Paul Chryst vs. PJ Fleck: Evaluating the extreme differences in personality
One of the fascinating aspects of college football is the differences between programs across the country. With 130 FBS teams, coaching philosophies and strategies can vary greatly. Army is having a successful season with a 7-3 record by running the football on 87% of snaps, while Mississippi State is a top-25 team throwing the ball on 72.8% of its offensive plays.
Just like schematic ideas can differ to the extreme, some of the coaches’ personalities could not be more opposite from each other, and we’ll see that on Saturday afternoon when Wisconsin travels to take on Minnesota in a game that will determine who will represent the B1G West in the conference title game.
PJ Fleck is in his fifth season as the head coach at Minnesota and is a one-man marketing firm for all things positivity, with as many acronyms and catchphrases as you’ll see in a sport filled with acronyms and catchphrases. Meanwhile, Paul Chryst’s press conferences do not get any more entertaining than when he mentions his program “appreciates the opportunity to get better” for the third time in a 10-minute question-and-answer session.
Chryst even acknowledged his repetitive opening statements following Wisconsin’s win over Nebraska last weekend.
This. Is. Terrific. 😂
— Wisconsin On BTN (@WisconsinOnBTN) November 21, 2021
Both personas are working for both Fleck and Chryst, as they have their programs in position to potentially advance to Indianapolis heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
For the Badgers, they would clinch a spot in the B1G Championship Game with a victory. If they lose, they would need Nebraska to beat Iowa on Friday and Indiana to beat Purdue on Saturday to advance. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s only scenario is to beat Wisconsin in addition to Nebraska beating Iowa and Purdue beating Indiana.
PJ Fleck: A jolt of energy
Fleck is one of the most energetic head coaches you’ll see on the sideline on a college football Saturday. He will sprint toward the other end of the field following the end of a quarter and receives a ton of TV attention during games. As long as he is in Minnesota, Fleck will always be the face of the program.
As much as he will annoy people by how he carries himself, all that matters is what the players think, and they seem to buy everything he sells. It’s hard to deny Fleck has been a success at Minnesota. Through 56 games, Fleck has a 33-23 overall record, and his .589 winning percentage is the highest of any Gophers football coach since the 1950 season ended.
Fleck’s name is often mentioned during coaching carousel season, and it would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if he was put on a bigger stage with larger expectations. Would players and fan bases who expect national championships respond well to his rah rah mantra in the event things start to go poorly? The obvious and probably unfair example would be Butch Jones, who was elevated to Tennessee, and his persona didn’t work after a few losses. Some of his greatest hits include having a turnover trash can on the sideline that made Twitter jokes fairly easy along with infamous sayings like “champions of life” and “5-star hearts.” That doesn’t play when winning expectations are higher.
Minnesota will be in a bowl game for the 3rd time in 5 years under Fleck (the Gophers opted out of a bowl game in 2020), and the breakout season came in 2019 when they finished 11-2. Qualifying for a bowl game and occasionally contending for a B1G West is what should be happening when the Gophers are at their best, and that’s where Fleck has them right now.
Paul Chryst: Dad of Wisconsin
While Fleck can be seen wearing a necktie on the sideline, Paul Chryst seems to put roughly zero thought into his game day fashion. He looks like every Wisconsin dad who got out of bed, threw on a gray sweatshirt and baseball cap and is ready for a great fall Saturday.
Part of this can be due to the fact Wisconsin has more star players on a national level than Minnesota does most seasons, so it is always a player who is looked at as the face of the Badgers program and not the head coach. Chryst does everything he can to keep the spotlight off of himself and on to the players when the team is performing well.
For as boring as Chryst can be to the fans and media, his even-keeled nature can certainly be a strength for locker room culture and is beneficial for sustained success over a long period. Teams take on the personality of the head coach. Wisconsin started out 1-3 after the first month of the season, and everything could’ve gone off the rails in a hurry, which has happened plenty of times this year. Hello, Florida. Instead, players continued to buy in, stayed focused and put themselves in position to potentially compete for a conference title by winning 7 games in a row.
Wisconsin has a perfect setup as Chryst doesn’t want to be anywhere else, and the university doesn’t want anybody else. Badgers fans should be thanking Gary Andersen every day for leaving for Oregon State after the 2014 season, because the timing worked out perfectly. In his 7th year at Wisconsin, Chryst has a 64-22 record, and his .744 winning percentage is the highest in program history since the end of the 1926 season.
Chryst and Fleck have coached against one another 6 times, including the 2016 Cotton Bowl when Wisconsin beat the Fleck-led Western Michigan Broncos for their only loss of the season. Chryst came out on top in 5 of their matchups, and this will be the second time in the last 3 seasons both are in contention for the top spot in the B1G West heading into the final weekend. Wisconsin won that game 38-17 in a snowy Minneapolis in 2019.