An annual tradition started earlier than normal this year: P.J. Fleck’s name mentioned for a vacant college football head coaching job.

On Monday, the Gophers head football coach was linked to the newly opened job at Southern Cal. It was like clockwork after Fleck was associated with Tennessee’s opening after last season and with Florida State two years ago.

This week, Fleck’s name was brought up after Clay Helton was fired and lists of potential candidates were published immediately. The list of possible successors happened so quick, Helton’s personal belongings might have still been inside his old office in Los Angeles.

Having heard the song before, we know the steps to this dance.

Fleck’s current seven-year contract was signed in November 2019 and runs through the 2026 season, but it was written to make it easier for him to leave after the 2020 season.

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Fleck received a raise from $3.6 million to $4.6 starting in 2020 — with $50,000 increases coming annually. The buyout for him to leave was set at $10 million for the first year in 2020 and fell to $4.5 million in 2021 and will go to $3 million in 2022-23.

A $4.5 million buyout is a smaller price of doing business for a traditional and well-funded program such as USC, and that’s why the Fleck’s buyout figure started off higher to ward off suitors.

The Gophers’ 2021 schedule sets up for them to go on a winning streak, starting at noon Saturday when Minnesota (1-1) faces Colorado (1-1) in Boulder. The Gophers will then be a big favorite against Bowling Green in the final nonconference game, and Minnesota doesn’t face a ranked Big Ten opponent in their next five conference games into mid-November.

If the Gophers are, say, 8-1 or 7-2, they will likely be ranked in the Top 25, and if USC’s search continues, Fleck’s link to So Cal could grow bigger.

This brings us back to 2019, when the Gophers started 8-0 for the first time since 1941. Fleck’s camp and the Gophers had been working on a new contract since Big Ten Media Days that July, and days before Minnesota knocked off No. 5 Penn State in early November, a new contract was announced.

Right now, the Fleck/USC rumors don’t have much substance to them and contract talks with Minnesota quiet, a source with direct knowledge said Tuesday. But that is expected to change later this season, and November is circled as a pivotal month. USC promoted Donte Williams to interim head coach on Monday and Trojans AD Mike Bohn is expected to look at other candidates first.

In August, Gophers AD Mark Coyle told the Pioneer Press: “Our goal is to keep (Fleck) here long term. P.J. and I get along really well. We have a really good relationship. He trusts me. I trust him completely. …We have a really good relationship. We are so fortunate to have him and (his wife) Heather here leading our program. He has been the ultimate change agent.”

Fleck took the Gophers to big heights in 2019, going 11-2 with a win in the Outback Bowl. Now in his fifth season at Minnesota, Fleck’s overall record is 27-20 and his .574 winning percentage is third-best among the 11 Minnesota coaches with at least 45 games. Only Bernie Bierman and Henry Williams had better marks, and both of those coaches led the Gophers before 1951.

But Fleck is just 15-20 in Big Ten Conference play and he’s 1-7 against rivals Wisconsin and Iowa. Fleck had the Gophers on an upward trajectory until 2020 when COVID-19 intervened and they finished 3-4 and declined a bowl bid.

That wouldn’t wow a USC fan base that seeks national championships, but Fleck’s ability to win at Western Michigan and Minnesota could be an enticing element.

If Minnesota is serious about stopping the yearly dance of Fleck possibly leaving and truly want to keep him long-term — as Coyle says — they will likely need to make bigger commitments toward Fleck’s salary and a bigger buyout figure over a longer timeframe. There also could be a request for a bigger salary budget for staff, and added resources for his program.

The USA Today coaches’ salary database, as of Nov. 2020, had Fleck’s salary ranking 24th in the country, but that came in eighth in the 14-team Big Ten. Less-successful coaches in the Big Ten West — Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Nebraska’s Scott Frost — made more money than Fleck last year.