Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck is good television, something ESPN has known for a while.
In his previous gig coaching at Western Michigan, Fleck made several appearances on the network last season with his locker room speeches and celebrations — including his signature “Row the Boat” mantra — making reliably compelling video to play on studio shows, in addition to before and during Broncos football games. The coach even went through the Bristol car wash last October, appearing on several ESPN shows.
Now that Fleck is coaching a Power 5 conference school, moving up from the MAC to the Big Ten, ESPN is reportedly interested in following the coach around even more. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune‘s Joe Christensen reports that the Gophers football program is in discussions with a production company about making a behind-the-scenes series during the upcoming season.
The four-part show would be distributed to ESPN or another network, but it certainly sounds as if ESPN wants the series. According to 1500 ESPN’s Phil Mackey, the network is opting for Fleck and the Gophers over national champion Clemson.
Heard last night ESPN will to run a multi-part feature on P.J. Fleck and the Gophers in the coming weeks/months. Picked Gophs over Clemson
— Phil Mackey (@PhilMackey) April 6, 2017
That decision seems surprising, but perhaps speaks to how highly ESPN regards Fleck. It’s also entirely possible that Minnesota was willing to allow more access for a behind-the-scenes series. The Gophers program could use the (presumably positive) attention competing in a conference with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State nationally, in addition to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern in the Big Ten West division, and Fleck’s personality and profile is just what Minnesota needs to stand out from that pack.
But the football program also needs all the good publicity it can get to distance itself from the end of last season, which was filled with controversy. Ten Gpphers were suspended in connection with a sexual assault allegation. That led to a two-day player boycott before the Holiday Bowl, which then-head coach Tracy Claeys publicly supported. That didn’t make school and athletic department leaders happy, and Claeys was fired in early January.
All of that seems like a distant memory, however, thanks largely to the force of Fleck’s personality. Prominent college football programs like Notre Dame and Florida State have taken part in behind-the-scenes series for Showtime, and Ohio State and Michigan State have allowed that sort of access for shows on Big Ten Network. But neither of those programs had a coach like Fleck to follow, which may be why ESPN decided it was finally time to get into this space.