For Western Michigan Broncos head coach PJ Fleck, winning in both college football and in life is all about the tenets of bonding and sacrifice. That's why the 34-year-old rising star of the FBS coaching scene has decided to unite his kids underneath the umbrella of three simple, yet powerful words -- "Row The Boat."
"'Row The Boat' is a never-give-up mantra," Fleck said. "The oars are the energy you bring to your life, your family, whatever's important to you. The boat is the second part; that's the sacrifice: What are you willing to give up for something that you never had? And three is the compass, and the compass is your direction: Where are you set to go? Who's leading you? Who's following you? Where is your compass pointing?"
It was 'rowing the boat' that helped Western Michigan soldier through the dregs of a 1-11 campaign in Fleck's first season in Kalamazoo before improving to an 8-5 record and the program's first bowl berth since 2011 in his second season (2014).
It was also the idea of 'rowing the boat' that helped Fleck cope with unimaginable tragedy back in 2010, when the second of Fleck's four childen, Colton, passed away from a heart condition shortly after birth. Facing a nightmare that no parent is ever truly prepared to face, Fleck came up with a simple method that could help him keep perspective through life's toughest trials and tribulations.
"If everyone can row in the same direction, the same speed, the same efficiency," he said, "we'll get from Point A to Point B faster than we thought we would."
Fleck even came up with a new motto to go along with Row The Boat during his team's rise to contention in 2014, emphasizing "The How" while his team returned to relevance in the MAC.
"This is the summit," Fleck told his players weekly, referring to his nickname for the team's 2014 schedule, "How Mountain."
"The death toll on this is 99 percent. You're going to be that 1 percent."
Fleck even put together a PowerPoint slide with nicknames for all the team's opponents "How" style. These included: HOWkies (Virginia Tech), ToLeadHOW (Toledo), HOWcoming (Homecoming vs. Ohio), and the classic IdaHOW (Idaho).
"It's an active HOWcano," Fleck said to his team back in November, eliciting a chorus of laughter from his intended audience. "What's going to happen at 11 a.m. on Black Friday? The shoppers will hear what's happening at Waldo Stadium."
This unique style of motivation isn't just some cheap ploy used by a coach to maximize efficiency. It's a way of life for a man with a unique zest for a life and a penchant for motivating people through the sheer force of his charisma.
Ever since he made his mark in the record books at Northern Illinois University as one of the best wide receivers in the history of the program (1999-2003), there's been something undeniably different about Fleck. His NFL playing career was abbreviated, consisting of just one regular-season game with the San Francisco 49ers (2004, Week 17), before a significant shoulder injury derailed his career in 2005 -- ultimately leading to him leaving active competition in June of 2006.
However, while the injury sent his playing career off the tracks, Fleck's power of positivity would not be denied. He landed as a graduate assistant with Ohio State just months later, before being hired as a wide receivers coach at his alma mater the very next season. At just 26 years old, Fleck was beginning an ascent that would see him move from Northern Illinois (2007-09) to Rutgers (2010-11), before joining then-Rutgers HC Greg Schiano in his move from the Scarlet Knights to the NFL's Tampa Bay Bucs (2012).
It was there as Tampa's wide receivers coach that his boundless enthusiasm caught the eye of Western Michigan's athletics department. Less than a year later, the Broncos would make Fleck the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision (then 32) and the first FBS coach to have been born in the 1980s.
In short, there are some coaches who constantly show they're worth believing in, no matter how young or old they are. Fleck's one of those guys, maintaining a consistency of message and tone even when the team struggled mightily in his first season.
That's a huge part of the impetus for Western Michigan's eye-opening six-game win streak following a 2-3 start in 2014, bringing a MAC also-ran back near the top way ahead of schedule. The former Tampa Bucs WR coach wasn't deterred from his or the team's task of 'rowing the boat,' and his kids caught on to that -- transferring their coach's confidence into results on their home field of Waldo Stadium.
While there's still on-field work to be done after the Broncos closed the season with back-to-back losses to Northern Illinois and Air Force (in Boise's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), the momentum for the program is undeniable. Fleck just signed a six-year extension to remain with the Broncos, major facilities upgrades are coming, and the program's 2015 recruiting class is tops in the MAC according to most college football analysts.
In fact, Fleck's 27-player haul in 2014 marks the highest-ranked class in the history of the Mid-American Conference -- a recruiting victory that is emblematic of the greater cultural shift Fleck is facilitating with the program.
"What you're seeing is wins and losses, which to me don't necessarily count in terms of the turnaround of a culture, a program," Fleck said. "We're years away from what I think this program can truly become, where 35,000 people show up every single week, win or lose. Where people around the nation know Western Michigan, understand Western Michigan's brand. Understand 'Row The Boat,' and it becomes a household name."
Knowing what Fleck has come through and the respect he has already commanded from the young men playing for him, Western Michigan's quest to become "a household name" may already have a storybook ending written up for it.
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