O'Donnell: Minnesota's P.J. Fleck could make big week even happier by reconciling with NIU mentor Joe Novak

  • Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck has the Gophers 8-0 and just signed a contract extension. He got his start in college football thanks to Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak.

    Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck has the Gophers 8-0 and just signed a contract extension. He got his start in college football thanks to Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak. Associated Press

  • Former NIU coach Joe Novak was a mentor to P.J. Fleck.

    Former NIU coach Joe Novak was a mentor to P.J. Fleck. NIU Media Services

Updated 11/6/2019 7:24 PM

P.J. FLECK IS IN THE MIDST of what could be one of the greatest weeks of his life.

On Tuesday, the Northern Illinois grad (Class of '04) signed a $33 million contract extension to stay on as head football coach at Minnesota through 2026.


On Saturday, his unbeaten Golden Gophers (8-0) will host ominous Penn State (8-0) in what could prove to be a landmark game for Fleck's career (ABC, 11 a.m., Sean McDonough, Todd Blackledge).

The Gophers have not been 8-0 since 1941.

If Fleck's flock flashes to victory -- even with Penn State a 6½-point favorite -- his stock on a Minnesota scale rises up somewhere toward Prince, Dairy Queen and Babe the Blue Ox.

Now, if only the 38-year-old rocket man would make one conciliatory phone call.

That would be to Joe Novak, the NIU head coach who gave the small and slow son of an exterminator from west exurban Sugar Grove a chance as a wide receiver not all that many years ago.

"We haven't communicated in a couple of years," Novak, 74, told The Daily Herald.

"It's unfortunate.

"The Big Ten Network did a four-part series on him when he took the (Minnesota) job and sent a crew down to interview me about him.

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"They filmed for about 90 minutes and used one 30-second sound byte from me in the whole thing.

"And in that byte I said, 'I wish he'd tone down the rhetoric.'

"That was it. None of the good things I said made the final cut. And what was left in wasn't all that negative.

"I meant what I said and what I meant was that all the gimmickry and flashiness that he used after he left my staff to get the head job at Western Michigan and then Minnesota could be put away now.

"Now the fact that he can coach and that he can recruit at a very high level can be the main focus.

"But P.J. sent a pretty direct response voicing his unhappiness with me and I, knowing me, declined to respond.

"You get to that level and you've got new people in your ear.

"So, that's been it."

And that is extremely unfortunate.


Because without Novak's keen instincts, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Fleck would probably never had gotten an opportunity to climb the gilded ladder that has led to Saturday's national showcase.

Fleck had a star career at Kaneland High School in Maple Park, including a 100-reception season his senior year.

But colleges weren't beating the bramble to the threshold of the prairie.

Then, at a summer football camp in DeKalb, Novak took note of the ferocious tynamo.

"We did drills on AstroTurf and I noticed this kid refusing to quit on anything.

"He dove to catch balls. He dove to try and catch balls he had no chance of catching.

"His knees were skinned raw by the AstroTurf.

"And P.J. kept flying all over.

"I later told my assistants, 'I'm gonna offer that kid a scholarship.'

"And they all told me I was crazy.

"But I did."

Fleck starred as Novak's Huskies soared, absolutely defying all odds by beating Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State in 2003.

He continued to defy probabilities through a two-year run with the San Francisco 49ers, a year as a graduate assistant under Jim Tressel at Ohio State and then a return to NIU as Novak's wide receivers coach and later recruiting coordinator.

Saturday, disconnected and distanced at his coastal home in North Carolina, Novak will continue to root for his protégé.

"That's not going to change," the Northern star said.

"I'd love to see P.J. go 13-0 and wind up in the (College Football Playoff).

"He's an unbelievable competitor.

"And as far as him and me, who knows?"

STREET-BEATIN': Who "won" the Khalil Mack trade gets more new evidence for consideration Thursday night when Jon Gruden's improving Oakland hosts the Chargers (Fox, 7:20 p.m., Joe Buck, Troy Aikman; also Amazon Prime). RB Josh Jacobs -- part of Gruden's get from the Mack maneuver -- has already broken Marcus Allen's rookie rushing record for the Raiders. … The Bulls announced the first scroll of fill-in TV play-by-play people for the season's opening two months, and it includes Adam Amin, Jason Benetti, Lisa Byington, JB Long and Mark Schanowski. Out of that field, the Addison-bred Amin would be the post-time favorite to land the full-time job next year. … Speaking of the Bulls, the team's flat start is simply compass-less continuation from last season and more caveat to Jim Boylen to be careful what you wish for. Trading Zach LaVine pronto would be a step in the right direction, like losing Gar Forman on a baggage carousel at O'Hare. … Really grand idea to waste two gold-sealed college basketball matchups on a rusty first Tuesday night in November with Duke-Kansas and Kentucky-Michigan State. Only Bill Self's sanction-bound Jayhawks shot better than 40 percent and they turned the ball over 28 times. … Adding free agent Madison Bumgarner to the White Sox evolving rotation would be perceived as a major sign that the cone of competitiveness has returned to West 35th Street. His smarts could only accelerate the development of Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech and the chattiness of Steve Stone. … Condolences to Tom Thayer on the passing of his mother, Ann Thayer. Besides seeing her son's long run from Notre Dame to George Allen's Blitz to Super Bowl XX to the Bears broadcast booth, Mrs. Thayer, 85, was also a culinary icon in Joliet as the creative force behind Thayer Bros. Deli & Grille. … Telegenic Anthony Herron continues to impress as a Bears contributor on WFLD-Channel 32. With a bit of coach-up -- and more consistently conservative socks -- the Bolingbrook native would be an intriguingly fresh presence as the flatlining station's No. 1 sports anchor. … Paging Nelson Burton Jr.: Fox's coverage of "The PBA Clash" drew 1.4 million viewers, the largest TV bowling audience of the year. Southpaw Jakob Butturff -- who looks like a natural to add Tombstone Pizza as a sponsor -- made a 2-4-6-7-10 split on his way to winning the $50,000 title. … And Jim Souhan of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, on the likelihood of P.J. Fleck fulfilling the full seven seasons of his $33 million extension at UMinn: "It's not a wedding but an agreement to date exclusively for a while longer."

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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