Broncos, Kalamazoo on wild ride to football glory

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck gets his players revved up as they finish a good morning of practice.

Kalamazoo — Justin Tranquill was a four-star prospect at a little town in northeast Indiana when a football coach from a school two hours to the north came knocking on his door.

In P.J. Fleck, Tranquill quickly saw the passion, the excitement, and the authenticity.

But Tranquill was an understandable skeptic, too.

This, after all, was Western Michigan, a school that at the time had no bowl wins to speak of, ever, and no victories over top-25 schools in its media guide.

"Exactly," the redshirt freshman defensive back said the other morning on the sidelines of Waldo Stadium at Western Michigan, after a heavy fog had lifted. "Whenever Coach Fleck explained to me the vision and the culture when he was recruiting me, it did seem a little bit out there. Because some of the things he was saying, talking about New Year's Six bowls and all these different things ...

"You're kind of like, 'All right, we're a MAC school, that might be a stretch.'

"It's just incredible to see how it's all played out."

When Tranquill signed with WMU and headed to Kalamazoo following his high school graduation last year, he was the highest-rated recruit in the history of a program that dates back to 1906.

Just a little over a year later, the mid-major Broncos have become one of college football's most poignant stories, and sit at 10-0 as one of just two FBS teams in the nation that remain unbeaten, joining some school called Alabama — which has won 16 national championships, to WMU's three MAC titles.

With a photogenic coach in Fleck, 35, who promotes the university like nobody before him, and a very possible berth in the prestigious New Year's Six Cotton Bowl looming, ESPN made the rare decision Sunday to send its ratings-giant "College GameDay" show to WMU for the first time, and to a MAC school for the second time.

WMU is a heavy favorite over Buffalo (2-8) in the 3:30 game, with Toledo looming for next week's regular-season finale. A subsequent win in the Mid-American Conference championship game at Ford Field on Dec. 2, and it's almost certainly hello, Dallas, a month later.

In Kalamazoo, 'GameDay' brings joy at end of tragic year

"We have fought for a lifetime," said long-time WMU athletic director Kathy Beauregard, the life-long Kalamazoo resident who made the bold choice in hiring Fleck at age 32 — and then quickly dealt with some donor backlash when the Broncos were 1-11 in Fleck's first season. "We are the only school that you can look at around the country that is an hour-and-a-half from Notre Dame, and an hour-and-a-half from East Lansing, and an hour-and-a-half from Ann Arbor, and we sit right in the middle and have a Division I program that has the budget for everyone (all sports) that all those schools have, if not more, just for football.

"And it's OK to maybe be looked at as the underdog, but to believe you can challenge for that and be a part of that and believe in that, it's a fantasy, it's a dream that it can happen.

"But you've gotta believe," Beauregard continued, sitting in her University Arena office on campus earlier this week, “or it never will happen."

Well, it's happening.

And it's spectacular.

Making progress

Kalamazoo isn't a totally unfamiliar place, at least nationally. Glenn Miller sang, "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." CCR sang about Kalamazoo in, "Down on the Corner." There's the Kalamazoo Promise, which guaranteed — and followed through — on free college tuition long before Bernie Sanders vowed to make it a national plan. Derek Jeter grew up here. There's also been heartache — recently (Uber killing spree, mass bicycle tragedy) and not so recently (killer tornado of 1980) — to propel the region into the national spotlight.

Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck guides his players through practice.

But this, this is different. This football season has brought mass attention to Western Michigan — a university that lacks a long list of famous alums, rather than just the area -- even if respect remains a work in progress, as evidenced by the national rankings (14th in the Associated Press, 21st in the College Football Playoff) and one AP voter who recently mistakenly voted for Western Kentucky instead of Western Michigan at No. 15.

That's OK. Progress is plenty evident, even if it can be an excruciatingly slow process.

There were times early in Fleck's tenure at Western Michigan where his weekly press conference drew crickets.

"Maybe two," Fleck said, laughing, when asked what's the lowest attendance he's seen for a media briefing. "I've never been by myself. You always have the SID.

"It was lonely for a while.

Not this week.

When he walked into the press conference at midday Tuesday, the immediate thought had to be -- to paraphrase "Jaws" -- we're gonna need a bigger room.

"This is what it should be every single week," Fleck said. "This is the expectation and pressure that we said we were gonna have to have here. We said we were going to create a national brand, and that's exactly what it is."

It's also a sign of pressure. WMU coaches and players talk about one-game seasons; fans and pundits talk about the expectations for an undefeated season.

"Pressure is earned," Fleck said. "A lot of people go through their life and will never experience the type of pressure (the players) have right now, ever in their lives. That's an honor, but that comes with great responsibility."

That responsibility starts with the coach, who was extremely embarrassed in August when two players were allegedly involved in an off-campus robbery. He kicked them off the team, spent the next day profusely apologizing to boosters for what he considered a breakdown in recruiting, then two days later spent the day continuing his apology tour with the media — before Beauregard finally had to step in and tell him to stop, get over it, and focus on the season ahead.

Fleck's display of accountability has long trickled down to his players, who, to a man, consider themselves blessed to be at WMU, be in this position -- but also be ambassadors for the city. They spent this past Monday feeding the hungry. They spend most Wednesdays visiting the local children's hospital, without inviting members of the press.

"(Fleck) always said, 'Those who stay will be champions,’" said senior Corey Davis, a record-setting wide receiver who was one of Fleck's first big commitments — borrowing a Bo Schembechler slogan. "Those who stayed, we believed in it."

And that doesn't mean just being champions on the field, but off — and in the classroom.

Speaking of the classroom, that's a very fun place for the players to be these days. More and more fellow students are recognizing them, as the buzz grows.

Heck, starting quarterback Zach Terrell walked into a class recently and received a standing ovation, from peers and many students much older than him alike.

"That's crazy," Davis said with a wide grin and a laugh. "He deserves it, though. He's an awesome guy."

National stage

On a foggy Wednesday on campus this week, it was quiet, as students lumbered to class. The buzz will be here Saturday, though. More than 10,000 fans are expected to rise and shine to get an awesome spot near the "GameDay" stage, before the show goes live at 9 a.m.

"We're waking up bright and early," said Derek Hobson, 19, of Rockford Illinois. "At 4 or 5."

"I'm not waking up that early," added his buddy, Kevin Frost, 20, of Warren. "I won't be front row. I'm gonna try to make it in, though, because how often do they come here, right?"

"GameDay" has set up shop in the state of Michigan 20 times before, between games involving UM and Michigan State. But this, obviously, is uncharted territory for Western Michigan, where officials honestly have no idea how many fans will flood the city or the campus pedestrian mall, where the stage will be, and where Lee Corso will make his prediction — likely Western Michigan. (He'll either wear a Bronco mascot head or do some version of "Row the Boat," Fleck's catchy, perseverance mantra that caught on so well in the community and at WMU, the school actually trademarked it.)

The 10-0 Broncos are suddenly in the NCAA football spotlight, with ESPN's "College GameDay" coming to Kalamazoo for their Saturday game.

The city is in preparation mode, too, especially the bars and restaurants — near campus, and downtown.

"When the game comes on, I'll have a full bar," said Green Top Tavern bartender Simon Mata, 26, of Kalamazoo.

That, of course, could lead to a record day of tips.

"Ha," he said, with a grin. "I could use that, absolutely."

A few doors down, at the Coney Island, waiter Roland Bissonnett, 20, of Kalamazoo, had a different spin.

"I'm terrified for it," he said, only half-joking. "I do not think we're prepared. It's going to be jam packed."

With that, he was asked what "Row the Boat" means?

"More work!" Bissonnett said.

The game against Buffalo, of course, will be a sellout of more than 30,000 at Waldo Stadium -- but the game, interestingly, might not be the main draw, at least in terms of enthusiasm. The teams have a wide talent disparity, to be sure.

But when ESPN brings "GameDay" to town, towns react — usually with massive crowds, especially when it's a town that's never before hosted such an event.

That's why when Tranquill, the freshman defensive back, got a screen shot from a friend Sunday, his immediate reaction was -- hoax!

"I didn't believe it at first," he said. "I was just kind of like, 'Psshhh, someone was messing with me.'

"And then I went on Twitter and saw so many tweets. This is the real deal.

"This is sweet." @tonypaul1984