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Former Ohio State GA P.J. Fleck Doing It His Own Way At Western Michigan

Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck experienced a breakout season in 2014, but the former Ohio State graduate assistant cautioned that building a program takes time. The way he goes about it is where he separates himself from others.

Zach Terrell is P.J. Fleck’s right-hand man on the field, but that didn’t stop him from issuing a warning about his head coach.

Terrell, Western Michigan’s junior quarterback, had been asked about descriptions of Fleck that deviate from the traditional mold of just about any category he could possibly fit into. College football is not without its unique personalities (grass-eating Les Miles at LSU) or relentless workers (aspiring Red Bull spokesman Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia) but Fleck seems to be wired with a unique blend of energy and personality that couldn’t possibly be duplicated.

“He’s extremely energetic all the time,” Terrell said. “It’s no front. When you talk to him, you’ll experience it. Everyone always wonders if he’s always like that, and he really, truly is. Constant energy all the time. And then he’s so passionate. It’s what draws us to him and makes us respond to his leadership and coaching.”

Fleck, who began his coaching career in 2006 as an Ohio State graduate assistant, was the first person born in the 1980s to hold an FBS head coaching job. Coaching in a conference that has produced its share of rising stars, Fleck has been tabbed by many to one day follow in the footsteps of guys like Urban Meyer, Brian Kelly, Jerry Kill and Butch Jones as coaches who went on to have success at greener pastures.

What drove him to Western Michigan, a program with three conference titles in more than 100 years of existence, was the chance to build something while also remaining true to himself. Fleck said that the profession itself – but especially a successful tenure – has a habit of changing people and swore to himself to defend against such forces at all costs. 

“Kathy Beauregard, our athletic director, picked me because she thought I was the right one for the program,” Fleck said. “Whatever I was, whatever my experience level was, whatever my energy level was, what I was as a person, she felt that was enough to run her football program. But she allows me to be me. This is me.

“Some people talk about my energy and my lack of experience, but I get to be me. Failure or success, I get to be me. I get to do it my way. One thing Jim Tressel told me when I moved on was, ‘Just be yourself, P.J. People aren’t going to understand you because you’re a little different.’ But I get to be me and my staff allows me to be me.”

Fleck is a man of mantras, and his most recognizable one is “Row The Boat.” That phrase appears on countless items of WMU apparel, and the oar has become a symbol of the program. What some might not know, though, is that the slogan was borne out of personal tragedy.

Fleck went through the death of a child when his second son, Colt, passed away shortly after birth. In a Western Michigan video explaining his “Row The Boat” philosophy, Fleck said that the idea came to him after doctors told him during the pregnancy that his son wouldn’t survive for long.

“It was something I always had in the back of my mind,” he said. “No matter what happens, no matter what we’re going to do here, we’re just going to keep rowing. However it turns out, we’re just going to keep rowing. It helped me get through adversity, and it also happens in times of success. If you have success, you just have to keep rowing. If you have adversity, you just have to keep rowing.”

That mentality goes along with Fleck’s goal of transforming the program from a group of result-focused kids to players who instead worry about the process. Fleck cited the growth of the Northern Illinois program from his days as a wide receiver in the early 2000s to now, noting that it took 13 years for the program to get to the status it currently holds.

After improving from a 1-11 debut in 2013 to an 8-5 record last season, the Broncos dropped games to Michigan State and Georgia Southern to open the 2015 campaign before picking up their first win of the season against Murray State. Now Western Michigan finds itself up against another top-5 team, which is as good as way as any to help a smaller program focus on the process instead of the results.

“The biggest challenge is not focusing on the result, which every single one of us is judged on,” Fleck said. “We played Michigan State to open the year, No. 4 team in the country. We play the Buckeyes soon. We played Georgia Southern, a six-time (FCS) national champion. They’ve been at the FCS level, but not anymore.

“You start the year 0-2 and everyone wants to know what happened after going 8-5. ‘We should be 12-0.’ That’s not reality. We played 18 freshmen last year. We now have depth, but our depth is true freshmen. We don’t focus on the result. We focus on the how and the process, and we train them to respond to that.”

Terrell might be the most visible example of Fleck’s success in spreading his mentality throughout the program. The junior quarterback, who redshirted the year before Fleck arrived, credited Western Michigan’s turnaround to the younger players buying into the “Row The Boat” message that many upperclassmen had dismissed during the one-win season.

On top of that, he’s quick to note that the team now shares Fleck’s insistence on placing a premium on the process instead of the result. In the long run, the loss to Michigan State might help the Broncos more than scheduling a bottom feeder would have, even though they’d have an extra tally mark in the win column.

“For the outside world, the result is big,” Terrell said. “People outside the program see the results (from 2013 to 2014) and say, ‘Oh, they’re getting better.’ But for us, we’re just focused on changing our best and getting better day-to-day.”

Make no mistake, though – the Broncos play to win and hope to one day reach the type of success that Northern Illinois did when it played in the Orange Bowl. But Fleck saw up close that there were dips after successes and wins after bad years, which is why he’s quick to say that stability is still probably twists and turns away from the high of 2014 and the low of 2013. 

“I’ve won 10 games in two years and a couple games,” he said. “We really haven’t done anything. But we know we’re on the right path of having the success we want. It just has to continue to build.”

In good times and bad, the boat must be rowed.

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