MINNEAPOLIS -- Here, if you will, are Heather Fleck’s power rankings of college football coaches:
1. P.J. Fleck
(This one’s pretty clear, and let’s be honest, if it wasn’t him, there’s probably trouble at home in Edina.)
2. James Franklin
And along with P.J., that actually means two Flecks are big fans of Penn State’s head coach going into Saturday’s marquee matchup between the No. 13 Gophers and No. 5 Nittany Lions at TCF Bank Stadium.
P.J. repeatedly has said Franklin is one of his closest colleagues in coaching circles, while Heather spoke to Franklin last week as both programs had a bye.
“She talked to him for a little bit because this is her favorite football coach besides her husband; that’s what she always says,” Fleck relayed Monday. “She is a huge fan of James Franklin. He’s always been so good to my family.”
The connection started when Fleck was at Western Michigan and Franklin coached Vanderbilt in 2013. Saturday’s game will be their first against each other.
“We just have become really good friends,” Fleck said. “I’ve really respected the job he has done. He has a lot of energy. He is tremendous in culture. He is just a well-polished individual and a tremendous, tremendous person.”
As Franklin led the once-lowly Commodores to consecutive nine-win seasons — a high-water mark in the program’s history — it gave Fleck an example that “it can be done” before he himself did it at Western Michigan.
“You can take a place like Vanderbilt and turn it into an SEC power for a while, and I think that always inspires young coaches that are going to get turnaround-type jobs,” Fleck said. “You are always looking for that example of who am I similar to and who is willing to share with me how they did (it) and really share with you.”
Fleck said Franklin’s open-door at the school in Nashville, Tenn., wasn’t just to be polite.
“It’s one thing to go visit somebody, and it’s another thing for them to give you what is behind the curtain,” Fleck said. “He has always been very open with me and to me, and I couldn’t thank him enough for that.”
Fleck also has visited Franklin in State College, Pa., where Franklin took over for Bill O’Brien in 2014 and has since won 72 percent of his games, highlighted by the 2016 Big Ten championship.
“I think he’s relentless in everything he does and … I think he’s very polished in culture,” Fleck said. “You have to be relentless with your culture or it’s going to fold. There will be too much negativity, too much criticism. There is going to be too much outside noise, and if your culture isn’t strong enough, it will collapse, and his has always been strong.”
Both Fleck and Franklin took over at Big Ten schools after scandals had rocked the programs they were taking over. “That is what really good cultures do: They can bring a calmness to some type of chaotic situation,” Fleck said.
Fleck and Franklin try to get together once a year outside of joint conference commitments, but that can be tricky with still-busy offseason schedules and carving out family time.
“It’s not like we go do fun things together,” Fleck said. “We are just visiting about culture, about our program, and what are we doing different this year than we did last year. Talking about different things that he likes doing and really just diving into each other’s culture. That is kind of a vacation for us type of people.”