MURPHY: Coyle steps up with 'defining moment' hire

MINNEAPOLIS -- P.J. Fleck crushed his introductory news conference Friday with verbal revelry and theatrical flourish as predictable as January permafrost.

The University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle answers reporters questions follow a press conference to introduce P.J. Fleck as the new Gophers football coach at the Indoor Club Room at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota on Friday, Jan 6, 2017. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

MINNEAPOLIS - P.J. Fleck crushed his introductory news conference Friday with verbal revelry and theatrical flourish as predictable as January permafrost.

The new Minnesota Gophers football coach thundered away behind a silent microphone at TCF Bank Stadium that was functionally unnecessary. Fleck punctuated his lyrical altruisms by chopping his hands back and forth across the packed room like a union delegate whipping votes.

At the far end of Row 1, Stage Right, athletics director Mark Coyle laughed at Fleck's punch lines and nodded approvingly at the 36-year-old upstart he hired to salvage a football program mired in crisis and an administration under siege.

Coyle confidently emerged from his Bierman Building bunker with ice water in his veins and a news cycle in his teeth after stiff-arming proven SEC winner Les Miles and boldly acquiring the country's hottest coaching prospect in Fleck.

Coyle spent several squeamish weeks swatting at prairie fires with lawyered talking points and widening his credibility gap with players, fans, alumni and regents rankled by L'Affaire Football.


Shortly after firing Tracy Claeys on Tuesday, Coyle was scorned by Claeys sympathizers. Aw-shucks Jerry Kill even vowed never to step foot into TCF Bank Stadium again because his close friend was purged in a cultural housecleaning.

Coyle pivoted quickly from the fallout. He identified his savior and reeled in Fleck with clinical precision that betrayed the AD more as a shark stalking his prey than the clumsy bureaucrat in way over his head.

By Thursday night, a five-year, $18.5 million deal was struck.

Friday morning Fleck flew in a private jet to Minnesota in search of babies to kiss and rope lines to work.

Midafternoon he had made his sales pitch to players in the locker room and meshed his "Row The Boat" mantra from Western Michigan to the aquatic origins of "Ski-U-Mah," Minnesota's cheer and one of the state's most endearing pieces of folklore.

"There's a canoe, which is a boat," Fleck explained. "You got a paddle, which is an oar, and we've got the Northern Star here, which is our compass."

Measure the inseam for your waders, folks.

But at least the U does not have to compensate a search firm or wring its hands over being outflanked by hardball competitors. Five years ago the unheralded Kill eventually bobbed to the surface after Minnesota whiffed on several choices to mop up after Tim Brewster.


Coyle developed an accelerated plan to make his signature hire and had his man within 48 hours.

"The very first thing that stood out to me was his authentic energy and passion; he's a leader," Coyle said of Fleck. "I talked this week about a vision that we wanted to compete at the highest level with great integrity and character academically, athletically and socially. I feel like his teams have done that."

Meanwhile, Miles reportedly flew to Minnesota from Baton Rouge, fur-lined hat in hand, this week to chase a Big Ten job and perhaps one more chance to helm a major program. Miles won the 2007 national championship and a pair of SEC championships with Louisiana State but was fired in September after the Tigers' uninspiring 2-2 start.

Apparently no one invited him to interview in Minneapolis. So Miles practically hitchhiked waving his bona fides from the bayou to big foot Fleck at Coyle's moment of truth.

Minnesota wasn't interested. Let that marinate for a moment.

"I don't talk about specific candidates," Coyle said about Miles' interest. "It's an attractive job, and we did receive a lot of phone calls from different candidates. I'm always amazed when you do these searches the people that reach out and contact you about these opportunities.

"We felt prepared about the search and are excited about the outcome."

Pardon us for wondering whether Coyle had this defining moment in him.


He replaced a sexual deviant in Norwood Teague, whose boozy and boorish behavior cast a lingering pall over Dinkytown. It has been a messy seven months for Coyle as he evolves into the role as athletics front man.

Coyle already has fired two tainted coaches. He inherited J Robinson's ham-fisted attempt to manage a prescription-drug scandal that engulfed the wrestling program and cut bait within months.

Now Coyle has to account for about $3.5 million in payoffs to Claeys and his assistant coaches, another $18.5 million for his marquee replacement and bind the wounds of a football program wandering the wilderness for closure and leadership.

Claeys screams into every microphone that he is patently anti-rape and demonstrably pro-due process, but he still is incapable of distinguishing his players' deplorable behavior from their criminal liability.

This is a football lifer conditioned to follow orders. He foolishly bet that nine wins, a Holiday Bowl upset over Washington State and locker-room solidarity would whitewash blatant insubordination and Claeys' management of players who needed to be led, not enabled.

Coyle mangled his reasoning for the suspensions before the Holiday Bowl when grilled by the naive players, whose unfulfilled demands for clarity sowed mistrust and inflamed passions which spawned their bungled boycott.

But Claeys should have been the adult in the room.

Coyle evidently is.


He should step out more often.

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