The first major pebble to drop in the 2021 college football coaching pond came Monday, and it was a heavy one. The concentric wave pattern originated in Los Angeles, where USC fired Clay Helton as coach of one of the sport's storied programs.
Immediately, the waves of speculation began finding several shores, from State College, Pa., to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Eugene, Ore., to Ames, Iowa, to Cincinnati. And yes, those waves even touched the five-year-old rowboat that sits in Dinkytown.
National college football writers began formulating lists of potential candidates to replace Helton and restore the Trojans to the glory they last enjoyed in the early-to-mid 2000s.
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg listed Penn State's James Franklin, Cincinnati's Luke Fickell and Oregon's Mario Cristobal in his top tier, with Gophers coach P.J. Fleck among a group of others to watch that included Iowa State's Matt Campbell, Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports, who has covered Fleck for years, has the Gophers coach as No. 6 on his potential USC list, behind Franklin, O'Brien, Campbell, Fickell and Cristobal.
Even Vegas is getting in on the speculation, with the website betonline.ag listing Fleck and Fickell as 13/2 co-favorites for the USC job.
The lists are speculation, but they include the hottest coaching names in college football, and Fleck resides in that company. He's only two years removed from leading Minnesota to an 11-2 season that included wins over top-10 teams Penn State and Auburn and was capped by a No. 10 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. It had been 57 years since the Gophers finished No. 10 or better.
USC is expected to wait for the season to play out before announcing a coach. The Trojans opening won't be the only one this season, but chances are it's the most prominent one. Fleck's name could be linked to other openings, and don't discount interest from NFL teams.
His most active suitor, though, might come from a corner office in the Bierman Athletic Building. Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle, who hired Fleck in 2017, sings the praises of the Gophers' performance on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Outside interest in the coach is a good sign to Coyle.
"I don't take it as a concern, I take it as an opportunity, and what I mean by that is when you have coaches that have success as he has had and the impact he and [wife] Heather have had on our program and our department and our state, you know people are going to go after him,'' Coyle told the Star Tribune last month.
The sides currently are not in contract extension talks, a source with knowledge of the situation said, and Coyle has waited until later in seasons to strike deals with the coach. Fleck received an extension in November 2017, December 2018 and November 2019. In the second year of a seven-year contract, Fleck has a salary of $4.65 million this year. The buyout that he would owe the university should he leave for another job before Jan. 1 is $4.5 million this year, down from $10 million in 2020. The buyout is $3 million in both 2022 and 2023.
Fleck's weekly news conference was Monday morning, before USC announced Helton's dismissal, so the Gophers coach hasn't commented publicly on the situation. His defensive coordinator, Joe Rossi, discussed how the coaching staff deals with speculation.
"We explain to [recruits] that we want things to come out in terms of positivity with Coach because that means there's success and there's attraction,'' Rossi said.
The view here: Any interest in Fleck, such as Tennessee last year and Florida State in 2019, is something to embrace, not fear. It shows he's succeeding. And if he ends up leaving, there's still the solace for fans that he's elevated Minnesota. That certainly is better for the program than falling into the rut of firing a coach and entering into another long rebuild.