P.J. Fleck And The Culture That Made Western Michigan Football ‘Elite’

Western Michigan has gone from 1-11 to 12-0 in four years with help from determined head coach P.J. Fleck and a Row the Boat mantra that has as much to do with life as it does football.

P.J. Fleck arrived in Kalamazoo prepared to rid Western Michigan football of its mediocrity, straight down to the vocabulary.

Gone are words like “fine,” “good,” “well,” “okay” and even “great.” Every player on the roster is “elite.” Ask them how they’re doing, and “Elite,” is the response you’ll get – from them and from Fleck. The message is simple, yet effective: never settle.

“We tell our players all the time, ‘Make sure your vision of your dreams is scary,” Fleck said. “‘That it’s so big, it scares you.'”

The only thing then-redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Terrell feared was his new coach’s potential lack of sanity. The Broncos were coming off a four-win season in 2012, and Fleck strutted in talking about winning championships by rowing some fictional boat and convincing everyone that “the football is the program.”

“I’d be lying if I told you I completely bought in when he first got here,” Terrell said. “I didn’t know what a boat had to do with a bronco.”

Terrell considered transferring. Fleck even suggested it at one point.

Nov 27, 2015; Toledo, OH, USA; Western Michigan Broncos head coach P.J. Fleck celebrates with his team after a play during the fourth quarter against the Toledo Rockets at Glass Bowl. Broncos win 35-30. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Western Michigan Broncos head coach P.J. Fleck celebrates with his team. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

“We were both pretty unimpressed when we first met each other,” Fleck said. “He probably looked at me and said, ‘How did you get this job?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘How did you get here?’

“I said, you’re either going to believe in this culture and believe in what we’re doing, or I can help you go somewhere else.”

Then Western Michigan went 1-11 in 2013. Terrell threw eight touchdowns and eight interceptions, and doubts remained on both sides. Row the Boat seemed like a joke considering the program sunk to depths it had never experienced before.

But Fleck knew he had a solid core centered around Terrell and his favorite target Corey Davis, who had little choice but to buy into Fleck’s culture and family atmosphere. Davis was the sixth of seven kids growing up in Chicago, and money was scarce. Current Northern Illinois quarterback Ryan Graham and his family took Davis in when he was young, and Graham’s father eventually became Davis’ legal guardian.

Davis had trouble keeping up with his studies and was getting into trouble. But Fleck saw the talent.

“My personal life, I’ve failed a lot. That’s shaped me,” Davis said. “Everything I’ve been through, it wasn’t easy as a child. I didn’t really have a lot growing up. It gave me my work ethic.

“I wouldn’t be in this position without Coach Fleck taking a shot on a kid no one knew. I thank him tremendously.”

Slowly, the entire roster embraced Fleck’s unorthodox motivational tactics. The program centered around the Row the Boat mantra. Then, the Broncos started winning. They went 7-5 in the two years following that dismal first season. Fleck brought in the MAC’s top recruiting class three years running, and the talent level increased.

“Any coach who sits there and says, ‘I have horrible talent, but I win games,’ is lying,” Fleck said. “Coaches get hired and fired all the time, and it’s based on, do you have better players? You have to be able to recruit and build relationships, and you have to be able to develop players within your program.”

Fleck hates to leave anyone out when naming the players who helped the Broncos improve to 12-0 this year. It’s been a complete team effort to push within a game of reaching the Cotton Bowl as the Group of Five’s automatic bid. But, he knows Terrell and Davis are two of the biggest contributors.

Terrell went from being in Fleck’s dog house to leading the FBS with a 71.7 completion percentage while throwing 30 touchdown passes and just one interception. Davis went from nearly homeless four years ago to becoming the FBS’s all-time career leader in receiving yards with 5,068 and counting.

The seniors have two games left in their Western Michigan careers, and they’re leaving as better people – not just better players. They know they have Fleck to thank for that.

“I came in as a boy, and through the culture and the Row the Boat mantra, I’ve become a man,” Terrell said. “Over time that bond [with Fleck] has grown stronger and stronger because we’ve been through a lot together. It’s been a fun journey.”

Davis likely will be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

“To be a part of something so great and to see how far we’ve come from that first season, it’s pretty remarkable,” Davis said. “We’re not done yet.”

Rumors have floated that Fleck will be leaving Western Michigan to take a job at a bigger program, which will give him a well-deserved raise and more resources. He addressed that with his team and has maintained 100 percent focus on the Broncos winning two more games.

He’s not going to turn his back on his family just yet.

“They’re my kids,” Fleck said. “That’s the way I look at it.”

Kids whom Fleck is molding into better football playersm but also adults. Not just good kids, or fine kids or even great kids. Elite kids.

“I love talking about this team. They’re very, very special,” Fleck said. “They find ways to look at (life) through an elite perspective no matter what the circumstance is. They just keep their oar in the water and continue to row.”

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