Some of the most popular names in professional wrestling history came from the great state of Minnesota. The impending hire of P.J. Fleck channels the same kind of spirit that made Rick Rude, Mr. Perfect and Ric Flair stars of the squared circle into Golden Gopher football.
Fleck’s youthful exuberance and high-energy emanates through his teams, this year manifesting in Western Michigan’s run to the Cotton Bowl Classic. He gives a speech with the same kind of fervor that former Minnesota football player Richard Fliehr cut promos as World Champion Ric Flair.
That P.J. Fleck pregame speech = 🔥https://t.co/Z0cE5NZhFd
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 2, 2017
The newly minted Minnesota head coach inherits a Golden Gopher team fresh off a nine-win campaign, a 13-year best in Minneapolis. He has a beautiful new stadium, upgraded facilities, and a much more stable foundation than that which he took over at Western Michigan four years ago.
But Fleck must also buck a trend plaguing many coaches making a move similar to his. Mid-American Conference coaching alumni moving on to Power Five jobs hasn’t exactly gone swimmingly in recent years.
• Brady Hoke (Ball State to San Diego State to Michigan): Left San Diego State after just two seasons, regressed in record every year at Michigan before he was fired in his fourth season.
• Turner Gill (Buffalo to Kansas): Fired after two seasons in the Big 12 and a 5-19 overall record.
• Michael Haywood (Miami to Pitt): Never coached a game at Pitt, which was in its final season of Big East membership the season he was to begin with the Panthers. He was fired two weeks after his hire, the result of a domestic violence arrest.
• Tim Beckman (Toledo to Illinois): Never finished with a winning record in three seasons at Illinois; was fired a week before the 2015 campaign amid allegations of player abuse.
• Darrell Hazell (Kent State to Purdue): Despite engineering one of the most shocking turnarounds in recent college football history at Kent State, Hazell failed to have any success at Purdue. He was fired this season with a four-year record of 9-33.
The jury’s still out on former Toledo head coach Matt Campbell, who just completed his first season at Iowa State. Dave Clawson (Bowling Green) Wake and Dave Doeren (Northern Illinois) have shown promise in the ACC at Wake Forst and NC State respectively.
Brian Kelly and Butch Jones have had varying levels of success at power programs since their tenures at Central Michigan, although had successful runs at Cincinnati before moving up a tier.
MAC coaches making the move to the Big Ten in particular have struggled — with one noteworthy exception. Former Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill reinvigorated Minnesota, leading the Golden Gophers to three straight bowl games and two seasons of eight wins between 2012 and 2014. His abrupt exit due to health concerns last year began the chain of events leading to Fleck rowing his boat to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The $3 million-Per-Year Question for Minnesota is if Fleck can excel where past MAC alumni floundered. More importantly, can P.J. Fleck build on the foundation on fellow MAC product Jerry Kill laid to make Minnesota a contender in the Big Ten?
One quality in Minnesota’s favor with Fleck is his personality. The Gophers won under Kill, and again this season with Claeys at the helm, but neither generated the same kind of electricity that’s become Fleck’s calling card. Workmanlike would best describe the Gophers’ recent identity, as demonstrated in a grinding Holiday Bowl win last month.
The Gophers have been more Dusty Rhodes than Ric Flair; more Hard Times than Space Mountain.
Fleck will incorporate that identity, starting with a defense that returns standouts like linebackers Blake Cashman and Jonathan Celestin, and add his own flair of high-flying offense. He oversaw an offense that improved from 33.8 points per game in 2014, to 36 in 2015, to 41.6 on the way to a MAC Championship and Cotton Bowl berth.
Fleck’s system showcased talents like Corey Davis and Zach Terrell — athletes who came from Wheaton, Illinois and Fort Wayne, Indiana, the same local recruiting pools he’ll scour at Minnesota.
With that combination of hard-nosed defense and offensive explosiveness, Golden Gopher football can reminisce on a name from the pro wrestling world: Bronko Nagurski.
The former wrestling World Champion played on a Big Ten championship team in 1927, and won All-American honors in 1929. His time at Minnesota preceded one of the greatest runs in college football history, when the Gophers won three consecutive national championships from 1934 through 1936. It’s an accomplishment that’s happened only once since.
P.J. Fleck need not Bernie Bierman to make his tenure at Minnesota successful, however. Beating rivals Iowa and Wisconsin; competing for and winning Big Ten West divisional titles; reaching a Rose Bowl — well, that would be just Perfect.