleck said more in his opening teleconference statement than Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh said in their entire time combined.
— Saturday Tradition (@Tradition) April 12, 2017
Fleck helped turn the Broncos from a bottom-feeder into a MAC champion, and now he takes over a program that hasn't won a Big Ten championship since 1967. Minnesota is actually coming off its best season since a 10-win campaign under Glen Mason in 2003. This isn't a rebuild, but it's certainly a refurbish for the Gophers.
"I think that was one of the main goals of the spring and the winter was to get everyone to know how we do things, not necessarily the outcome and the result of how we're doing it but structurally how we're doing it," Fleck said.
It's an interesting play for Fleck, too. He was considered the go-to hire after Tom Herman last offseason, but wasn't hired until Jan. 6, a few days after the Cotton Bowl.
The good news for Fleck is the fallout from the sexual assault investigation and Holiday Bowl suspensions appears to be clearing up, but on the field the Gophers have challenges. Fleck said the team had close to 22 offseason surgeries. Saturday's spring game won't be a traditional game because of those injuries. There will be drills and running clock. There's a four-way quarterback battle among Conor Rhoda, Demry Croft, Tanner Morgan and Seth Green.
Will it work in the Big Ten? The conference isn't a stranger to young coaches. Pat Fitzgerald was 31 years old when he took over at Northwestern, but he was also a well-known commodity in the Big Ten given he was an All-American linebacker with the Wildcats.
Fleck's teams at Western Michigan went 0-6 against the Big Ten in his first three seasons, but the Broncos beat Northwestern and Illinois last season. Fleck's scheme is flashy, but it still revolves around the running game. That's good news for Minnesota given that Rodney Smith (1,158 yards, 16 TDs) and Shannon Brooks (650 yards, 5 TDs) return. Fleck said the Smith and Brooks are "absolute superstars as people, men and as football players." Get used to that kind of sell at Minnesota.
Fleck can talk, and he repeated that magic word a few times on Wednesday: culture. Fleck will change the culture, and it will be unique and different. It won't be everybody, and for some it might be a shock. Maybe why he was hired in the first place.
"We haven't had a lot of guys go through spring practice," Fleck said. "But the ones that have, have done nothing but show us how bad they want to be here and conform to the new culture that's been kind of brought in here."