Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck and Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm share similarities in their career paths.
Both coaches had stints playing in the NFL, Fleck as a wide receiver and Brohm as a quarterback. Both started their coaching careers working with notable head coaches, Fleck at Ohio State with Jim Tressel and at Rutgers with Greg Schiano, and Brohm at Louisville with Bobby Petrino. Both coaches then took head coaching jobs at smaller schools and turned the teams into national contenders. Fleck guided Western Michigan to a 12-0 record in his final year before taking over at Minnesota, and Brohm coached Western Kentucky to a 11-3 record before accepting the head coaching job at Purdue.
Two years removed from being hired, their similarities end. The coaches have taken different approaches to building their programs.
When they were hired
Purdue hired Brohm after a treacherous 2016 season. The Boilermakers had just finished the season 3-9 and 1-8 in the Big Ten. They lost their final seven games of the year and fired their head coach Darrell Hazell after six games.
In 2017, Brohm's first year, Purdue finished 7-6 with a 4-5 record in the Big Ten — beating Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl. This year, the Boilermakers have beaten Ohio State and Iowa, two top-25 teams, and they are in contention for the Big Ten West title.
Fleck was hired during trying times for the Minnesota program after Tracy Claeys was fired following the 2016 season. The team was coming off a 8-4 season as well as a bowl victory against Washington State; however, off-field distractions involving suspensions in connection with a sexual assault scandal overshadowed those accomplishments. In his first two years, Fleck's record is 9-12, with a 3-12 Big Ten record.
Right away, Brohm preached success to the Purdue program. He believed that building a winner from day one was the right strategy moving forward, as early success would lead to better recruiting down the road — bringing a winning culture to a program that has seen little success in recent memory.
Fleck believed a change of culture was necessary for the program and emphasized the need to be patient. He often said the team would need to get younger before they could become more experienced and successful. Patience in his first two seasons, he said, showed a youth movement, especially on offense. This has been the key difference between Brohm and Fleck.
For the majority of the season, Purdue relied upon experienced players. They started only one freshman on offense, Rondale Moore, and one redshirt freshman on defense, Giovanni Reviere.
Fleck, whether by choice or necessity due to injuries and lack of depth, has relied more heavily on freshmen. Seven freshmen will start on offense Saturday and four will start on defense.
"What we had to do here, was either bring 18-20 junior college players to fix it or basically start over with a lot high school players ... we went the really high school route," said Fleck. "I got hired to do what is necessary to get to a certain destination ... and that's what I'm doing, and I'm proud of the way our young guys are playing."
The youth has shown itself, both good and bad throughout this year. Freshmen like Rashod Bateman, Mohamed Ibrahim and Daniel Faalele have excelled when asked to play. However, turnovers and inconsistency has hurt the team all year.
"We are making huge strides, but I think people just see the win and loss part, there's just a lot of things we have to fix as we continue to get better, continue to get older," said Fleck.
Purdue will lose six starters on offense next year, including quarterback David Blough and their two top running backs. Brohm has delivered his promise to the program to win early, and now it will be time to show that winning culture has helped recruiting and the development of underclassmen on the team.
Fleck's challenge will be to continue developing the younger players on the team. His hope is that all the playing time the young guys have had so far will help in the long run — making the program more successful for years to come.