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Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Brown and Fleck both continuing to prove themselves at the highest level

On Dec. 28 when Minnesota and West Virginia take the field against each other, the two coaches leading their teams will be West Virginia’s Neal Brown and Minnesota’s PJ Fleck.

Unlike some, both Brown and Fleck started at smaller group of five schools and have worked their way up to become power five head coaches based on their leadership skills and ability to change a program.

Since coming to West Virginia prior to the 2019 season, Brown has coined the phrase “Trust the Climb.” This phrase is what Brown and the West Virginia program stand by as they are climbing a mountain to get to where they want to be and his whole program has to trust they are going to get there. Similarly, Fleck has a similar phrase and a similar leadership style. Fleck has always said his team need to “Row the Boat.” Fleck says his phrase comes from everyone on his team having to pull in the same direction, together, as a team, because if not you cannot move forward.

From 2015-2018, Brown was the head coach at Troy. In Brown’s first year, he finished 4-8, and it seemed like a tall task to turn the Trojans’ program around. Over the next three seasons, Brown went a combined 31-8, and won three bowl games in each of those seasons. Now, Brown is in charge of taking West Virginia back to where so many fans are used to seeing it — the top of the mountain. In his third season, Brown has built a top 25 recruiting class, one bowl win, two bowl births in two straight seasons, and took a team who won only four games against FBS teams in 2019, to the verge of beating No. 3 Oklahoma on the road in 2021.

For Fleck, he has followed a similar path to reach the level of success at Minnesota. Fleck was the head coach of Western Michigan from 2013-2016. Like Brown, in just four seasons, Fleck completely flipped the program upside down. In Fleck’s first season, Western Michigan went 1-11, with their only win coming against Massachusetts by one point. Three years later, Fleck was in charge of the No. 12 ranked Broncos, and led them to a New Year’s Six Bowl Game, where his team came up just short of beating No. 8 Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. In Fleck’s final season at Western Michigan, he led the Broncos to an undefeated regular season, before losing to the Big Ten runner-up. Now, Fleck led Minnesota to a 11-2 record in 2019, including an Outback Bowl win over Auburn.

Both coaches recognize each other have come from similar places and worked their way to the positions they are in now. Brown said Fleck is not only an amazing person, but an incredible leader who knows how to engage people.

“What PJ’s done not only at Minnesota, but what he did at Western Michigan was special,” Brown said. “A lot of energy, he’s a great motivator, a great teacher, he’s a program builder and he’s a relater. He’s done a tremendous job at both those universities as the head coach and he’s done it in a lot of different ways.”

Fleck looked back to his days at Western Michigan where he first knew Brown and reflected on how much he respected Brown not only as a coach, but as a person.

“I’ve known Neal (Brown) back to the Western Michigan days. He’s a class act, he’s a wonderful human being, he’s an incredible football coach with a very creative mind,” Fleck said.

While both coaches share a similar story, the way they show their energy and passion is almost as opposite as you can get. Brown, the stoic, calm motivator, who is not afraid to be heard when he has to be. Compared to Fleck — the energetic, high character coach most people would either find irritating or want to run through a brick wall for.

No matter if you are a fan of West Virginia or Minnesota or just a fan of college football, Brown and Fleck epitomize the beauty of the sport. Both coaches know the work it takes to be able to win at the highest level. Fleck and Brown were both position coaches, who worked their way up to being head coaches, who now every Saturday 12 times a year get to try and lead their programs back to the top, just like they both worked to get to the top of the coaching ranks in college football.

So whether you appreciate the high energy motivator that Fleck is, or you are someone who appreciates the more quiet and reserved coach who is not afraid to let their voice be heard in Brown, this game will feature two men who have climbed the ladder of college football and are now trying to turn their promises into reality.

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