P.J. Fleck, Mark Coyle and Dino Babers have overlapping histories going into Pinstripe Bowl

Fleck has had more sustained success than Babers, and Minnesota is a touchdown favorite for this month’s bowl game in New York City.

Minnesota Athletics Director Mark Coyle chants Ski-U-Mah with Gopher fans in this 2019 file photo before the start of an NCAA football game against Wisconsin at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis.<br/>
John Autey / Pioneer Press
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Mark Coyle sits smack dab in the center of a Venn diagram between the Gophers and Syracuse football programs going in the Pinstripe Bowl.

During Coyle’s one year as Syracuse Athletics Director, he hired Orange coach Dino Babers in 2015, and after Coyle’s first year at Minnesota, he appointed coach P.J. Fleck in early 2017. Those two coaches’ teams will meet at Yankee Stadium at 1 p.m. CT Dec. 29.

Since Coyle arrived at the U in 2016, he has preferred to stay outside the limelight. His go-to phrase is he wants to be “low ego and high output,” so it was no surprise he was quick to take the focus off himself during a Pinstripe Bowl new conference Tuesday.

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“The cool thing about being an Athletic Director is I don’t have to throw any passes or make any tackles,” Coyle said. “I don’t have to call any plays.” He then immediately turned the attention back to the two coaches.

Babers was the head coach at Bowling Green in 2015 when he met Coyle in Detroit over Thanksgiving weekend. Babers’ team won the Mid-American Conference championship game the next weekend, and he was announced as Syracuse’s new coach the following day.


“The one thing that really stood out about Dino and Coach Fleck is they are even better people behind the scenes,” Coyle shared. “They are wonderful men with great character, and I think there is a reason why you see they are having so much success, leading the programs the way that they do.”

Fleck has had more sustained success than Babers, and Minnesota is a touchdown favorite for this month’s bowl game in New York City.

Fleck is 42-27 in six years at Minnesota, including 8-4 this year. He has taken teams to three bowl games in the past four years (the U opted out during the pandemic in 2020).

Babers is 36-48 in seven seasons in upstate New York, including 7-5 this season. He has one previous bowl appearance after a 10-win season in 2018. He also had a 10-loss season in 2020, and without the AD that hired him, he found himself in the hot seat as recently as earlier this season.

On Tuesday, Babers was more easy going than the man who hired him. “I think (Coyle) has a fantastic discernment when it comes to first judgement in hiring good coaches,” he joked.

“The big thing about Mark is he asked you what you needed and tried to give you exactly what you needed to be successful,” Babers said. “He was extremely clear in what he was looking for, and I always appreciated that. I’m a military kid, and I have a military background. ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say.’ As long as you can do those things, then we are going to have an opportunity to have a relationship.”

Fleck and Babers have had a traditional and sometimes “weird” relationship. First, the standard: Fleck’s Western Michigan team beat Bowling Green 26-14 in 2014, then Babers’ Falcons got even with a 41-27 victory in 2015.

“They came out at another school and put it on us,” Babers said. “And then the second year, we got a chance to reciprocate, and that was cool.”


Since then, Babers and Fleck have not met on the field, but have bumped into each other in restaurants. “I can take these private vacations, and all of a sudden nobody knows who you are, you are in this restaurant,” Babers said. “… It’s great. You are just a normal person, and you look over and go, ‘P.J. is here.’ ”

That has happened a few times.

“It’s been spooky how many times it’s happened, so now it’s to the point when we go somewhere, we just say, ‘Hey, c’mon over,’ ” Babers continued. “It just happens. We’ve started apart. We are trying to eat dinner by ourselves with our significant others, and we end up having the group dinners in restaurants where we didn’t tell the other person they were going there. But we kind of end up there. It’s really weird.”

Fleck said, “I’m not stalking the guy,” but Babers has an infectious personality that draws people in.

Fleck and Babers believe those chance encounters will probably continue, as soon as this offseason.

“Maybe,” Fleck posited, “we have good tastes in the places we stay.”


Gophers center John Michael Schmitz accepted an invitation Monday to participate in the Senior Bowl in February. Minnesota has had at least one player in the premier NFL showcase for four straight years, matching a program record (2014-17).



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