Gophers' P.J. Fleck suddenly Big Ten West's second-longest tenured coach

INDIANAPOLIS — File this one under, "Time flies in the college football world."
Only six years ago, P.J. Fleck was the new kid on the block, participating in his first Big Ten football media days as Gophers coach. On Thursday, he was back at the conference's midsummer gathering, this time as one of the veterans, at least in the West Division.
Coaching changes at Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin — and most recently, Northwestern — leave Fleck as the second-longest-tenured coach in the West, behind only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, the active dean of all bowl subdivision football, who is in his 25th season in Iowa City.
On Thursday, Matt Rhule (Nebraska), Ryan Walters (Purdue) and Luke Fickell (Wisconsin) met the assembled media for the first time as Big Ten coaches, joining Northwestern interim coach David Braun, who held court Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
With all the seismic shifts in the West, might the Gophers have an edge with programs adjusting to new coaching staffs? Fleck wasn't thinking that way.
"I don't know if it ever provides an advantage because at the end of the day, it's still football," he said. "But the West is wide open again, and it's been wide open for a few years — at least the last few years that I've been here.''
The Gophers under Fleck have come close to representing the West in the Big Ten Championship Game — losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with Wisconsin in 2019, and finishing one game behind the winner the past two seasons. They'll chase that so-far elusive goal in the final season of Big Ten divisional play before USC and UCLA join the conference next season.
Wisconsin faltered to a 7-6 overall record and 4-5 Big Ten mark last year, costing Paul Chryst his job after five games. After promoting Jim Leonhard to interim head coach to finish the 2022 season, the Badgers hired Fickell away from Cincinnati. Fickell was only one year removed from leading the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff, the first Group of Five program to do so.
A former Ohio State player and interim coach, Fickell is changing the way the Badgers play offensive football, opting for a pass-based attack with offensive coordinator Phil Longo calling plays for SMU transfer quarterback Tanner Mordecai.
Why make the change from Wisconsin's traditional run-based offense that bludgeoned opposing defenses into submission?
"Why not?'' Fickell said. "To the naked eye, to the normal fan, to the kids on campus, it's going to look different. There's no doubt. … Deep down as you dive into it, it's still going to be about the guys up front. It's still going to be about physicality, it's still going to be about controlling and winning the lines of scrimmage, whether it's offensively or defensively.''
At Nebraska, Rhule is tasked to shake things up after the Cornhuskers went nowhere during Scott Frost's five-year stint that ended three games into the 2022 season. Reclamation jobs are Rhule's specialty. He built a downtrodden Temple program into a winner and took Baylor from a 1-11 record to an 11-3 Sugar Bowl team in three years.
Rhule aims to make Nebraska a national factor again by stressing the details. For example, his players have been warned to show up on time — or even better — 10 minutes early.
"Everyone's kind of, like, on-time-ish,'' he said of society in general. "You show up at 8:04, and it's like, 'I'm here.' Actually, be early. … If you're going to be late three or four times or miss breakfast, I'm going to take action — not because I don't love you, because I do. I can't have guys leaving our program and going out in the real world and not functioning. We're gonna treat our building like it's the real world.''
At Purdue, Walters takes over for Jeff Brohm, who led the Boilermakers to the Big Ten title game before leaving for his alma mater Louisville. Walters, a respected defensive coordinator at Illinois before taking the Boilermakers job, will make his head-coaching debut Sept. 2 vs. Fresno State.
"When I first arrived, my message to [players] was that I need to learn what it's like to be a Purdue Boilermaker,'' Walters said. "They've obviously had success at Purdue. … It's my job to get to know them and build trust with them.
The changes in the West bring new faces and new approaches, and to Gophers senior safety Tyler Nubin, that's a good thing.
"It's a lot of opportunity,'' he said. "It's awesome to see change. I don't want to see the same offense four years in a row; that gets kind of boring sometimes. It's good to shake things up a little bit.''

Players mentioned in this article

Bryan Walters

Jim Leonhard

Tyler Nubin

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