Latest coaching opening has Gophers’ PJ Fleck linked to USC

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck during a Big Ten conference football game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Iowa Hawkeyes on November 16, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa.  (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire / Getty Images)

It’s not a University of Minnesota football season without PJ Fleck being linked to another head coaching job.

Last year, Gophers’ fans were sent in a frenzy after reports emerged that the University of Tennessee had reached out to Fleck about their opening. Fleck’s representation had initial conversations with the Volunteers before they hired Josh Heupel.

The latest steam emerged Monday afternoon, when USC fired Clay Helton after a 42-24 loss to Stanford. Helton went 46-24 with the Trojans and was in his seventh season. Within a few hours, names started to emerge for Helton’s replacement. Pete Thamel, a national college football writer with Yahoo Sports, has Fleck among 10 candidates to replace Helton at USC. Is he a top candidate? No. Would it be a surprise if USC at least took a look at Fleck, or even reached out? Also no.

Fleck is in his fifth season at Minnesota, and has made it clear he wants to turn the Gophers into a national brand. They were on their way after a historic win over Penn State in 2019. Then, after beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Fleck’s ability to recruit, and a $4.5 million buyout could be something USC looks at.

The top candidates to replace Helton? Most likely James Franklin, Luke Fickell, Mario Cristobal or even Bob Stoops.

A gentle reminder now to Minnesota fans who want Fleck and his "Row the Boat" culture to stay in Minnesota: There hasn’t been a coach to leave the Gophers for another job since Lou Holtz. Since then, John Gutekunst, Jim Wacker, Glen Mason, Tim Brewster, Jeff Horton, Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys were all either fired or stepped down. Kill had to resign for medical reasons, and Claeys was fired after a 9-4 season and near boycott of a bowl game.

Fleck was not asked about USC at his weekly radio show on KFAN on Tuesday. The reality is he’s not going anywhere, unless USC strikes out on their top candidates and throws him an offer he can’t refuse. It’s not something to lose sleep over.


The Gophers head to Colorado Saturday for a rare non-conference game against a Power Five opponent. Fleck is hoping his top receiver, Chris Autman-Bell, is back. For the second straight week, Autman-Bell warmed up in pads before Minnesota beat Miami (Ohio), then walked out before kickoff in street clothes.

Fleck said Autman-Bell practiced on Tuesday, and has practiced for the last week. His status for Saturday is ultimately between Autman-Bell and the trainers. Without him, Dylan Wright leads the Gophers in receiving with eight catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Daniel Jackson has seven catches for 88 yards and one score.

"When 7 is out there he brings his element to the game, and he’s been working hard each and every day to get himself a chance to play," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "If he’s able to play, obviously it’s going to be awesome just to play football with him again."’

Fleck had other good injury news on Jordan Howden and Wright. Howden dressed, but didn’t play against the Redhawks after suffering an injury against Ohio State. He practiced Tuesday and is expected to play at Colorado. Michael Dixon played in his absence, and made seven tackles. Wright got hurt after taking a hard hit trying to catch a pass in double coverage. Fleck said he’s fine, and will play Saturday.


The Gophers’ defense had enough issues stopping the run last season that Fleck went to the transfer portal to fill a few needs. One of them is at linebacker, with Abilene Christian transfer Jack Gibbens.

Through two games, Gibbens is second on the defense with 10 tackles, one tackle for loss and a quarterback hit. He trails only his linebacker teammate Mariano Sori-Marin, who has 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one pass break-up.

"Jack is a great linebacker, he’s a great leader, great teammate and friend. He’s taught me a lot of things, whether it be physicality, leadership," Sori-Marin said. "Having Jack out there is a blessing."

Minnesota (1-1) and Colorado (1-1) kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday.