For all his other strengths, Fleck may be best known for his leadership skills. Sure, he has been a little more dramatic than most with his “Row the Boat” mantra, ever-present energy and fire. However, he brought big time success (e.g. conference title, New Year’s Six game) to a program that three years earlier managed just one win for the entire season. By year two, the Broncos owned eight wins, and duplicated that total in 2015 while getting a piece of the MAC West title.
Fleck’s Broncos all but . . .
Impressive enough, it seems, for Minnesota to come calling. Fleck got a Big Ten gig, and Minnesota got one of the nation’s top young coaches. Once the youngest FBS head coach after taking over Western Michigan, the 36-year-old, Fleck is now the youngest head coach of a Power 5 conference team.
Fleck, who served under the likes of Jim Tressel (Ohio State, 2006), Jerry Kill (Northern Illinois (2008-2009) and Greg Schiano (Rutgers (2010-2011; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2012), has risen through the ranks at nearly breakneck speed.
Some found his “Row the Boat” mantra and other activities as shtick. Others saw the same things as inspiring. The latter included many recruits and their families as Fleck’s staff made it a habit of bringing in top-notch recruiting classes.
The charisma was immediately evident this past week as a nattily dressed Fleck was introduced at Minnesota. Instead of “Row the Boat,” he trumpeted, “Ski-U-Mah.” -- a traditional cheer sometimes used for University of Minnesota teams.
Like any new head coach, he is already busy filling in his key staff positions. Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith will reportedly be moving to the same gig with Minnesota. But as a relatively late hire, a key challenge will be sorting out his recruiting class before the Feb. 1 national signing day. Beyond all the other stuff, Fleck knows recruits are the lifeline of a successful program, and he has made it his business to embrace that process.
To date, he has demonstrated “the touch,” producing talented class after talented class. This year’s Minnesota group may, in fact, benefit from the Fleck staff’s most recent work. Reports indicate a half dozen or more Western Michigan 2017 recruits are “flipping” to Minnesota.
Beyond the staff and recruiting challenges, which high-profile head coaching candidate no doubt anticipate, Fleck will face some new issues.
The Gophers athletic program has gone through some turbulent times in recent years, and football took a hit or two this year. Attendance, for example, was down despite a 9-4 season (5-4 Big Ten).
Also, there could be some residual issues related to a player boycott in December. Players announced a boycott after 10 teammates were suspended in connection to a school investigation of an alleged sexual assault. The boycott threatened to upend preparation for – and possibly participation in --an upcoming bowl game.
Head coach Tracy Claeys at one point tweeted his public support for the players concerns. That was not well-received by a university trying to address the sexual assault investigation/findings. The players eventually dropped their boycott and went on to defeat Washington State, 17-12, at the Dec. 27 the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. However, Claeys, the first Gophers coach to win his first two bowl games, was canned Jan. 2.
Minnesota, no doubt, would like to put the negative stuff behind it and also put a charge in the program. Flipping players seem to have every confidence Fleck will “change the culture,” while his personality exudes the energy of an “Energizer Bunny.”
Cracking the Big Ten elite, even in the Western Division, won’t be easy. But Fleck faced a huge uphill battle when he landed in Kalamazoo. Even if the Gophers don’t row their way forward, with Fleck at the helm, it will no doubt be an interesting journey.