It was “new coach introduction” day on the Big Ten Conference football teleconference last week.
Just as it seems to be every spring.
Three new coaches in 2015. Three more in ’16. Another fresh-faced trio for ’17.
“Yes, this is coach Brohm, Purdue University,” first-year Boilermakers leader Jeff Brohm said as he kicked off the two-hour chat-fest with reporters, sounding like the new kid in school.
“Thanks for having me and our program,” new Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck intoned at the beginning of his remarks 30 minutes later.
Kirk Ferentz was the contrast, so familiar to conference media members in his 19th season as Iowa’s head coach that he was asked as much about his son, Brian, as any other topic.
“I’m getting along fine with him and his mom (Mary) also, at least so far,” Ferentz chuckled when asked about his new offensive coordinator, who happens to be his oldest son. “But it’s like everything, we haven’t lost yet and we haven’t been stopped on a third down, at least where everyone can evaluate it. But those days are coming.”
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Ferentz, 61, is the dean of Big Ten coaches, outlasting dozens of his peers. He has been a constant in a constantly shifting landscape, producing an 82-63 league record and 14 bowl appearances in his 18 seasons at the helm.
This year, Ferentz will match up with Brohm, 45, and Fleck, 36, for the first time, both games in Iowa City. Indiana, under new coach Tom Allen, is not on Iowa’s schedule.
Two years ago, border rivals Wisconsin (Paul Chryst) and Nebraska (Mike Riley) turned to new coaches, both falling to the Hawkeyes. Michigan, under Jim Harbaugh, didn’t play Iowa that year, but came to Kinnick Stadium as heavy favorites last fall and lost on a last-second field goal.
That makes Ferentz 5-for-5 the past two years when squaring off for the first time with a Big Ten team under new leadership.
So, what did we learn last week about the up-and-coming coaches who will test Ferentz and his team this fall?
The Gophers come to Iowa City on Oct. 28 for Fleck’s initiation to the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry. Iowa owns the porcine trophy by virtue of a 14-7 win in Minneapolis last year, when Tracy Claeys was on the opposing sideline.
Fleck came aboard in the winter after engineering a stunning four-year turnaround at Western Michigan. The Broncos were 1-11 in his debut season, 13-1 last fall, when the coach made “Row the Boat” a national catchphrase. It’s a mantra he adopted after the 2011 death of his son, Colt, Fleck has explained.
Fleck is gregarious and social media-friendly, Harbaugh-esque in his approach to his job if not yet in his national cachet.
His first Gophers team has been ransacked by injury and player defections. Fleck said there were “close to 22 offseason surgeries” among his players.
That has made this spring particularly challenging. There was a stretch in which Minnesota had only four healthy offensive linemen, forcing Fleck to turn team training periods into walk-throughs at that position. He even had a makeshift seven-on-seven scrimmage to help with the evaluation of his skill position players.
Minnesota, 9-4 a year ago, is searching for a new quarterback. No receiver on the roster has more than 18 career catches. The number of available bodies was so low that Fleck planned to turn Saturday’s spring game into a glorified series of drills, with a running clock.
Fleck shrugged that all off with an earnestly rosy outlook, turning a question about his quarterbacks into praise for his running backs (“absolute superstars as people”).
“Everything that these young men are coming in contact with right now is completely different for them,” Fleck said of the culture he’s trying to instill.
He admitted that his style is not the norm. Asked about a pair of new assistant coaches he hired, Fleck explained why he seeks people that he already knows.
“It’s very unique. It’s very different,” he said of working with him.
“And I’m not for everybody.”
Purdue is Iowa’s last visitor this fall, heading west for a Nov. 18 Kinnick finale. The Hawkeyes ran out to a big lead last year in West Lafayette, Ind., and earned a 49-35 victory that prompted the firing of Darrell Hazell.
In the offseason, the Boilermakers turned to Brohm, who had gone 30-10 in three seasons at Western Kentucky. A former quarterback at Louisville, Brohm had a vagabond NFL career and even spent one season coaching an arena team. So he’s getting his BCS break a little later in life.
But the Kentucky native said last week that he is eager to try to resurrect a moribund Purdue program. There were plenty of advisers telling him to wait for a better major-college opportunity, Brohm said.
“When you’re having a little bit of success and you’re in a comfortable spot and you’ve got a lot of people telling you just to wait for that great job to come about where you can kind of fill in and have everything around you, that’s appealing and great,” Brohm said. “But for some reason, the ability to go to a program that needs direction, that needs some visible help, that needs some energy and some excitement and something to spice it up to try to help it win, the challenge of it was appealing to me.
“I also think that this program is hungry for change, and the people in town and on campus are hungry for some success and they are showing some investment.”
True, Purdue is building a new practice facility. And in junior David Blough, Brohm inherits a quarterback who has passed for 4,926 yards and 35 touchdowns the past two seasons.
But the Boilermakers are also bereft of wide receivers and in need of defensive help after being bludgeoned in a 3-9 season last fall.
Brohm’s plan is to heavily recruit a three- to four-hour radius around Purdue, hoping to compete in the big cities of Chicago and Detroit. In the meantime, he has two junior-college transfers and another graduate transfer coming in this summer to boost the receiving corps.
“I still have concerns about that position. It’s not where we need it to be and it’s not the strength of our team,” Brohm said after his first spring practices wrapped up. “We need to find some playmakers. We need to feel comfortable utilizing them.”