Row the boat: Minnesota officially announces P.J. Fleck as next head football coach

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AP

Row the boat: Minnesota officially announces P.J. Fleck as next head football coach

P.J. Fleck has rowed his boat to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Minnesota officially announced Friday morning that Fleck is the new Gophers football coach.

Fleck, who spent the past four seasons turning Western Michigan from a one-win team into a 13-win team and MAC champion, succeeds Tracy Claeys, who was fired earlier this week.

"It's an honor to coach at Minnesota and be part of the Big Ten conference," Fleck said in the announcement. "I want to thank president Eric Kaler, athletic director Mark Coyle and the Board of Regents for this opportunity. I also want to thank Western Michigan, my players and the great fans and city of Kalamazoo for a wonderful four years.

"I look forward to meeting my new players and getting to know them as quickly as possible. I am excited to put together a staff and turn my efforts to recruiting, but also want Gopher fans to know that my wife, Heather, and I and our four children will be visible in the community and we are eager to connect with them. I am ready to go. Ski-U-Mah!"

Fleck is known as much for his personality as he is for the winning he did with the Broncos. Young and energetic, Fleck is famous for his motivational catch phrases, chiefly "row the boat." His pregame speeches are often played on ESPN, and his highlight reel includes him leaping all over the place with his players and suiting up in uniform and participating in Oklahoma drills.

Fleck is a Midwestern guy, a native of Sugar Grove, Ill. — a product of Kaneland High School — who played his college ball at Northern Illinois. He returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach under former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, the current Rutgers offensive coordinator, before spending three years as an assistant to Greg Schiano, the current Ohio State defensive coordinator, both at Rutgers and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While the program is hardly on solid footing at the moment, it's hard to imagine that Fleck won't be able to energize the fan base, players and recruits out of the doldrums that exist in the wake of Claeys' firing. Claeys was let go after his first full season by first-year athletics director Coyle in the fallout of a player boycott. Players took that action, albeit brief, after a university investigation into a sexual assault resulted in the suspensions of 10 of their teammates. While the players believed they were standing up for wrongly punished teammates — a police investigation into the same incident yielded no charges in the fall — they did so without reading the university's investigative report and quickly ended their boycott once they did. The public strongly disagreed with the group action, one Claeys supported. Those 10 suspended players face expulsions and varying degrees of suspensions.

On the field, Minnesota was experiencing rare program success under Claeys and Kill. The Gophers have won eight or more games in three of the past four seasons, and this year's nine-win finish was the first since 2003 and just the eighth in program history.

Fleck worked wonders at Western Michigan, posting a 33-20 record in four seasons. After a 1-11 record in Year 1, he won eight games in each of the next two seasons before this 13-1 campaign that ended in a MAC championship and a trip to a New Year's Six bowl game. Coincidentally, Western Michigan lost the Cotton Bowl to Minnesota's biggest rival, Wisconsin.

Players and Kill have sounded off on the administration's handling of the past several weeks and blasted it over Claeys' firing. But it would be hard to see Fleck not changing their minds.

"P.J. is a proven winner and a strong leader. He's built a unique, positive culture that gets the best out of his students on the field and in the classroom," Coyle said in the announcement. "His infectious energy and passion make him a terrific coach and dynamic recruiter. I am excited he will be leading the Gophers for years to come."

Fleck was one of the hottest coaching candidates around this offseason, though he didn't land at any of the bigger-name programs that had head-coaching vacancies. It's a great get for Minnesota and hardly a job to settle for for Fleck. Any Big Ten job is a great one given the ample resources and national stage that come as being a part of the program. Plus, Fleck is coaching in the Big Ten West, which typically offers a much easier path to the league title game than the loaded Big Ten East.

Fleck joins a crazy roster of coaches in that division, though. Illinois' Lovie Smith, Iowa' Kirk Ferentz, Nebraska's Mike Riley, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Purdue's Jeff Brohm and Wisconsin's Paul Chryst are his new competition, not to mention Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Penn State's James Franklin in the other division.

Big Ten reportedly talking about expanding conference basketball schedule

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USA TODAY

Big Ten reportedly talking about expanding conference basketball schedule

Conference play could be getting a bit longer in the Big Ten.

According to a Monday report from ESPN's Jeff Goodman, there are talks about expanding the Big Ten conference basketball schedule from 18 games to 20 games.

Commissioner Jim Delany told Goodman that while there hasn't been a vote among the league's coaches yet, there are ongoing discussions about lengthening conference play by a couple of games.

Conference play expanded a decade ago, when the number of league games jumped from 16 to 18 for the 2007-08 season.

In order for there to be enough days in between games for players, an expanded league schedule would mean the beginning of conference play coming earlier in December. Recently, conference play has typically started around New Year's. Of course, there will be a week earlier start to conference play this season with the Big Ten Tournament — at Madison Square Garden in New York — a week earlier than usual, wrapping a full week before Selection Sunday.

Similar moves have been made in football, with the Big Ten starting a nine-game conference slate last fall. It's meant league games in September — a no-no in the past — and this season will feature a conference matchup in the season's first week, when Indiana and Ohio State play on Aug. 31.

Expanding conference play in college basketball would have a similar effect as it has had on schedules in football. With fewer non-conference slots to fill, those games become more important to a team's NCAA tournament resume. It forces teams to schedule more high-profile opponents and eliminate games against small schools that generate little interest during the season's first couple months.

The ACC, a league that often runs neck and neck with the Big Ten in the debate over which is America's top basketball conference, announced it will be moving to a 20-game schedule last July, with that starting in the 2019-20 season.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo shared some thoughts on the subject with Goodman, saying he expects the move to happen.

"I personally see us going to a 20-game schedule," Izzo told Goodman. "I don't think there's any question it's going to happen — and I'm not overly against it."

Ohio State has its new head coach in Butler's Chris Holtmann

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USA TODAY

Ohio State has its new head coach in Butler's Chris Holtmann

Ohio State found its next head basketball coach, going to one of Thad Matta's former employers to find the longtime coach's successor.

The school announced Friday morning that Butler head coach Chris Holtmann is the Buckeyes' new head coach.

Holtmann spent the past three seasons as the head coach at Butler, posting a 70-31 record and making NCAA tournament appearances in all three of those seasons, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in March. He was named the Big East Coach of the Year this past season.

Holtmann spent two seasons as an assistant at Ohio under former Illinois head coach John Groce, a former Matta assistant, before serving as the head coach at Gardner-Webb for three seasons. Holtmann left Gardner-Webb for an assistant-coaching job at Butler, though he was quickly promoted to interim head coach and then head coach in Indianapolis.

Holtmann takes over for Matta, who himself was the Butler head coach in the 2000-01 season before becoming the all-time wins leader at Ohio State. Matta's mostly successful tenure was ended earlier this week, when athletics director Gene Smith saw recruiting misses teaming with declining win totals to create a dip in Matta's success.

This week has been dominated by rumors and declarations of lack of interest from numerous candidates and possible candidates for the job. Xavier head coach Chris Mack and Creighton head coach Greg McDermott both made their decisions to stay at their current schools known via social media, and a report linking Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg to the job forced a no-interest comment from Hoiberg, too.

Despite those repeated "no thank yous," though, Ohio State is still seen to be one of the best jobs in college basketball thanks to one of the highest-profile athletics departments and one of the best conferences in the country, providing ample resources.

Recruiting will be a big expectation for Holtmann, as Matta's performance in that area dipped near the end of his tenure. The Buckeyes missed the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons, while Holtmann just took Butler to a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance, the highest in that program's history.