Updated 5:50 p.m.
P.J. Fleck strolled into his weekly news conference a half-hour late Tuesday after signing a seven-year, $33 million contract extension that could not have come soon enough for Gophers fans worried the fashionable University of Minnesota football coach would be lured away during an historic 2019 resurgence by the program.
Agreeing to terms that elevate his $4.6 million salary into the upper echelon of Big Ten coaches, Fleck now is under contract at Minnesota through 2026, pending approval by the Board of Regents at its December meeting.
Fleck is on the hook for a $10 million buyout if he were to leave in 2020, the first year of the extension. The buyout decreases in year two to $4.5 million, $3 million in years three and four and $2 million in years five and six.
Fleck, whose name emerged in media reports as a candidate for the Florida State job after coach Willie Taggart was fired Sunday, said he never considered leaving Minnesota after leading the No. 13-ranked Gophers in his third season to their first 8-0 start since 1941. On Saturday, his team will walk into the conference showdown with fifth-ranked Penn State, also 8-0, at TCF Bank Stadium.
He told reporters he was “extremely humbled, honored and appreciative” of the extension and the university’s faith in him. He also praised his wife Heather, his staff and players.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of young men, and they were huge in this decision,” said Fleck, 38. “A lot of times it’s easy for coaches to pick up and leave and go to other places. These are very, very special people, and I believe in what we can do here at the University of Minnesota because of them. It’s been in the works for a while. I’m just glad it’s finished and it’s done.”
Fleck signed a five-year, $18 million deal when he was hired in January 2017, and received one-year extensions in November 2017 and December 2018. Fleck’s $3.6 million salary this season ranks 37th among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision coaches and 11th out of 14 Big Ten coaches, according to USA Today. His pay raise next year includes $50,000 annual raises, the university said in a news release.
The deal also includes an additional $1.05 million to be divided among Fleck’s 10 on-field assistant coaches in 2020 and $200,000 more in 2021.
“The head coach is only as good as the people that work for him. Period,” Fleck said. “I have elite people. I couldn’t ask for a better group of young men, and they were huge in this decision. This is a very fun team, a very fun culture. It’s very different. But I love these young men. I love them as my own sons.”
Fleck said he encouraged his agent, Bryan Harlan, to secure an extension to quell any doubt about his commitment to Minnesota.
“Your name starts going out there and people start using that against you in recruiting, all these things that you can’t control,” he said. “At some point you have to say … ‘let’s get this thing done with.’ I just want to make sure our players understand that because they deserve that. They don’t deserve going through the next five weeks wondering whether their coach is going to be here when he knows he really wants to be here. It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to actually do it.”
Contract in the works since July
Fleck previously had a $4 million buyout to leave Minnesota in his original deal. Athletic director Mark Coyle, who said contract negotiations started in July during the Big Ten meeting in Chicago and accelerated during the team’s bye last week, acknowledged it was important for the university to increase the buyout terms for Fleck while guaranteeing him 65 percent of the contract’s value.
“We truly feel Minnesota is a destination program,” Coyle said. “I didn’t want to be a transitional program for any of our sports. I feel like we’ve got really good coaches in place. Obviously, in college football, with those buyouts, people pay attention to them. We feel like it’s an important step for our program. Obviously, we had a lot of conversations on both sides about the buyout, what we would guarantee to coach Fleck. We feel comfortable with that buyout number.”
Fleck has guided the Gophers to their first 5-0 start in the Big Ten since 1961. They hold a two-game lead on Wisconsin and Iowa in the Big Ten West and are positioned to reach the conference championship game Dec. 7 in Indianapolis, plus earn just their second New Year’s Day bowl appearance in the last 58 years.
The turnaround has been swift under Fleck’s command. Minnesota was 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten in 2017, his first season as head coach. The Gophers improved to 7-6 and 3-6 last season, defeating Georgia Tech, 34-10, in the Quick Lane Bowl. They have won 10 straight games dating to a Nov. 17, 2018, home loss to Northwestern.
“We’re sitting 8-0 right now. I think a lot of people are shocked by that. Our four walls are not shocked,” Fleck said. “We came here because we felt it was our mission, that we were called to it. We believe in our spiritual life and we feel we were called to do something. We’re putting that plan to work. We tell our players all the time there’s nothing you can’t achieve here. It’s going to take a strong commitment.”