PJ Fleck, UCLA Wanted Each Other but Shambled Program Could Not Afford Him

pj fleck, minnesota gophers
Erin Bormett / Argus Leader via Imagn Content Services, LLCCredit: Erin Bormett / Argus Leader via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Minnesota Gophers football program was nearly hit by a proverbial bus on Friday, February 9, 2024 around 1 PM. Not even a bus. More like a semi-truck filled to the ceiling with dried concrete (more on that momentarily).

Related: Matt Birk Throws Hat in Ring for Gophers Head Coaching Job if PJ Fleck Leaves

Said large, very heavy vehicle was shot toward Minneapolis from 1,900 miles away in sunny Los Angeles, like a heat-seeking smart missile, the moment it was announced that UCLA head coach Chip Kelly had suddenly resigned in favor of an offensive coordinator gig at Ohio State.

Along with the announcement of Kelly’s departure, Gophers head coach PJ Fleck was named as a top candidate to to replace him. Of course, we all know what happened in the hours that followed. More reports quickly arose connecting PJ to the Bruins job.

At points during that 30-hour period of unknown, it felt more likely that Fleck would leave than stay. But on Saturday afternoon, Fleck tweeted his commitment to the University of Minnesota, ending a whirlwind few days around Gopher nation.

So how close was PJ Fleck to taking the UCLA job?

But in the aftermath left by UCLA’s near miss, questions remain over how close Fleck actually was to leaving town. Well, on Monday’s episode of the Pair and a Spare Podcast, which is hosted by Gophers sideline reporter Justin Gaard (KFAN), Gopher Illustrated insider Ryan Burns (247Sports) and veteran Minnesota sports scribe Chip Scoggins (Star Tribune), Burns shed light on the situation.

And if you were doubting the legitimacy of Fleck’s interest in taking the Bruins job, that he has some diehard commitment to building and growing his program in Minnesota and nowhere else… I have some bad news for you. The only thing that stopped Fleck to UCLA from happening is just how bad of shape the Bruins football program is in right now.

Related: Does PJ Fleck Have His Recruiting Mojo Back?

It’s a team and athletic department that’s in complete shambles and it’s a school that lacks the financial security to make an established Big Ten head coach like Fleck make the jump into uncertain waters. But if not for UCLA’s massive budget deficit and mismanagement of money in recent years, PJ is probably moving into a new west coast office this week.

“I think this was as close as [PJ] Fleck has ever come, at this at this university, to leaving. I think there was so much smoke in the air and I think ultimately it comes down to UCLA [having] a $25-$27 million deficit in their athletic department. Martin Jarman is not exactly on steady footing there, as the athletic director. You have a chancellor who’s overseeing things and they’re not on steady ground and I just don’t think they had the money to pay a $5 million buyout” … “Then you gotta give [Fleck] a bump (raise). The other thing I also heard was UCLA gave all of their assistant [coaches] two-year deals so they would have had to buy out all of their assistants for that, which is multi millions of dollars.”

Ryan Burns – Pair and a Spare Podcast

This doesn’t mean Fleck’s departure is imminent

pj fleck
Dec 26, 2023; Detroit, MI, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Darius Taylor (1) and head coach P.J. Fleck hold up the Quick Lane Bowl trophy after defeating the Bowling Green Falcons at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not all doom and gloom, for those who are invested in PJ Fleck and his Row The Boat culture. This near move doesn’t mean he is guaranteed to leave as soon as another opportunity presents itself. Fleck is still here and, according to Burns, UCLA has always been one of the biggest threats to lure PJ away from Dinkytown.

Related: Are Minnesota Gophers Assistant Football Coaches Underpaid? The Contracts Say…

Now that the Bruins vacancy is filled, Minnesota’s 247Sports insider cannot foresee another coaching job coming open in the near future where Fleck would have comparable interest to what he had in coaching at the University of California Los Angeles.

Burns doesn’t want to name any specific schools that PJ has on his “list” so he trails off during the explanation (twice). But it’s clear Ryan doesn’t feel threatened by any of the jobs he sees as possible coming open anytime in the foreseeable future.

“Now that UCLA has hired a guy, I go back to, ‘now what’? There isn’t another job that I look at where it’s like yeah yeah [he’d leave for that job]…”

“Again, now that [the UCLA job] is filled, I just look around the [coaching] landscape and I’m like yup, he’s gonna be here now, until… whenever he chooses not to… or… [things don’t go well] the next few seasons but… I don’t know how else to convey that I guess…”

Ryan Burns – Pair and a Spare Podcast

Timing of departure would have sunk Minnesota Gophers football

There are arguments to be made that Fleck’s time as U of M head coach has run its course. PJ is the 3rd most-tenured head coach in the Big Ten and he’s coming off one of his worst seasons in Dinkytown. Whether you’ve been a Fleck fan or not, it’s not audacious to wonder if grass might be greener at the football facilities under a different head coach.

Related: Ihmir Smith-Marsette Claims PJ Fleck, Gophers Over-Pressured Him to Commit During 2017 Visit

But even the biggest Fleck detractors would not have wanted to see the implications of him leaving in the middle of February, just weeks out from spring practices starting and a month from another transfer portal window opening.

Had that happened, it’s plausible to think that 90% of of the 2024 recruiting class would decommitted and 75% of players would enter the transfer portal. It could have quite literally been the death blow to Minnesota Gophers football for the foreseeable future.

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