COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Gophers' Fleck sees a lot of himself in Michigan's Harbaugh
MINNEAPOLIS—P.J. Fleck has a thing for a pair of former Chicago Bears quarterbacks named Jim.
As a kid in Illinois in the 1980s, Fleck's routine Halloween costume was Jim McMahon, with his blue No. 9 jersey, white headband and assertive personality. McMahon, in his customary sunglasses, was a natural pick to be a front man in the 1985 "Super Bowl Shuffle" music video.
Now the Minnesota Golden Gophers head football coach, Fleck also appreciates Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan coach who always seems to be in uniform—tan khakis, a maize-and-blue shirt, matching baseball hat and horn-rimmed glasses. Harbaugh even wore that outfit to Big Ten media days in July, while other coaches dressed in traditional suits and neckties.
Besides the Bears, the commonality is Harbaugh and McMahon haven't been afraid to be unique, a trait Fleck values. Fleck and Harbaugh will face each other for the first time as Big Ten coaches when the Wolverines play the Gophers for the Little Brown Jug at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
This will be Fleck's first visit to the Big House, but he's crossed paths with Harbaugh, a former Wolverines quarterback, at recruiting camps in Detroit and at Big Ten media days in Chicago.
Like Harbaugh, whose style of glasses is partly a nod to former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, Fleck isn't afraid to compliment the competition. Fleck credited Harbaugh's authenticity in helping pave the way for him to be a Big Ten coach at age 36.
"That is why I'm so comfortable being myself; (it's) because other coaches have laid the groundwork," Fleck said. "... I respect him wholeheartedly for that."
After a 14-year NFL playing career, Harbaugh rebuilt Stanford from 4-8 in 2007 to 12-1 in 2010. After that, he took the San Francisco 49ers to three playoff appearances in four seasons, including a Super Bowl berth after the 2012 season. Now, he is 26-8 in his third season at Michigan.
While Michigan (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) has fallen from No. 7 in the AP poll in early October to out of the rankings after losses to Michigan State and Penn State, the Wolverines are a 15-point favorite against the Gophers (4-4, 1-4). The Gophers are 3-41 against the Wolverines since 1968, but won their last visit to the Big House, 30-14, in 2014, the year before Harbaugh's arrival.
Unlike games against Michigan State and coach Mark Dantonio, Fleck didn't play Michigan and Harbaugh during his four-year run as Western Michigan coach from 2013-16. Harbaugh noticed Fleck, though.
"Always been impressed being around him in person and watching his teams, watching the Western Michigan team and now mostly impressed with the Minnesota team," Harbaugh said Tuesday, Oct. 31. "The hustle is the first thing that stands out watching the film."
Harbaugh and Fleck have something in common: pushing the envelop in recruiting.
One episode of Fleck's documentary/reality TV show on ESPNU this summer included a scene in which a handful of schools tried to call out the Gophers for a suspected recruiting violation.
They felt like the Gophers' use of video or photos of prospective student-athletes were being used inappropriately for recruiting reasons. But since the images were deemed to be taken during the normal course of the camp or clinic activities, it's permissible by NCAA rules to be used in camp/clinic information or advertisements.
"It's finding new ways to do things," Fleck said on the show.
Harbaugh's outside-the-box measures include sleep-overs at the homes of prospective recruits and going on a landmark spring trip to Florida to hold practices in April 2016.
That stirred NCAA action banning such trips in January; it's unofficially known as the "Harbaugh Rule." But with the rule not being enacted until August, Harbaugh was able to take his team to Rome in April. They had a few practices and a scrimmage, while meeting the Pope and seeing the Colosseum along the way.
"When you start getting rules named after you, you know you are finding new ways to do things," Fleck said. "He has laid the groundwork for a lot of people."