Western Michigan's PJ Fleck named Gophers football coach

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The University of Minnesota officially announced PJ Fleck as its new football head coach Friday morning. The Gophers and Fleck agreed to a 5-year contract worth $18.5 million.

Fleck didn't take long to make a first impression on Minnesota after landing at a frigid Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, telling Fox 9 his absolute first order of business was to meet and greet his new team.

"The first words to them is guys, you didn't pick me. You had no choice whether I came or not, but I picked you, and I couldn't have picked a better group," Fleck said. "I just want to get in front of them, I want them to see my face and for them to understand that I'm here for them, and that we've hit the ground running and that now everything I do from this point forward is about them, for them, and I'm here to serve and give."

Fleck lands in Minnesota: Watch video and read the Q & A

Fleck released the following statement to Newschannel 3 in Kalamazoo: "It is with mixed emotions that I announce my decision to leave Western Michigan University for the head football coaching job at the University of Minnesota. Although I am grateful for and excited about this opportunity, this was a very difficult decision to make; one that involved much introspection and prayer. Heather and I love Kalamazoo and the Western Michigan University family of staff, students, alumni and fans. I simply feel called to take on this new challenge and to start a new chapter in my family's journey. I am proud of what we have accomplished together in Kalamazoo. I feel we have left WMU football in a much better place than when we arrived here. That was our mission. I'll always be your fan and friend. RTB PJ."

Statement from Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle

Row the Boat

Fleck, 36, brings his "Row the Boat" motto to Minneapolis from Western Michigan, where he led the Broncos to a No. 15 ranking and a Cotton Bowl appearance this season.

"Row the Boat will be part of it…but Ski-U-Mah is everything," Fleck said. "The story of Ski-U-Mah -- there's a canoe, which is a boat. You got a paddle, which is an oar. And we've got the Northern Star here, which is our compass."

PJ Fleck's coaching resume

Fleck played college football at Northern Illinois from 1999 to 2003 and played two NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006 before returning to Northern Illinois in 2007. Fleck coach wide receivers at NIU, including several seasons under former Gophers head coach Jerry Kill.

Fleck moved on to Rutgers for the 2010-11 seasons before following head coach Greg Schiano to the NFL for one season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers coach.

In Dec. 2012, Fleck was named head coach at Western Michigan, where he led the rebuilding of the Broncos football program, including a No. 15 ranking in the College Football Playoff poll and an appearance against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

Comparing the cash: Big Ten head football coach salaries (2016)

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan - $9 million
Urban Meyer, Ohio State - $6 million
James Franklin, Penn State - $4.5 million
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa - $4.5 million
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State - $4.3 million
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern - $3.35 million
Mike Riley, Nebraska - $2.8 million
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin - $2.7 million
DJ Durkin, Maryland - $2.4 million
Kevin Wilson, Indiana - $2.3 million (resigned, replaced by Tom Allen)
Darrell Hazell, Purdue - $2.19 million (terminated)
Chris Ash, Rutgers - $2 million
Lovie Smith, Illinois - $1.8 million
Tracey Claeys, Minnesota - $1.4 million (terminated)

*Incoming Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm will earn $3.3 million in 2017.

The decision to fire Claeys

Claeys was fired on Tuesday, Jan. 3. The coach had been on a very hot seat for the last month after voicing support for his team during a 2-day boycott. That boycott was in response to the indefinite suspensions of 10 members of the football team connected to an alleged early season sexual assault.

Claeys had said earlier that his support for his student-athletes might cost him his job. In the end, apparently it did, as pressure grew from women's rights groups and other victim advocates outraged by Claeys' public stance.

Coyle said the decision to fire Claeys did not come from one specific incident, such as the coach's tweet in support of the team's boycott, but rather it was part of an overall evaluation.

AD Mark Coyle statement on firing of Tracy Claeys

I made a difficult decision today on behalf of the University of Minnesota. With the support of Board of Regents' leadership and President Eric Kaler, I have decided to take the Gophers football team in a different direction with new coaching leadership.

I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program. We need strong leadership to take Gopher football to the next level and address these challenges.

This decision is about the future of Minnesota football.

Moving forward, we need a leader who sets high expectations athletically, academically, and socially.

I also want to address the unfortunate blurring of the football suspension decision.

On December 13, 2016, Coach Claeys, Deputy Athletics Director John Cunningham and I met to discuss 10 student-athletes.

I informed Coach Claeys of my judgment that athletic suspensions were appropriate.

Without any objection, Coach Claeys said he understood that decision to bench student-athletes.

Coach Claeys, Deputy Athletics Director John Cunningham, and I met with the student-athletes to advise them of our decision. Coach Claeys subsequently informed me that he agreed with the suspension decision.
And let me be clear: this was the right thing to do.

Coach Claeys' Tweet later that week was not helpful. I accept that Coach Claeys intended it to support the boycotting players. Understandably others did not see it that way. I hope you will appreciate I cannot say more about the athletic suspensions in this case.

I will say, as a general matter, athletic suspension decisions - essentially a decision to bench a player - are different from a prosecutor's decision to charge someone with a crime.

Different standards, different policies.

An athletic suspension decision is also different from a panel decision whether there has been a student conduct code violation.

Different standards, different policies

For example, we suspend student-athletes for attitude problems. We suspend student-athletes while criminal investigations are ongoing. We suspend student-athletes when University investigators present credible evidence of inappropriate conduct. What happens in a student conduct process is not for me to say. Like the U and all involved, I simply want a just and fair process. That is not determined by who prevails; if justice is done, then the University of Minnesota and the public win, no matter the outcome.

Again, this has been a difficult decision. I thank Coach Claeys and his staff for their years of service. Coaches Dan O'Brien and Mike Sherels have agreed to remain during the coaching transition to ensure that our student-athletes have strong and active leadership in the interim.

Jerry Kill 'disappointed' in how U of M handled firing

In a phone interview with Fox 9 Sports Director Jim Rich, Kill said he has no problem if the university wants to change coaches, but he has a big problem with the way Athletics Director Mark Coyle did the deed, especially when he questioned the integrity of the football program.

"I love Minnesota. I love the people in the state of Minnesota. They're great. They've treated us tremendously," Kill said. "But, I will not step foot on campus the rest of my living life unless I'm playing there because that's how disappointed I am in how things have been handled."

Read more from Kill here.