Success in 2022 Would Mean PJ Fleck Back in Coaching Carousel

Photo: David Berding – Getty Images

It’s May 23. That means we are 100 days away from the Minnesota Gophers’ first football game of 2022 (Sept. 1). But it’s never too early for Gopher football fans to lose sleep over the possibility of PJ Fleck ditching Dinkytown at season’s end.

Who Lit the Match of Panic?

This time, however, our panic has been set off from the outside. The flame was lit by The Athletic on Monday morning. If the Gophers have a successful season, according to CFB insiders Bruce Feldman and Matt Fortuna, Fleck is one of four Big Ten coaches expected to enter the head coaching carousel next offseason.

P.J. Fleck’s squad went 9-4 last season and beat Wisconsin for the second time in four years, a strong campaign that left a feeling of unfinished business after the Golden Gophers inexplicably dropped home contests to Bowling Green and Illinois. Ace OC Kirk Ciarrocca is back after leaving in 2019, and so is QB Tanner Morgan, who already has 39 career starts under his belt. Fleck is just 41, and he signed another extension last season through 2028.

He likes it in the Twin Cities, and he has a $10 million buyout if he were to leave before Dec. 31. While his public persona isn’t necessarily for everyone, his work in revitalizing programs at multiple levels (he took Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl) is attractive to ADs. And if the 2022 carousel is anything like the 2021 circus, Fleck’s phone will likely be ringing a lot should the Gophers post another strong season.

Bruce Feldman and Matt Fortuna (The Athletic)

How Concerned Should We Be?

If you thought we were safe from the college football head coaching carousel for awhile because of the extension PJ Fleck signed just six months ago then the joke is on you, I guess. The key to head coaching contracts in the NCAA is always the buyout clause.

How much will it cost for School “X” to fire their head coach? How much does it cost for Coach “Y” to break contract and leave for another destination? Unlike in the previous iteration of his deal, Fleck’s new buyout price gradually falls over his first few seasons. On January 1, 2023, it will no longer cost $10 million for PJ to leave Dinkytown. But it will still cost $7 million. If he’s on the same contract come January 1, 2024, the buyout will fall to $5 million.

But let’s be real. If Minnesota has a good enough season, $7M isn’t going to stop interested schools from trying to hire PJ Fleck. And that’s why he’s on The Athletic’s list.

NIL Adds Uncertainty

As mentioned in the article, PJ Fleck likes it in here. He has small kids who don’t know a life outside of Dinkytown. So it will have to be the right school and the right offer to lure him away. PJ has a very strong relationship with Mark Coyle, as well. As long as Coyle is the Gophers AD, Fleck will be open to staying.

But there is one new variable that could factor heavily into Fleck’s eventual decision to go elsewhere. NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) has made it much more difficult for schools like the University of Minnesota to compete in recruiting top high school and transfer portal targets.

The Gopher football program doesn’t have near the financial support from boosters, that other schools do. And 22 years after a bullshit cheating scandal rocked the men’s basketball team, the University is still afraid of angering the NCAA gods by promoting an NIL-friendly environment for boosters to take advantage of.

If Fleck sees the NIL age as a threat on his ability to win consistently at Minnesota, he could be motivated to Row The Boat elsewhere like never before.

Jerry Kill Best Behavior?

Remember, the Minnesota Gophers’ 2022 opener on September 1 is against New Mexico State. The Aggies now employ Fleck’s predecessor at the U of M, Jerry Kill. Previously, Kill has been very vocal in his dismay for PJ Fleck and Mark Coyle.

But Jerry may want to enter Huntington Bank Stadium on his best behavior this fall. Who knows, he may be handing in an application for U of M employment pretty soon…

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan