Kalamazoo — Zach Terrell’s time at Western Michigan precedes P.J. Fleck’s.
So it’s understandable Terrell wasn’t immediately Fleck’s guy.
“Do you want the honest answer or the coach answer?” Fleck said Monday when asked about his first impressions of a quarterback who redshirted in 2011, the year before Fleck arrived on campus.
“When I first met Zach Terrell, just like everybody, you ask who they are, you kind of look them up and down. Wow, this is one of the quarterbacks we have to work with. We’d go to practice and he had a great work ethic, but he was very quiet, he didn’t say much.”
After one of those early practices, Fleck called Terrell to his office — and bluntly laid it on the line.
“I think you’ve got talent, but you don’t talk, you don’t communicate, you’ve gotta be better, you’ve gotta be the leader,” Fleck said. “You’re either gonna believe, or I can help you go somewhere else.
“He said, ‘Coach, you’ve got me all wrong. That’s not what I am.’ ”
What Terrell is, is a four-year starting quarterback who has been instrumental in taking Western Michigan from 1-11 in 2013 to 12-0 and ranked No. 13 this season heading into Friday night’s Mid-American Conference championship game against Ohio at Ford Field.
“Jump with two feet in or jump with two feet out,” Fleck said, recalling that early conversation. “I’m so glad he made the decision he made.
“He had to take a leap of faith forward.”
Jump in the boat
It wasn’t just Terrell having to earn Fleck’s trust. Fleck had to earn the faith of Terrell, a kid from Fort Wayne, Ind.
“I really had no idea what a boat (‘Row the Boat’) had to do with a Bronco,” said Terrell, who has 30 touchdowns and one interception this season. “I wasn’t totally committed.”
Still, Terrell, a two-star recruit, never gave much thought to bolting town when his coach, Bill Cubit, was replaced by Fleck.
“That never really came to my mind,” Terrell said. “The way I was raised was not to quit. I really had to jump in the boat with both feet.
“I’m really happy that things have turned out the way they have.”
Terrell’s first game was Aug. 30, 2013 against Michigan State. His first career pass was a touchdown against the Spartans.
The game, however, was otherwise forgettable, the first of eight straight losses to start that season and the first of 11 overall. Terrell played nine games, and had as many touchdowns as interceptions (nine).
In those first days, Fleck told his players that those who stay will be champions.
Terrell, among others, wasn’t so sure.
“At the time, a lot of us maybe didn’t believe that,” he said.
At the start of 2014, Terrell was Fleck’s guy — and he’s started every year since.
He’s led Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 seasons and bowls — and the program’s first bowl victory — before this year’s 12-0 mark.
All the while, his touchdown-to-interception rate has improved — 8-8 to 26-10, to 29-9 to 30-1.
Fleck has a saying, “The ball is the program,” and Western Michigan keeps control of the ball to the tune of plus-18, tied with Washington for No. 1 in the country.
Terrell has a ton to do with that.
“Credit to him,” said Corey Davis, the record-setting receiver who is the career leader in receiving yards in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Like with Fleck, Terrell and Davis didn’t click right away. But now, they’re frequent lunch, dinner or smoothie-run companions, and the discussion isn’t always about football. They come from different backgrounds — Davis grew up poor, and Terrell has proved an invaluable sounding board.
“My dad and my mom (Colleen) are both very selfless people,” Terrell said. “I’ve always been taught to treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
Davis, the first receiver in college football history with at least 50 career touchdowns, 300 receptions and 5,000 yards, has become a regularly scouted player by the NFL.
Terrell isn’t close, and Fleck said that’s mostly because of his size — 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds.
His arm strength doesn’t help, either.
“He could have a 10-, 12-year (NFL) career, somehow, someway, getting him with the right organization,” Fleck said. “I believe in him, wholeheartedly.”
Why? Because of Terrell’s intangibles.
“You look at all those first-rounders, they don’t pan out because they have all the measurables, but they don’t have the intangibles,” Fleck said. “The NFL’s an intangibles league.
“One thing Zach Terrell can do is separate himself from everybody else because of his intangibles.”
Fleck cited Terrell’s intelligence — he’s a business major with a 3.7 grade-point average — work ethic, lack of turnovers, and feel for the game, including his anticipation and presence in the pocket.
Fleck even likened Terrell to Ken Dorsey, the former Miami star who was a seventh-round pick but played five years in the NFL with the 49ers and Browns.
“He’s got a very bright future,” said Fleck, a former wide receiver who went undrafted before catching on for a couple years with the 49ers. “I do know and do feel someone will take a shot on him.”
Just like Fleck did in 2013, when the two were uneasy about each other.
Since, Terrell has started 47 games and thrown for 11,657 yards and 93 touchdowns. He’s got two games left, the MAC championship game and, with a win there, likely the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 2.
When Fleck was selling himself to his players that first year, he talked about New Year’s Six bowls and championships.
The players were skeptical at first. But the reality of big vision is setting in.
“It’s been a fun journey,” Terrell said. “And it’s not over yet.”