Iowa's two new rival coaches P.J. Fleck, Jeff Brohm present stark contrast in styles

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

CHICAGO — On the printed page, they come across as just another pair of strident football coaches, talking about “culture” and “challenges” and the long road ahead.

It’s in person that the two newest leaders in the Big Ten West diverge sharply.

Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck has the staccato cadence of a pitchman on a late-night infomercial, equal parts exhilarating and exhausting to behold.

Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, a decade older, lays out his vision methodically, with barely an inflection in his slight Kentucky drawl.

Purdue head football coach Jeff Brohm, left, and Minnesota head football head coach P.J. Fleck speak at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago on Monday, July 24, 2017.

The two men made their debut before the Big Ten media here Tuesday morning, and it was clear they have much in common — from their 30 career victories at smaller schools (Fleck at Western Michigan, Brohm at Western Kentucky) to the holes in the rosters they inherited at their new jobs.

Both will also make their first trip to face Iowa at Kinnick Stadium this fall — Fleck on Oct. 28, Brohm for the Hawkeyes’ Nov. 18 home finale.

What did we learn Tuesday, about the men and their teams?

Go-go Gopher

Fleck, 36, entered a delicate situation after the dismissal of Tracy Claeys, whose lone year as Minnesota head coach produced a 9-4 record but also a sexual-assault investigation that led to the suspensions of 10 players. Claeys stood by the players. The players stood by him, threatening a boycott at one point. That didn’t end well.

Fleck took the job in January and didn’t tiptoe around the circumstances. He met with his players and admitted that he’s an acquired taste.

“I said, ‘Guys, you did not pick me. This is not your fault that I’m a new head football coach in front of you,’” Fleck recalled. “I said, ‘I picked you. It’s my job to prove to you that this fits you.’ ”

Spring practices found the Gophers with 22 sidelined players, the result of offseason surgeries. That has left Fleck feeling like he really doesn’t know what he has at hand, heading into summer camp. He likes his linebacking corps, but not his defensive line. He has two talented running backs in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, but no quarterback.

While roster decisions were put on hold, Fleck busied himself acquiring his “Row the Boat” trademark from Western Michigan. He is the subject of a reality TV show to air on ESPNU called “Being P.J. Fleck.”

“One thing I am hired to do is bring national exposure — national attention — to the University of Minnesota. And that's what we're going to do,” Fleck said.

“I think every head football coach in America is self-promoting at some point. We're all selling ourselves and showing what we're like and recruiting our cultures and developing our cultures.”

As for the essence of that culture, Fleck said it’s about succeeding with underdogs, which is what he was. A 5-foot-10 wide receiver at Northern Illinois, Fleck scrapped his way into one NFL game with the San Francisco 49ers before his career was ended by injury.

“I’m the king of the ‘toos,’” Fleck said. “Too small, too short, too inexperienced, too young, whatever. That’s who we are.

“The only thing we can control is us. If you have elite people, they will eventually win.”

Can-do at Purdue

Brohm, 46, got his chance in a more traditional way — because a previous coach had failed miserably. Darrell Hazell had a 9-33 record in four seasons when he was fired after an embarrassing home loss to Iowa in October.

It was a dispirited group of Boilermakers that confronted Brohm when he arrived in December. Morale was the first thing he needed to address.

“They’ve heard enough negative talk about them for the last so many years. They’re looking forward to getting out there and seeing if they can improve,” Brohm said.

“I try to be a player's coach. … What I want to try to do is provide an environment where our guys enjoy coming over in the building — not only going to work on football, but also doing a little bit extra each and every day.”

That will be an easier sell when Purdue’s $65 million football performance complex is complete. Brohm said having that facility on the drawing board has made it easier on the recruiting trail as well.

He’s making the state’s largest city, Indianapolis, a priority again on that trail. Purdue is even playing Louisville at the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium. A neutral-site game like that might remain a fixture for Purdue, Brohm said.

Still, he knows none of that will matter if he can’t excite a dormant fan base with a better brand of football. Brohm is considered an offensive innovator. His Hilltoppers averaged 45.5 points per game last season.

Brohm will have a backfield capable of some razzle-dazzle this fall, but little else. Quarterback David Blough is tested in the Big Ten and accompanied by a handful of quality tailbacks. But the offensive line is in flux, and the wide receiver corps is so depleted that Brohm has brought in eight transfers this offseason in an attempt to find somebody who can provide an outside threat.

Purdue’s defense — not exactly a stellar unit last year — is the strength of the team for now — especially at linebacker. Stopping the run will be its primary focus, Brohm said.

Brohm seemed nonplussed by the reality of his situation. He knows that losses are coming, but wants to focus on helping his players forge a better response.

“How you handle the losses? How you handle some setbacks? How you improve each and every week is going to be vital,” Brohm said. “But I think we have a plan for it — for us, it’s a one-game mentality: How can we work our tail off to win this game?”