Riley, 64, is old enough to be the 36-year-old Fleck's father. When Riley got his first FBS head coaching job at Oregon State in 1997, Fleck was a sophomore at Sugar Grove (Ill.) High School. Riley typically roams the sidelines with his arms folded or hands in his pockets and allows his assistants to manage the game, only occasionally interjecting himself into conversations with civil discourse. Fleck bounces around the position-group huddles, jumps on his players and acts like a 10-year-old at his first football game.
At the end of the third quarter of Nebraska's Week 10 loss to Northwestern, the sweatshirt-wearing Riley calmly and quietly walked to opposite end of the field. At the end of the third quarter of Minnesota's Week 10 loss to Michigan, the tie-wearing Fleck ran a 4.1 40 to the opposite side of the field.
Despite the in-your-face differences in their age, résumés and coaching philosophy, Mike Riley is a big fan of P.J. Fleck.
The two will face off for the first time on Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. Both teams are 4-5 overall and in dire need of a win — especially Riley, who's battling dismissal rumors after two subpar campaigns and a unconvincing start in 2017. And while the Gophers have limped to a 1-5 start in Big Ten play, Riley admires what Fleck is doing in his first season.
"I've watched his teams at Western Michigan from afar, not personally live but video and film of his teams," Riley told HERO Sports this week. "I think what we're seeing is a reflection of the kind of the program he runs."
Fleck's rise from an unknown 32-year-old MAC coach who won one game in his first season to Cotton Bowl champs and, now, Big Ten head coach, has been well documented. Though the eternal optimist is often mocked for his unconventional approach, Riley believes it shows on the field and he's a "good fit" at Minnesota.
"The team plays hard . . . [and] executes well. They do a nice job of recognizing the ability of players and utilizing them in good ways. It's a well-coached team that plays hard."
Riley will try to beat that well-coached, hard-playing team when the Gophers and Huskers kick off at 11 a.m. CT on Saturday in Minneapolis.