Big Ten

Row the boat: Minnesota officially announces P.J. Fleck as next head football coach

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AP

Row the boat: Minnesota officially announces P.J. Fleck as next head football coach

P.J. Fleck has rowed his boat to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Minnesota officially announced Friday morning that Fleck is the new Gophers football coach.

Fleck, who spent the past four seasons turning Western Michigan from a one-win team into a 13-win team and MAC champion, succeeds Tracy Claeys, who was fired earlier this week.

"It's an honor to coach at Minnesota and be part of the Big Ten conference," Fleck said in the announcement. "I want to thank president Eric Kaler, athletic director Mark Coyle and the Board of Regents for this opportunity. I also want to thank Western Michigan, my players and the great fans and city of Kalamazoo for a wonderful four years.

"I look forward to meeting my new players and getting to know them as quickly as possible. I am excited to put together a staff and turn my efforts to recruiting, but also want Gopher fans to know that my wife, Heather, and I and our four children will be visible in the community and we are eager to connect with them. I am ready to go. Ski-U-Mah!"

Fleck is known as much for his personality as he is for the winning he did with the Broncos. Young and energetic, Fleck is famous for his motivational catch phrases, chiefly "row the boat." His pregame speeches are often played on ESPN, and his highlight reel includes him leaping all over the place with his players and suiting up in uniform and participating in Oklahoma drills.

Fleck is a Midwestern guy, a native of Sugar Grove, Ill. — a product of Kaneland High School — who played his college ball at Northern Illinois. He returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach under former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, the current Rutgers offensive coordinator, before spending three years as an assistant to Greg Schiano, the current Ohio State defensive coordinator, both at Rutgers and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While the program is hardly on solid footing at the moment, it's hard to imagine that Fleck won't be able to energize the fan base, players and recruits out of the doldrums that exist in the wake of Claeys' firing. Claeys was let go after his first full season by first-year athletics director Coyle in the fallout of a player boycott. Players took that action, albeit brief, after a university investigation into a sexual assault resulted in the suspensions of 10 of their teammates. While the players believed they were standing up for wrongly punished teammates — a police investigation into the same incident yielded no charges in the fall — they did so without reading the university's investigative report and quickly ended their boycott once they did. The public strongly disagreed with the group action, one Claeys supported. Those 10 suspended players face expulsions and varying degrees of suspensions.

On the field, Minnesota was experiencing rare program success under Claeys and Kill. The Gophers have won eight or more games in three of the past four seasons, and this year's nine-win finish was the first since 2003 and just the eighth in program history.

Fleck worked wonders at Western Michigan, posting a 33-20 record in four seasons. After a 1-11 record in Year 1, he won eight games in each of the next two seasons before this 13-1 campaign that ended in a MAC championship and a trip to a New Year's Six bowl game. Coincidentally, Western Michigan lost the Cotton Bowl to Minnesota's biggest rival, Wisconsin.

Players and Kill have sounded off on the administration's handling of the past several weeks and blasted it over Claeys' firing. But it would be hard to see Fleck not changing their minds.

"P.J. is a proven winner and a strong leader. He's built a unique, positive culture that gets the best out of his students on the field and in the classroom," Coyle said in the announcement. "His infectious energy and passion make him a terrific coach and dynamic recruiter. I am excited he will be leading the Gophers for years to come."

Fleck was one of the hottest coaching candidates around this offseason, though he didn't land at any of the bigger-name programs that had head-coaching vacancies. It's a great get for Minnesota and hardly a job to settle for for Fleck. Any Big Ten job is a great one given the ample resources and national stage that come as being a part of the program. Plus, Fleck is coaching in the Big Ten West, which typically offers a much easier path to the league title game than the loaded Big Ten East.

Fleck joins a crazy roster of coaches in that division, though. Illinois' Lovie Smith, Iowa' Kirk Ferentz, Nebraska's Mike Riley, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Purdue's Jeff Brohm and Wisconsin's Paul Chryst are his new competition, not to mention Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Penn State's James Franklin in the other division.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.