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Lessons from PJ Fleck, UB needs to grow their alumni coaching tree

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

PJ Fleck, got his start in coaching as a GA at Ohio State in 2006. He got that position because one of his NIU coaches was a former roommate of Jim Tressel. The next year, his former head coach, Joe Novak, gave PJ his first full time coaching job, coaching receivers at NIU. That year Joe Novak retired, replaced by Jerry Kill who retained Fleck for two more years.

Without his NIU coaches helping Fleck get a GA position and an assistant position, Fleck may not be a head coach today.

UB Men's Basketball just showed the power of continuity. On their 3rd coach in 4 years, the Bulls were able to repeat as MAC Basketball Champions. Additionally, if Nate Oats does one day move on to greener pastures, Turner Battle would be a fan favorite to lead the Bulls. Battle, the leader of UB's first team to play in the MAC Basketball Championship in 2005, is now the Associate Head Coach at UAB.

UB Football meanwhile is on their 4th Head Coach since 2005. Unlike Basketball, UB Football has yet to promote a coach from within their staff, there have been 0 UB alumni FT coaches, and there has been no continuity. Outside of former Grad Assistants Obadiah Harris and Jeff Bublavi, and current GA Najja Johnson, UB has not developed alumni coaches.

In Football, there is no alum we can point to as the future coach of the Bulls. We cannot afford to take our alumni resources for granted, NIU is learning that lesson right now.

Fleck left NIU in 2010 for Rutgers, a move Fleck thought would help him become a head coach. His gamble worked in 2012 when Fleck accepted the Offensive Coordinator position at NIU, but a day later, he changed his mind, resigned from NIU and followed Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ultimately his NIU flip-flop cost Fleck his NIU dream job. NIU went to the Orange Bowl that year and Carey, who had been twice passed up for the OC job at NIU found himself as interim coach (PJ Fleck resigned, and the late Mike Dunbar stepped down to battle cancer).

A day after Doeren's move to North Carolina State, Carey was named NIU's head coach. If Fleck had stayed as NIU OC, that job would have probably been his. That said if NIU could do it again, I bet they would have called Fleck. It seems unlikely that Fleck was called by his alma mater, as 15 days later, Fleck took a job at Western Michigan, one of the bottom feeders of the MAC West.

We all know the rest of the story, after a rough first season, Fleck has turned the program around, and this year threatens to finish undefeated at WMU. NIU in the meantime has almost as many losses in their last 21 games (9-12) as they had in their previous 70 games (57-13).


The Bulls were built imperfectly, with the assumption that once a D-1 program was created, momentum would grow. PJ Fleck is 35, meaning he is the same age as the first freshmen recruited to play in UB's inaugural D-1 season. Unfortunately we have not followed the blueprint of the creators of our D-1 program, we have developed coaches from within, and as a result, our PJ Fleck is not ready to take our program to the next level.

There is hope, we have a good bunch of popular former Bulls who were skilled enough to play professionally, they could bring their experience and knowledge back to UB. Trevor Scott played under defensive guru Rob Ryan, Gemara Williams learned from Bill Belichick, Jamey Richard studied offenses with Peyton Manning. We have players like Drew Willy, Naaman Roosevelt and Ernest Jackson excelling in the innovative offenses of the CFL.

It's late, but not too late. Lance Leipold's hire of Najja Johnson, a UB alum who Lance never coached, is a great first step. However, for Lance's future, and for the future of the Bulls, he needs to go a step further and bring in a full time alum coach (or two) and help home-grow the UB coaching tree.