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.

Three Buckeyes, two Wolverines, two Badgers picked in NFL Draft's first round

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USA TODAY

Three Buckeyes, two Wolverines, two Badgers picked in NFL Draft's first round

After four Big Ten players were picked in the first round last year, it took a little while longer for the Big Ten train to leave the station in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft on Thursday night.

But in the end, seven players from the conference were selected in the opening 32 picks.

Ohio State's defensive secondary had the best night, with three Buckeyes defensive backs selected in the first round. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore was the highest Big Ten product chosen, selected by the New Orleans Saints with the No. 11 pick. Four picks later, safety Malik Hooker went to the Indianapolis Colts at No. 15. And cornerback Gareon Conley was taken with by the Oakland Raiders with the No. 24 pick.

A pair of Michigan defenders also heard their names Thursday night. Do-it-all star Jabrill Peppers, who's expected to settle in at safety in the pros, was picked by the Cleveland Browns at No. 25. Defensive lineman Taco Charlton went to the Dallas Cowboys with the No. 28 choice.

Wisconsin wrapped up the Big Ten's first-round contingent with two of the final three picks of the night. Linebacker T.J. Watt went to the Pittsburgh Steelers with the No. 30 selection, and offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk was the No. 32 pick, heading to the Saints.

Only the SEC, with 12, had more players selected than the Big Ten.

Though not a surprise, one item of note was the Big Ten's first-round quarterback drought stretching another year. The last Big Ten quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL Draft was Kerry Collins, picked out of Penn State with the No. 5 selection in 1995.

Illini coach Brad Underwood on Mark Smith: 'First time I watched him, he reminded me of Deron Williams'

Illini coach Brad Underwood on Mark Smith: 'First time I watched him, he reminded me of Deron Williams'

Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman wanted to rekindle the glory days of Illini basketball when he made a coaching change last month, replacing John Groce with Brad Underwood.

Well, in a move that Groce rarely pulled off during his five-year tenure in Champaign, Underwood scored a huge recruiting win right out of the gates on Wednesday, when the state's Mr. Basketball, Mark Smith of Edwardsville High School, announced he'd be signing with Illinois.

The four-star recruit who earned his title of the best boys basketball player in the Land of Lincoln this past season generated a ton of excitement across the Illinois fan base, and the obviously excited Underwood is already using language sure to bring back the same kind of feeling that accompanied those aforementioned glory days.

"He's an explosive athlete. He's a very gifted athlete," Underwood said of his newest signee when speaking with reporters Thursday in Champaign. "First time I watched him, he reminded me a little bit of a former (Illinois) player, Deron Williams, but probably a better shooter at the same time at this point their careers."

Oh really, coach?

When a recruit of this magnitude — Smith is ranked as the No. 52 player in this year's class by Rivals — signs up with a team, fans are unsurprisingly amped. But comparing Smith to one of the program's all-time greats, a player who was perhaps the best on the team that reached the 2005 national title game, is sure to stir folks up even more.

While any comparisons to NBA All Stars and Olympic gold medalists might be considered a tad hyperbolic, there's no doubting that Smith is a sensational athlete and that he's a huge get for the Illini, someone who could make an instant impact in Underwood's first season.

"Some people have labeled Mark a specialist, a shooter. I don't see him as that at all. I think he's a great playmaker. I think he's a guy that can play the point and be a tremendous asset because he makes his teammates better," Underwood said. "He does whatever is needed in the course of a game. If that's scoring, he's going to score. If the defense loads to him, he's an extremely high-IQ player, he's got great feel, he's got great instincts.

"And physically he's in a position to play right away. Everybody's seen his body type, and he's a strong athlete. Usually freshmen have to develop physically. Mark doesn't. Mark's dialed in there and a very strong young man. But his skill set is very unique, and he's very well rounded in all aspects."

While the kind of athlete Smith is and his on-court prowess will be how most fans and observers judge him, his decision to play at Illinois is big for two other reasons.

First, a new head coach rarely gets to pick his first crop of players. Underwood will start his tenure at Illinois with a roster comprised mostly of Groce's recruits, including a pair of incoming freshmen in Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams, four-star guards in their own right. But, while Smith was being courted by Illinois prior to the coaching change, Underwood is the one who Smith committed to, and Underwood can count Smith as his first import to this program.

That means shaping his program's culture as much as it does shaping its style of play.

"In every way," Underwood said when asked how Smith works with the program he's trying to build. "Character wins. Yes, you have to be a very good player, there's no doubt about that. But character and the culture — he's got tremendous leadership. And I think that was evidenced at his press conference yesterday and how many people showed up and former teammates. That's a tremendous trait. Not everybody can pull that off. People are drawn to him, he's got that personality about him.

"He loves his teammates here. He's talked about that at length already and his relationships. That's exciting because that's a young man who's going to fit in well. We want to build our program around young men who win off the court just as much as they win on the court."

Second, Smith is a big in-state recruit. As mentioned, that's not something Groce could claim a lot of success in attracting. He missed out on a lot of Illinois' finest high school basketball products, famously losing close battles for the services of Jalen Brunson and Cliff Alexander. Groce's program didn't even come close on others, like stars Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, who both played for Chicago native Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

Landing Smith, the best player in Illinois if you go by his Mr. Basketball title, gives Underwood a win in one of the main categories fans care most about: recruiting the state.

"I think the lifeblood of our program is recruiting. And to be able to get Mr. Basketball in this state? We should," Underwood said. "We've got to be the option. Not just an option, we've got to be the option. We're the University of Illinois, and we've got one of the proudest, most dynamic histories. We've got a great tradition, we've got a great fan base.

"I think it speaks volumes, and I'm excited about that. I think it's something we can continue to build on, and it sure beats the alternative of not getting him."