Western Michigan’s Fleck keeps focus on positives

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

There are fast talkers, and there is P.J. Fleck.

The Western Michigan football coach just might be able to explain the meaning of life during a commercial break — with a few seconds to spare.

“I have a passion and an energy for life,” said Fleck, who has taken a fledgling mid-major and turned it into a team on the cusp of the Top 25 — all in four years — heading into Saturday’s game at Central Michigan.

Fleck loves life.

He’s 35, making nearly a million bucks a year, and his status as a rising star in the business is evident when his name gets tied to just about every Midwest Power Five job that becomes available.

And when you hear him speak, you’re convinced he’s never had a bad day.

But he has.

In February 2011, Fleck’s then-wife, Tracie, had given birth to a boy, Colt. He died in Fleck’s arms a short time later from a heart condition.

“There are no bad days after that,” Fleck said. “When you experience life, you either sulk in it and you quit, or you continue to find the positives in everything you do.

“I believe in my faith, I believe in who I am, I believe in how I do things. Again, it comes from, what do you want your life to look like? You’re the only one who can control that. ... Everybody has the tough times. The perspective as I’m going through them immediately shifts to, how can I grow from it? How can I make this better? Row the Boat!”

‘I’ve failed more’

“Row the Boat” has become a signature phrase in Kalamazoo.

There are three parts of the boat — the oars (energy), the boat (sacrifice), and the compass (common direction). It pertains to the football program, and life in general.

It’s become such a hit that ...

■ Fleck’s bobblehead features him sitting in a boat;

■ The phrase is a common refrain among the kids Fleck and his team visit at Bronson’s Children’s Hospital every Wednesday, and even the troops who come home from deployment.

“They all understand what ‘Row the Boat’ is,” Fleck said.

And on the boat, it’s not always smooth sailing.

Fleck and Tracie got divorced during his tenure at Western Michigan — he was a single father in his early 30s, with three young children.

He has since remarried, to Heather Jackson, who also has a son.

“You use your failing as your growth,” Fleck said. “I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. Way more.”

Rivalry learned

Western Michigan officials went searching for a coach after the 2011 season to replace Bill Cubit, who had a winning record — and three bowl appearances — in four of his eight years.

The buzz for a replacement, however, wasn’t great.

There was interest from several former Division I coaches, but athletic director Kathy Beauregard thought she could do better. Through a tip from a friend, Beauregard heard about a young wide receivers coach with the Buccaneers. He never held a top position at any level, but he had Midwest roots, Mid-American Conference roots, and the personality, enthusiasm and energy Beauregard valued.

On Dec. 18, 2012, Fleck was named coach, amid some skepticism.

He remembers that introductory news conference because of the onslaught of questions about Central Michigan.

“I’m sitting there talking about the vision of the program — ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you need to beat Central. What do you think of the rivalry?’ ” Fleck said, with a laugh. “I’ve been here one day, give me a second!”

He gets it now. This week, he even called it a top-10 rivalry in the country.

“I truly believe that,” he said of a series that dates to 1907.

Western Michigan went 1-11 in Fleck’s first season, and boosters were having their doubts.

But in 2014, the Broncos went 8-5 for the best one-season turnaround in program history.

In 2015, Western Michigan finished 8-5 again, with a regular-season-ending victory over No. 24 Toledo — the first win over a ranked team in program history — and over Middle Tennessee State in the Bahamas Bowl — the first bowl victory in program history.

This season, Western Michigan is 4-0 — with victories over Northwestern and Illinois — and enters Saturday’s game on a two-game winning streak in the spirited rivalry series.

And Fleck?

His stock has shot up. He already could have left for more money and fame. Instead, he renegotiated a deal a couple years ago to stay through 2020.

Dreaming big

But not long ago, some still were convinced he wouldn’t be up to the task.

That was nothing new for Fleck, who calls himself, “King of the toos.”

“Too small, too short, too slow, too young, too dumb — the story of my life,” said Fleck, who grew up in Maple Park, Ill., about a half-hour west of Chicago. “I was a runt, and probably always will be. I’ve always gotta prove myself, but I’ve also dreamed really big.”

He first got on the Kaneland High’s coaches’ radar as a middle-schooler, even though he was “120 pounds, soaking wet,” coach Joe Thorgesen said.

At 5-foot-10, he joined the varsity as a sophomore, and his junior and senior seasons (the latter as a captain), he helped Kaneland to back-to-back undefeated seasons and state titles.

Still, he had one scholarship offer — from Northern Illinois.

“He probably got the last scholarship Northern Illinois had to offer,” Thorgesen said.

He played four seasons, two as a captain, for the Huskies. He was the top receiver as a senior, and also returned punts.

Thorgesen said Fleck always was hanging around the coach’s office in high school, but still had dreams of an NFL career. The coaching bug started at Northern Illinois, even though Fleck joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent, and, while mostly on the practice squad, saw some game action.

In 2006, his coaching career began as a grad assistant at Ohio State. He returned to Northern Illinois in 2007 and coached receivers three seasons, also serving as recruiting coordinator. In 2010-11, Greg Schiano brought him to Rutgers to coach receivers, and when Schiano left for the Buccaneers, he brought him along.

Once Fleck landed in Kalamazoo, he had to work his way up — he’s quick to point out he’s at .500, 21-21.

Most coaches live for wins. And Fleck likes them, too.

But it’s not the end-all.

“I refuse to let winning define who I am,” he said. “It’s about the process. It’s about the journey. If you put all your stock in wins, you’re gonna be miserable. Somebody’s gonna fire me. They might fire me here!

“We focus on the process. I just love the process of life.”

Western  Michigan at Central Michigan

Kickoff: 7 p.m Saturday, Kelly/Shorts Stadium, Mount Pleasant

TV/radio: CBSSN/1130

Records: Western Michigan 4-0, Central Michigan 3-1

Line: Western Michigan by 3½

Series: Western Michigan leads 47-37-2 (Western Michigan 41-39, Oct. 10, 2015)