MINNEAPOLIS – P.J. Fleck, a former NIU assistant coach and player and Kaneland graduate, is leaving Western Michigan and heading to Minnesota to coach a football team reeling from a threatened boycott of a bowl game and the handling of a sexual assault investigation.
Both schools announced the move Friday. Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle cited Fleck's "infectious energy and passion" and work building "a unique, positive culture" at Western Michigan. Fleck is to be introduced at an afternoon news conference at Minnesota.
The hiring comes three days after Coyle fired Tracy Claeys following a standoff between the team's players and the administration over the suspension of 10 players in connection with the sex assault allegations.
Coyle promised to quickly find a replacement for Claeys despite this being late in college football's hiring season. He needs a coach to plunge into recruiting and address the deep divisions between the players that remain and the school's administration. Coyle and President Eric Kaler flew to Chicago on Wednesday for meetings. The two sides reached an agreement two days later.
Now Fleck has little time to waste in beginning to repair a fractured program.
Players threatened last month to boycott the Holiday Bowl after expressing reservations about the university's investigation that led to the suspension of their teammates.
Some were accused of pressuring a woman into sex during a party after the team's season-opening win over Oregon State. Many of those players continue to be upset with Coyle and Kaler for how the situation was handled. Coyle said federal privacy laws prevented him from communicating more with a confused team.
That issue isn't going away soon, with appeals hearings for the 10 players expected to be held this month.
"I get they're upset. I get they're frustrated. I understand that," Coyle said on Tuesday. "It's our job to find a leader who will take this program forward and unite all of them in one direction, one goal."
Fleck guided the Broncos to a 13-1 record this season and a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where they lost 24-16 to Wisconsin.
The 36-year-old coach is 30-22 in four years at Western Michigan, with three bowl appearances. His relentless, youthful energy and motivational team motto "Row the boat!" helped push the Broncos into the national spotlight this fall, with the campus and city of Kalamazoo abuzz over a program that had never before won more than nine games in a season.
Fleck, a star receiver at Northern Illinois, played briefly in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers. He has worked as a college assistant at Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Rutgers. In 2012, he was an assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before taking over the Broncos.
Mid-American Conference coaches have been plucked by Big Ten teams several times before, with mixed success at best. Tim Beckman started at Illinois in 2012 after leaving Toledo, and he was fired after a 12-25 record over three seasons amid allegations of player mistreatment. Darrell Hazell left Kent State to join Purdue in 2013. The Boilermakers finished 9-33 and was fired halfway through his fourth season.
Ohio State's Urban Meyer launched his career at Bowling Green, but he had stops at Utah and Florida in between. Jerry Kill, the predecessor to Claeys, left Northern Illinois for the Gophers six years ago and went a respectable 29-29 before epilepsy forced his retirement.
When Coyle announced his decision to fire Claeys, who led the Gophers to a 9-4 record and a win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, the athletic director was applauded by victims' rights advocates and many academics at the university for responding emphatically to troubling allegations.
He was also criticized by some donors, alumni and players for reacting too harshly after Hennepin County twice cited a lack of evidence as the reason for declining to press charges.
The Gophers reached out to Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead but were turned down early in the process, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Minnesota was not commenting publicly on its search.
"I think we all need to take a deep breath," Coyle said Tuesday. "We'll go out; we'll find a great football coach for the University of Minnesota. We'll have a chance to move forward in a positive direction."