The University of Minnesota was closing in on a deal Thursday night to bring Western Michigan football coach P.J. Fleck to the Gophers, with an eye toward a Friday announcement, but the contract had yet to be finalized, according to people familiar with the situation.
Meanwhile, an interesting Plan B had emerged for Minnesota.
Former LSU coach Les Miles flew to Minnesota on Wednesday and had meetings with university officials that stretched into Thursday. The Miles visit was first reported by Michael Kim of 120Sports.com, and later confirmed for the Star Tribune by two people familiar with the situation.
By Thursday night, signs pointed toward the Gophers hiring Fleck, but Miles loomed as a legitimate fallback option. The 63-year-old Miles won a national championship for LSU in 2007 but was fired in September, four games into his 12th season in Baton Rouge, La., despite a 114-34 record with the Tigers.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle fired Tracy Claeys on Tuesday and warned that the coaching search “is going to feel like an eternity because we need to find the right person.”
Day 2 of the search featured a swirl of online reports, mostly centered on Fleck, whose name has come up in other searches this season, namely at Oregon and Purdue.
Fleck, 36, took over Western Michigan’s program four years ago and went 1-11 in his first season. This season, the Broncos had a storybook 13-0 start before losing to Wisconsin 24-16 in the Cotton Bowl on Monday.
Fleck made $800,000 this season, but he and Western Michigan reportedly had been negotiating a lucrative contract extension. One source told the Star Tribune that if the Gophers did hire Fleck, it likely would take a deal richer than the six-year, $20 million deal that Purdue recently gave Jeff Brohm. Another source said Minnesota made it known that its ceiling for the salary was $3.5 million per year.
Forbes reported the average Big Ten salary last season was $3.52 million, inflated by the megadeals of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh ($9 million salary, according to USA Today) and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (over $6 million).
Claeys was one of the lowest-paid coaches in a major conference, making $1.4 million. He had two years and $3.1 million remaining on his contract, but the university instead paid him a $500,000 buyout.
Miles was making $4.3 million this season at LSU, and when the school fired him it agreed to pay a $12.9 million buyout. That amount would be reduced if Miles takes another job. His name surfaced during recent coaching searches at Purdue and Houston.
In late November, he told the Detroit News he wasn’t sure if he’d be back coaching by next season.
“I have no idea; I have to be honest,” Miles told the newspaper. “I can tell you this: I’m looking for a school, an AD, a president that wants to invest in their kids and lock arms and go win a championship.”
When Coyle was the AD at Boise State in 2013, he hired Bryan Harsin to replace Chris Petersen, who’d left for Washington. That led to speculation that Coyle might consider Harsin to replace Claeys, but current Boise State AD Curt Apsey dismissed that possibility in a radio interview Thursday.
“In my opinion, he is not interested in the opportunity at Minnesota, he’s interested in being the coach at Boise State,” Apsey told KTIK-FM in Boise.
As of Thursday night, Coyle appeared to have his sights trained on Fleck, with Miles just a phone call away.