Sorry, Tennessee fans: Don't hold your breath on PJ Fleck rowing his boat to Rocky Top
Tennessee fans, I tip my cap to you.
You’re loyal. You’re unapologetically passionate. You’re nostalgic. You’re the reason that football-focused sites like SDS can exist (and thrive) in a 24-hour news cycle. I mean, my dentist in Central Florida wears Tennessee scrubs and he even rocks a Tennessee mask … all year. It’d be a bit much to say that Vols fans are “the wind beneath our wings,” but let’s just say college football would be even more entertaining if all fan bases acted like Tennessee’s.
OK, good. That’s out of the way.
Now there’s something else we need to get out of the way as the search to replace Jeremy Pruitt continues. Don’t hold your breath on PJ Fleck coming to Rocky Top.
I say that in an effort to save the health of Vols fans who were indeed waiting on news of Fleck accepting the Tennessee job in order to exhale. Don’t have that mindset. Get that oxygen back to your brain.
This came up because over the weekend, reports came out that Parker Executive Search firm identified Fleck, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and Southern Methodist head coach Sonny Dykes as “being vetted for the Tennessee job.” Late Monday, there was a report that Fleck wasn’t interested in the job.
To be clear, if newly hired athletic director Danny White went out and landed Fleck, I’d offer nothing but praise. That would be quite the heist, even if it meant paying someone with a 15-19 Big Ten record somewhere in the $8 million range (annually). My guess is that the only way in which White hires someone on the short list of candidates is if he copies Michigan State’s overpay of Mel Tucker, who coached in 2020 with a buyout north of $23 million (!) in Year 1 of his deal worth more than $5 million annually.
That potential annual salary wouldn’t even include the $4.5 million that Tennessee would have to fork over to Minnesota to hire Fleck, who is under contract through 2026. On the bright side, that number would have been $10 million had Tennessee tried to poach Fleck in December. Then again, that couldn’t have happened because the Vols were in the midst of an internal investigation into Pruitt’s recruiting practices.
Speaking of that, it’s probably worth remembering that this isn’t anything close to a normal situation for a potential head coach candidate like Fleck to inherit.
- A) Has an ongoing lawsuit over allegedly avoiding a $12.6 million buyout
- B) Lost several key starters via transfer, as well as 3 quarterbacks
- C) Had its top 2021 signee ask for his release
- D) Has yet to receive NCAA punishments for multiple Level I violations
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
Now picture Fleck leaving Minnesota for that. Picture Fleck bailing on a place where he had his trademarked “Row the Boat” mantra put on basically everything in plain sight in the football facility. Picture him leaving a job that’ll pay him $4.65 million in 2021, which doesn’t include anything from his incentive-heavy deal that he agreed to after an 8-0 start in 2019.
They’ve treated Fleck well in the Twin Cities. The guy got a 25% raise in the midst of his breakout season in 2019. In 2020, he coached with a buyout of $18.7 million. When Fleck got that extension, Minnesota committed $1 million more to pay his assistants. If you recall, that was a major reason Bret Bielema left a Big Ten program for the SEC back in 2012. Unlike Wisconsin 8 years ago, Minnesota doesn’t spend like some mid-major in 2021.
Ask anyone who spent any time around that program. They’re all in with Fleck at Minnesota. They understand who they are. There’s no identity crisis. Instead of a coach’s goofy sayings becoming the butt of the joke like Butch Jones’ were in the midst of consecutive Top 25 seasons at Tennessee, Minnesota rallied around Fleck’s.
(I know, I know. Nobody wants to be a champion of life with guys who have 5-star hearts when rivals are off winning actual championships with their 5-star recruits. Still, the point remains.)
Fleck admits he has a “not for everyone” personality. And to be clear, that high-motor, Energizer Bunny way in which he carries himself is his real personality. He’s not playing a character.
That’s all worth remembering because even in the event that Tennessee rolls out the red carpet for Fleck, which I’d fully expect White to do if given the opportunity, it would still come down to him feeling like he’d have the chance to win big and be himself. For all the talk about Fleck coming off like a salesman looking to rise his way through the ranks, he’s about to enter Year 9 as an FBS head coach. He spent that entire time at Western Michigan and Minnesota.
However, this isn’t the part where I recall some quote Fleck had about being loyal to the Gophers or that his Midwest roots will prevent him from considering a job outside of the geographical footprint. If we’ve learned anything about college coaches, it’s that loyalty is only loyalty until the bigger, better opportunity comes calling.
The problem is that Tennessee is no longer the bigger, better opportunity. It’s been 2 decades since Tennessee finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25. It’s been 1 year since Fleck did that at Minnesota. In the last 10 drafts, Tennessee had 5 or more selections once. That’s the same number as Minnesota, which just pulled off that feat in 2020.
Why do some believe that Tennessee is a sleeping giant when it hasn’t won a conference title in the 21st century? Five full-time head coaches failed in that mission. Going 5-37 against your 3 biggest rivals in a 13-year stretch and going 14 seasons (and counting) without a win vs. a team in the top 10 of the AP Poll aren’t signs that a program has the same upside it once did. Call me crazy, but it seems like the coaching world knows that, too. Amidst all of that turnover, Tennessee has yet to hire a coach with Power 5 head coaching experience since Johnny Majors in 1977.
(For what it’s worth, Majors leaving Pitt immediately after winning a national title had a little bit to do with him being a Tennessee native/grad/legend.)
Until we see the words “P.J. Fleck agrees to extension at Minnesota,” I’d fully expect to see all the Tennessee rumors unfold. If you’re part of that process in Knoxville, of course you’d want the college football world to think you’re a conversation away from hiring the 40-year old head coach who had top-15 seasons at Western Michigan and Minnesota (he was also the second-youngest active FBS head coach to win 50 games). After all, we’re a week from Signing Day. It makes the job sound more attractive than it actually is by having an established Power 5 head coach being linked to it.
Given the dynamics at play here, Fleck’s agent, Bryan Harlan, might not mind hearing his client’s name surface for a Power 5 opening. That was at the root of Fleck’s 2019 extension when he was reportedly a candidate for the Florida State job. Why wouldn’t an agent want his client to gain a little more leverage following a disappointing season like the one Fleck just had?
In the end, though, talk is cheap. Uprooting your life and leaving a place where you’ve built a solid foundation isn’t so cheap. That can be a costly mistake that leads to a dead end, especially when the new school just tried to wiggle its way out of paying the predecessor’s 8-figure buyout.
I tip my cap to the Tennessee fans who can understand that.