Things are looking up for Western Michigan football
Kalamazoo – The Western Michigan football program is on the rise — on and off the field.
On the field, the Broncos went 1-11 in coach P.J. Fleck's first season before turning it around for an 8-5 mark last year that included a spot in the Idaho Potato Bowl (38-24 loss to Air Force).
Off the field, Alec Gores, a heavy hitter in the business world who played for the Broncos in the late 1970s, has helped the program set a 2017 opener against USC in Los Angeles and then donated $2 million for a new scoreboard at Waldo Stadium.
Gores served as a liaison between USC and Western Michigan in organizing the game. It is scheduled for Sept. 2, 2017, at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"Alec wanted to get involved again, and we're thrilled," athletic director Kathy Beauregard said. "He's an unbelievable and wonderful individual to have back."
Gores, a kicker for Western Michigan who graduated in 1977, also has some top connections in the pro world — his brother Tom Gores, owner of the Pistons.
Alec Gores earned his fortune as founder and CEO of the Gores Group, a private equity firm specializing in acquiring and partnering with businesses.
"We're really excited with the new scoreboard," Beauregard said. "And it really takes care of another critical part on the way to national prominence with our football team under Coach Fleck's direction."
The scoreboard is expected to be completed in time for this season's home opener, Sept. 4 against another heavy hitter — Michigan State.
Best are back
After an impressive run last season, Fleck, 34, expects Western Michigan to be ready for Michigan State.
But Fleck's team also gets another Big Ten challenge this season — at Ohio State on Sept. 26. He was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes in 2006.
"I think the biggest word we'll be using this season is opportunistic," Fleck said. "It's challenging since we have the second-rated nonconference schedule in the country, but you can never get big rewards without big risk.
"Our opener against the Spartans will be a national-type game. They are a top-5 team for a reason. The last two months we've been looking at them, planning for them. We know exactly who they are. ... We want to see where we're at."
Luckily for Fleck, he returns the bulk of his team, including several skilled players on offense — Mid-American Conference player of the year Jarvion Franklin (1,551 yards rushing, 24 touchdowns), quarterback Zach Terrell (3,443 yards, 26 touchdowns) and receivers Corey Davis (78 receptions, 1,408 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Daniel Braverman (86 receptions, 997 yards, six touchdowns).
Looking for more
Fleck is used to being the underdog, then overachieving.
He was a 5-foot-8, 160-pound receiver with 4.8 speed when he came to Northern Illinois, which went 0-11 under Joe Novak before Fleck's arrival.
The move paid off as Fleck finished with 77 receptions, 1,028 yards and six touchdowns his senior season (2003), including 13 receptions for 116 yards in a season-opening 20-13 overtime upset of No. 10 Maryland.
Two weeks after toppling Maryland, Northern Illinois stunned No. 21 Alabama, 19-16, followed by a 24-16 victory over Iowa State a week later. The Huskies then found themselves ranked No. 12, and finished the season 10-2.
Now, Fleck hopes to do the same at Western Michigan — turn the program into a national name.
"We were more talented than the first year and we had the 85 total scholarships so we had more depth, which is part of the process," said Fleck, who earned a pay raise after last season — six years for $4.8 million, the richest contract in conference history ($800,000 per season).
"We have more balance now on both sides of the ball. Sure, we'll still be playing true freshmen, but probably eight or nine, not 18."
And while the Broncos have high expectations on the field with a tough schedule and hopes of their first conference championship since 1988, it's all about gaining respect — on and off the field.
Gores has picked up the off-the-field work.
Now Fleck, ranked No. 61 among coaches according to The Sporting News, must do his part on the field.
Western Michigan schedule
Sept. 4, Michigan State, 7 p.m.
Sept. 12, at Georgia Southern, 6 p.m.
Sept. 19, Murray State, 7 p.m.
Sept. 26, at Ohio State, TBA
Oct. 10, Central Michigan, TBA
Oct. 17, at Ohio, TBA
Oct. 24, Miami (Ohio), 2 p.m.
Oct. 29, at Eastern Michigan, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 5, Ball State, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 11, Bowling Green, 8 p.m.
Nov. 18, at Northern Illinois, 8 p.m.
Nov. 27, at Toledo, TBA