From his predecessor’s poorly timed tweet to a mentor’s unflattering comments about his future employer to a longer wait than anticipated, P.J. Fleck leaving Western Michigan for Minnesota has a strange feel.
A successful Group of Five coach bolting a tiny school for a Power Five program is about as common as stumbling upon fresh water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It’s often not if but rather when the clock will run out on any so-called loyalty in a business where coaches leave behind thousands of dollars in favor of millions.
That’s why P.J. Fleck always had a plan to leave Western Michigan. He didn’t have a bag packed by the door and an Uber ride in the queue, but a determined coach doesn’t go from 1-11 to 13-1 in four seasons without understanding the inevitability of tripling his salary and gaining better resources outside of Kalamazoo.
None of that should surprise anyone. Nor should it upset anybody, for that matter. Shock and anger are different feelings, although the former sometimes leads to the latter.
Fleck didn’t high-tail it out of town when the first Power Five school came calling. Or the second. Or the third, or however many actually reached out in one way or another. He refused to let his probable departure be a distraction for his Western Michigan team during its historic season. He saw the process through to a once-improbable Cotton Bowl appearance all while the coaching carousel spun wildly.
But across the waters of Lake Michigan, a controversy developed at Minnesota as 2016 drew to a close. Ten Golden Gophers players suddenly were suspended in the lead up to their Holiday Bowl matchup with Washington State on the heels of an internal sexual assault investigation. A short boycott then ensued.
Coach Tracy Claeys stood by his players, tweeting out his support for their cause despite the sensitive nature of the allegations. He eluded to the possibility that it would cost him his job. He was right.
Just when it seemed all the Power Five jobs Fleck would consider had been filled, the Minnesota position suddenly opened up. And Fleck, for obvious reasons, was at the top of the list.
Amid the backlash of Claeys firing was Jerry Kill, the new Rutgers offensive coordinator and former Golden Gophers head coach who handed the reigns to Claeys in the middle of last season due to ongoing health issues. He’s also the man who saw Fleck’s coaching potential in 2008 when Fleck was just an up-and-coming wide receivers’ coach at Northern Illinois.
Kill bashed the Minnesota administration – namely athletic director Mark Coyle, who has been on the job for roughly six months – for firing Claeys. He claimed he’d never have anything to do with the Golden Gophers as long as the current leadership was in place.
Those comments offered another sign that Row the Boat still might live on at Western Michigan. Then came reports late Thursday night that Fleck, despite the issues surrounding the Minnesota program and one of his mentors chastising his potential bosses, was on the move to Minneapolis and that Western Michigan players had been informed of his departure.
They reportedly weren’t happy. Fleck preached a championship mentality in his first year at Western Michigan when they lost a home game to Nicholls State. Stay the course, he said. Become “elite.” Put your oars in the water and keep rowing.
Now Fleck was jumping ship at the first sign of vulnerability following the Broncos’ loss to Wisconsin? Leaving for something supposedly better when he demanded his players leave their best on the field?
The entire situation has an odd feel. Western Michigan spent millions of dollars plastering the Row the Boat mantra in the locker room, in the stadium and on merchandise. It helped lure very good players to tiny Kalamazoo and created a culture few anticipated or believed possible.
There’s little doubt stepping foot inside the facilities Friday morning felt eerie for anyone invested in Western Michigan football – and in Fleck. Owning the trademark to Row the Boat means the university can choose whether to let the slogan that put the program on the national scene live or die.
Those who didn’t see this coming willingly blinded themselves to the inevitable. Fleck was eventually going to leave his rowboat for a powerful ship fit for his immense coaching talent and bundle of unmatched energy.
The only shame is that it came so suddenly, and under such odd circumstances.
WATCH: P.J. Fleck By The Numbers