5 reasons P.J. Fleck wouldn't leave Minnesota for Tennessee
Everyone was expecting it to happen. Minnesota finished the 2020 season with an unimpressive 3-4 record, but there was little doubt that if a head coaching job at a high-profile program became available, P.J. Fleck’s name would be mentioned.
It happened in the most unusual circumstances, but it happened.
Last week, Tennessee parted ways with head coach Jeremy Pruitt after three seasons because of alleged NCAA recruiting violations that led to an investigation into the program. All the Volunteers had to show for it was a 16-19 record and one bowl appearance.
So, Tennessee, which is still considered a top-level program despite its lack of consistent success over the last 15 seasons, is on the search for a new head coach. Shortly after the job became available, FootballScoop reported that Fleck had been vetted for the vacancy and was considered a candidate to take over in Knoxville.
As Phil Ervin wrote back in August, with Fleck’s track record of success, his name is going to circulate frequently with big-time job openings. But would the Minnesota head coach really consider tossing the oars in the canoe and start rowing down to Knoxville to see if he can resurrect the SEC program?
There are a few reasons why Fleck might pass on the opportunity at Tennessee.
Rocky Top is a royal mess
Why not start with the most obvious reason why taking the job at Tennessee wouldn’t be the best decision for P.J. Fleck? With an ongoing NCAA investigation into some serious alleged recruiting violations — which reportedly involved cash in McDonald’s bags for potential prospects — there’s a good chance the Volunteers face some sort of serious punishment. It could include a postseason ban, loss of scholarships, fines and other consequences for the football program.
That, alone, is reason to pass on the opportunity in Knoxville. But there’s more.
Last season, Tennessee finished the year with a 3-7 record, saw a good portion of its returning talent enter the NCAA transfer portal and 2021 recruits are asking for a way out of their commitment to the program. This will be a rebuilding project for whomever takes the job.
Fleck has already agreed to take on similar tasks at Western Michigan and Minnesota within the last eight years. Would he really be interested in constructing a program from the ground up for a third time in the last decade?
No experience in the SEC
No, a coach doesn’t necessarily need SEC ties to be successful in the conference, but it typically helps. Look at what happened to Bret Bielema at Arkansas after the 2017 season and Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State when the 2019 campaign ended.
Fleck is an Illinois native who was a wide receiver at Northern Illinois. He’s had stops at Ohio State, Northern Illinois, Rutgers, Western Michigan and now Minnesota in his coaching career, along with a one-year stop with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not only is SEC experience lacking, but he hasn’t even accepted so much as a cup of coffee in the Sun Belt.
Life in the SEC is quite a bit different than the B1G. Believe it or not, Fleck’s “Row The Boat” culture may not be well-received by some of those deep-pocket boosters in Volunteer country. Just a thought.
The Greg Schiano connection
Remember all the outrage Tennessee fans expressed when Schiano was a signature away from becoming the program’s next head coach? That’s likely be fresh in Fleck’s mind.
Fleck has discussed multiple times that Schiano has had an incredible impact on his life and his coaching career. He has tremendous respect for his former boss (don’t forget, Fleck was on Schiano’s staff at Rutgers and with the Buccaneers). The thought of Fleck attempting to appease a fan base that ran a close friend and mentor out of town seems like a difficult concept to grasp.
Recruiting at Minnesota is tough, but it’s not hopeless
It’s fair to say that Tennessee has more resources in terms of recruiting and that there’s a stronger commitment to football than at Minnesota. You could probably get a few of the most passionate Golden Gophers fans to admit that.
And while recruiting at Minnesota presents plenty of challenges, it’s certainly not a hopeless gig. Fleck has found ways to land high-level prospects, as well as locate some of the hidden gems on the recruiting trail.
Minnesota has landed a Top 40 recruiting class three times in Fleck’s four full cycles since taking over in the Twin Cities. He’s received commitments from 9 players with a 4-star ranking from 247Sports and players have developed into key contributors early in their careers.
Recruiting at Tennessee might be a little bit easier — though fighting programs like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss for prospects would still be incredible tough — but if Fleck can build off the 11-win season in 2019, he should be just fine at Minnesota.
Look who’s back
The 2020 season didn’t quite go as planned for Minnesota, following up that 11-2 campaign in 2019 with a modest 3-4 record this year. But when you look at who’s returning for the Gophers next season, there’s good reason to believe Fleck can have his team back in the hunt for a B1G West title.
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns to lead the B1G in 2020, passed on the NFL to come back to Minnesota. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is back under center for a third full season. The offensive line should be one of the most experienced in the B1G.
With Boye Mafe back on the defensive line and joined by Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney, The Gophers should be solid in the trenches. Having Coney Durr back in the secondary is big for the Gophers, too.
Even after a down year, there’s plenty for Fleck to be excited about with Minnesota’s 2021 squad. It seems like a bad time to leave and up-and-coming program with potential division title aspirations for a team that will be starting from scratch.