Gophers’ P.J. Fleck now a Big Ten West coaching veteran, but newcomers bring strong resumes

INDIANAPOLIS — New NBC Sports color commentator Todd Blackledge introduced Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz at Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday, and he marveled at the rate of turnover within the coaching profession.
Blackledge noted Ferentz is going into his 25th season leading the Hawkeyes, and “you don’t really hear that anymore.”
No, you don’t.
The Gophers’ P.J. Fleck is now the second-longest tenured head coach in the Big Ten West division, going into his seventh season at Minnesota.
“I don’t know if it ever provides an advantage because at the end of the day, it’s still football and you have to be able to coach and play as a team,” Fleck said. “But the West is wide open again. It’s been wide open for a few years, at least the last few years I’ve been here.”
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema is third in coaching tenure, entering his third season with the Illini. The rest of the coaches are entering their first full seasons at the helms of their current schools: Luke Fickell at Wisconsin, Matt Rhule at Nebraska, Ryan Walters at Purdue and Northwestern’s interim David Braun.
Braun fills in for Pat Fitzgerald, who served 16 seasons at Northwestern before his firing amid player hazing allegations and subsequent lawsuits in mid-July.
Fleck, 42, knows that Rhule and Fickell each bring strong resumes into their new gigs. Fickell, 49, was a stop-gap head coach at Ohio State in 2011, and during his six years at Cincinnati, he took the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff in 2021.
Fickell spoke Thursday about the “foundation” laid by Barry Alvarez, Bielema, Paul Chryst and Jim Leonard at Wisconsin. “It wasn’t like coming in in that first month and just blow things up and make a splash,” he said.
The preseason poll is high on what Fickell can do right off the bat with the Badgers. The 37 voters pegged Wisconsin to finish first in the Big Ten West, one point ahead of Iowa, with the Gophers coming in third. Illinois, Nebraska, Purdue and Northwestern round out the division, in that order.
Rhule, 48, had two 10-win seasons at Temple before taking Baylor from 1-11 in 2017 to 11-3 in 2019. Rhule then went 11-27 in two-plus seasons in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers before being fired in October.
Rhule spoke about the legacy left by legendary head coach Tom Osborne at Nebraska. “There was a time when Nebraska football was feared, and we certainly want to get back to that,” he said.
Fleck knows both Fickell and Rhule.
“Matt is a cultural guy, he runs a great culture and has had a lot of success wherever he has been in turning around programs,” Fleck said. “Then you throw in NFL experience. He’s not only one of the best coaches, I think he is one of the best people in the game. I’ve gotten to know him personally.”
Fleck’s first coaching job was as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006, when Fickell was in his sixth year as an assistant and serving then as the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
“Luke Fickell was a young assistant back at the time and you could just tell he was going to be something really special,” Fleck said. “He was going to move up really quick. (He is) really intelligent and has had a lot of experience coordinating and even being a head coach. Ton of success when he was at Cincinnati. …
“Obviously our rival, but you know he will do a great job.”
That Paul Bunyan’s Axe rivalry was immediately rekindled in Fickell’s first month in Madison last December when Fleck accused him of negatively recruiting Gophers signee Martin Owusu from Prior Lake.
Then this summer, the Gophers nabbed the No. 1 prospect out of the state of Wisconsin in offensive lineman Nathan Roy. The Badgers followed by getting a commitment from top state of Minnesota O-lineman Emerson Mandell of Irondale High School.
On the field this fall, the Gophers will have to contend with new coaching philosophies and offensive and defensive playing styles at nearly every Big Ten West school.
This includes “air-raid” offenses at Wisconsin and Purdue. Both Fickell and Walters are more defensive-centric coaches, but the Badgers hired Phil Longo as offensive coordinator and the Boilermakers named Graham Harrell as OC.
“It’s a lot of opportunity, man,” Gophers star safety Tyler Nubin said Thursday. “I think it is also a sea change. I don’t want to see the same offense four years in a row, you know what I mean? That gets kind of boring sometimes. It’s good to shake things up a little bit.”
Experience gaps
Big Ten West head coaches have a wide range of time on the job going into the 2023 season.
Head coach — overall years (years at current school):
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa — 25 (25)
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota — 11 (7)
Bret Bielema, Illinois — 15 (3)
Luke Fickell, Wisconsin — 8 (1)
Matt Rhule, Nebraska — 8 (1)
Ryan Walters, Purdue — 1 (1)
David Braun, Northwestern — 1 (1)

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