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Western’s Fleck rows the boat and his players buy in

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — He never stops. He’s always teaching, coaching, talking, explaining, pushing.

P.J. Fleck will do just about anything — and everything — to make his Western Michigan football program better.

How does he keep going?

When Fleck explains the source of his will to squeeze everything possibly out of every day, you get it.

He does it for his son Colt, who died shortly after birth on Feb. 9, 2011, because of a heart defect.

“When you lose a child, it’s the ultimate loss,” said Fleck, 35, the fourth-year coach. “You can turn it into a positive and use it to fuel other people’s lives and be there for people and help them through their situations, or you can mourn it for the rest of your life, or ignore it.”

Fleck says he chooses to live for others now.

“Not just for my own children who are alive, or my wife. I live for Colt,” he said. “In P.J. Fleck’s life are all the kids and football team and our culture and community and everybody else representing them.

“So there are no bad days. There is no low-energy day. No negativity. Because that would be a disservice to Colt and his life.”

So fueled by the thought of his son, Fleck tries to live life to the fullest and touches as many people as he can.

Sure, there are critics. Message boards scoff at the mottos, Fleck’s divorce, and his mantra (“rowing the boat”) — all the while wondering how long before Fleck rows to another coaching position at a larger school.

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Fleck says go ahead and make fun at all the stunts. It would be easy to roll your eyes — and many coaches and players at opposing Mid-American Conference schools do.

He’s not concerned with that.

“Coach is blazing his own trail,” said Virginia Tech basketball coach Buzz Williams, a friend of Fleck’s. “His energy and attitude is contagious. It’s just how he is built.

“We’re in the early stages, early chapters of his book. Whether it’s at Western Michigan, a Power Five school, or the NFL, he has so much more to give. The final chapter hasn’t been written.”

Something special

Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard was looking for a coach in November 2012 and was in Orlando, Florida, on a business trip.

Fleck was on her list of candidates, and since he was the wide receivers coach for the Buccaneers, she scheduled a get-to-know-you dinner.

It was supposed to be brief.

“We ended up staying longer than three hours, closing the restaurant,” Beauregard said. “Listening to his goals and philosophies and what he wanted to do with the program and knowing the history of the MAC, recruiting, it all really excited me.

“I drove back to Orlando that night, it was about 1 in the morning, and I called a member of my staff and said, ‘I think I may have found him.’ ”

Remember, it was Beauregard who hired a relatively inexperienced hockey coach named Jeff Blashill, who took Western Michigan to the NCAA Tournament his one season before landing on Mike Babcock’s staff with the Red Wings — a team Blashill now coaches.

Fleck didn’t have any head coaching experience — he hadn’t even been a coordinator.

But like Blashill, there was something about the way they envisioned where Western Michigan could go.

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“When we did the football hire, I was looking for similar qualities,” Beauregard said. “We didn’t have Jeff as long as I’d like, but his relationship and ability to communicate and motivate and relate to our student-athletes really opened my eyes to the ability to try something different with football.

“High risk, high reward. There were coaches with head coaching experience, but I kept coming back to Coach Fleck.”

It’s been a win-win situation for Western Michigan and Fleck, who earns approximately $800,000 as part of a six-year contract reworked in 2014. He is the highest-paid coach in the conference.

There wasn’t much winning the first season — 1-11 in 2013 — and skeptics were howling and counting the days until Fleck’s fall.

But the Broncos have gone 8-5 the last two seasons, won the Bahamas Bowl last year, and are the favorite to win the conference title in 2016.

“We have a saying in our program that on bad teams no one leads, on average teams coaches lead, on elite teams players lead,” Fleck said. “We’re finally at the part of our culture where our best players are our hardest workers, and that’s the greatest feeling. This is the first year where our players have taken over our culture.”

Beauregard, her superiors, Fleck’s coaching staff — they all let Fleck be Fleck.

The daily meetings with the team often don’t revolve around football, but rather life lessons for the players.

Senior quarterback Zach Terrell was taken aback by Fleck’s enthusiasm and passion.

“I thought he was nuts,” Terrell said.

But ...

“I still think he’s nuts,” he said. “But he’s awesome, just amazing to see his consistency. You’d think every once in a while he’d get tired, like, ‘How many energy drinks do you take? What’s your secret?’

“He’s just passionate and loves what he does, really passionate about us, helping mold young men who can be successful in life and do some special things.”

Special also describes Fleck’s relationship with Williams.

Williams loves to meet people from whom he can learn something. But he’s constantly looking for different personalities, and he read about Fleck several years ago and was intrigued.

So he called Fleck and flew to Kalamazoo to meet him.

“I told him I need four hours of his time, but it ended up being longer,” Williams said. “I was amazed at the way he teaches, organizes, delegates, motivates. If you spend any time with him, you come away so impressed.”

Now the two talk or text or e-mail nearly every day.

“I’ve learned so much from him,” Williams said.

Living by the motto

The Western Michigan football program is all about one mantra — “Row the Boat.”

It’s on T-shirts and in store fronts, plastered on windows and billboards.

P.J. Fleck

“When you row a boat you can’t see where you are going,” Fleck said. “Your back is to the future, but the bow of the boat is where you are going. You’re looking at the past, which you can learn from.

“There are three parts. The oars are the energy you bring into your life, the energy rowing the boat. The boat is the sacrifice: ‘What are you willing to sacrifice for this program?’ Then there’s the compass, which is the direction of your life.”

And his players have bought in.

They see the non-stop pursuit to what Fleck envisions and attempt to match that zeal.

“You see the passion and you see the energy and you see that every day,” Terrell said. “That’s why we get excited and that’s why we enjoy playing for him. He brings it every day.”

Unfinished business

Fleck scoffs when asked about the potential of bigger schools offering him better opportunities, more money, and a bigger profile.

“I’m 17-21, that’s what, about a 44 percent win percentage?” Fleck said. “That’s not exactly the win percentage you’d want. We have a lot of work to do at Western Michigan.”

Fleck and Beauregard admit there were schools inquiring about his availability last year, but Fleck decided to quickly brush them away.

“We have not done what we were truly going to do here,” Fleck said. “People who have an understanding of my personal life understand why I really, really love it here. The university has made a commitment to football and I’ve always dreamed of having a place I can truly build something and build it the right way, not a quick fix.”

Beauregard maintains Western Michigan will do everything it can to keep Fleck.

“It’s not going to be easy for him because we’re going to make it harder and harder for him to leave,” she said. “(But) ultimately all of that attention is tremendous and great, but it’s important he keeps his focus on where we are and every game with those student-athletes.”

The future has much promise — the Broncos return 13 starters, eight on offense — but Fleck is concentrating on the next team meeting.

On this day it’s about getting better during this next practice.

“I’m not sure what the future has in store for me, my staff, my players,” Fleck said. “But I know one thing. We’ll keep our oars in the water and we’ll just keep rowing.”

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

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Staff writer David Goricki contributed