With the Minnesota Vikings searching for new leadership, conjecture has focused on a number of displaced coaches of pro teams and high-level assistants around the country. Yet the Wilf family owners do not have to look that far.
Just a couple of miles away east of the Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis, P.J. Fleck, the coach of the University of Minnesota football team, has elevated the Gophers from mediocrity to relevance in the Big Ten and on the national scene.
Coming off a third-consecutive bowl game victory, the 18-6 win over West Virginia in the re-christened Guaranteed Rate bowl game in Phoenix after Christmas, the energetic head of the Gophers has just completed his fifth season — and he has at least seven more upcoming as a result of a mid-season $5 million extension of his contract with the university. That’s a large sum, to be sure, although middling by big-time collegiate standards and puny compared to what the pros are paying these days (about $8 million to $10 million).
P.J. might be the best choice for the most vaunted — and highest-paying — athletic coaching position in the state.
The misconception of marked-for-malaise
To pull off that maneuver will take some skillful planning and execution, like the fake 2-point extra point conversion that helped propel the Gophers’ bowl game victory.
One obstacle is the notion that college coaches don’t succeed in the pros, a view bolstered by the utter failure and firing in mid-season this fall of Jacksonville’s Urban Meyer, who had great success and won a pair of national championships in the collegiate ranks at Florida and Ohio State.
But that marked-for-malaise outlook is a misconception. While many have faltered, including ex-Gophers coach Lou Holtz, who had a disastrous one-year run with the New York Jets after some collegiate success and before his two seasons with the Gophers, a number of highly successful college coaches have done well in the National Football League (NFL), such as: a pair from Oklahoma, Chuck Fairbanks at New England and Barry Switzer for the Dallas Cowboys; another Cowboys head, Jimmy Johnson from Miami; and Pete Carroll, a former Vikings assistant coach, incidentally, who went from the University of Southern California (USC) to become the longest-serving current NFL coach at Seattle. All of them and some others were championship-caliber coaches in college and emulated, or exceeded, that success in the pros.
Overall, effective college coaches have about as good, or bad, a track record in pro football as others who have not had similar campus coaching credentials.
The bigger question with Fleck is whether his rah-rah “Row the Boat” attitude would work with the mentality of professional players.
Why not? One of the criticisms of the Vikings under former coach Mike Zimmer, even articulated by one of the team’s star players, All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson, after the team’s disheartening loss to the Los Angeles Rams the day after Christmas (a day before the Gophers bowl-game triumph), is that the squad lacked “energy.”
There’s no one around that could instill that enthusiasm and vigor better than P.J., a gridiron version of the Ever-Ready rabbit. If his approach can’t take hold, with some adjustment, with the Vikings, shame on them, not him.
But other obstacles face Fleck if the Vikings were inclined, and so was he, to make the move up (or down) Washington Avenue.
One of them is that big University of Minnesota contract. But breaking it is a mere trifle. College coaches do it all the time, including the aforementioned Holtz, who rescinded his here in midstream in 1985 to jump to Notre Dame, where he won a national championship three years later.
This year alone, several big-time college coaches have abrogated their long-term collegiate contracts to obtain more lucrative ones elsewhere, including another Notre Dame mentor, Brian Kelly, the winning coach in that school’s illustrious history, who departed for another elite football factory, Louisiana State, while another, Lincoln Riley, left Oklahoma to join USC. (Funny how the names of those same institutions keep popping up.)
Fleck has experience doing so; he left his former coaching position at Western Michigan in mid-contract to come here in 2017.
There is a buy-out provision in Fleck’s contract — a sizable $10 million — if he were to leave this year. But that’s a mere bagatelle that could easily be paid off by him, probably subsidized by the Wilfs, if he joins the club, or possibly even renegotiated with the university.
A popular coach jumping ship in the middle of a contract often breeds fan animosity. But Fleck would not be abandoning the community; he would just be moving his base of operations to an adjoining zip code. The bulk of his adoring fan base at the university overlaps with the Vikings faithful. Any disappointment of the former would be outweighed by delight of the latter.
But even if the Vikings were inclined to make an overture, would Fleck be willing to accept? He has, in the past, turned off conjecture that he may be a candidate for other, better college positions because he and his family, including wife Heather and four children, enjoy living in the Twin Cities environment so much, declaring this fall: “This is home.”
Of course, leaving the Gophers and joining the Vikings would still keep him in this community and his “home.” He wouldn’t even need a moving van, unless he decides to buy a mini-mansion here.
With the possibility of a long-term, lucrative contract, offering substantial security and more remuneration than he currently has, not to mention increased acclaim and a new challenge, if offered the opportunity, he probably would respond like a quintessential Minnesotan: You betcha!
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities employment law attorney with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.