WMU AD: Fleck a hot commodity, 'and that's a good thing'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck's six-year extension runs through 2020.

Kalamazoo — Kathy Beauregard was out and about on campus for a few hours Wednesday afternoon, hitting this function and that function, and she got the question over and over.

It's become routine.

How long can Western Michigan keep football coach P.J. Fleck?

"That's everybody's conversation," said Beauregard, the longtime athletic director at WMU. "But that's OK. It's a good thing. We've never really had that."

Fleck, at the ripe old age of 35, is one of the hottest coaching commodities in college football, thanks, in part, to a 10-0 record his Broncos will take into Saturday's home game against Buffalo. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be there, because of the record — but also because of Fleck's engaging personality.

WMU had never been ranked nationally until this season. Now, the Broncos have climbed all the way to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, and No. 21 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Four years ago, in Fleck's first season, WMU finished 1-11.

Even then, other colleges could see the impact he was making, and were very intrigued.

"I just know," said Beauregard, "that every year, there were certain schools, that were conversations on, and that we would talk about. And we made some changes along the way, and we really have a strong commitment for him."

In December 2014, two years after his hiring, WMU and Fleck agreed on a six-year extension that runs through 2020.

The deal made him easily the highest-paid coach in the Mid-American Conference, with an $800,000 base salary. This year, with all the bonuses he's set to collect, Fleck will make more than $1 million.

While the contract runs for several more seasons, WMU, of course, won't block Fleck from pursuing other opportunities. His modest buyout steadily decreases by $200,000 each year he remains with the Broncos.

Illinois is among the schools that have come calling over the last year, but Fleck, knowing the potential of his 2016 Western Michigan team, never really entertained such a move, even to the Big Ten. That's despite being a Midwest guy, an Illinois native, and a former star in the MAC, at Northern Illinois.

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Interestingly, Northern Illinois opted against hiring him — twice — over the last several years, believing he was too young. Oops.

"He won't take a job just to take a job," Beauregard said. "He's built it here, we're in great shape, the recruiting classes, what we do. And he won't be happy if we're still not growing, still not changing, still not making an impact."

The decision to hire Fleck wasn't an easy one for Beauregard and Western Michigan.

The AD, after firing Bill Cubit after eight years, decided against using a search firm to find his replacement. She figured nobody knew what WMU needed more than she did. Beauregard and Fleck met in Tampa, Fla., in 2012, as Fleck was on staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He had never been a head coach at any level, or even a coordinator. Beauregard expected her trip to Tampa to be an "in-and-out." But the meeting ended up lasting three hours, well into the night.

During her late-night drive from Tampa to Orlando, she called the only staff member she knew would still be in the office and said, with excitement in her voice: "I think we've found our guy!"

It was a smooth sell to some on campus, but understandably a harder one for others.

Then Fleck's Broncos went 1-11 in his first season, and boosters who once were on board were now concerned. But they only saw the results — they didn't see the vision already taking shape. After Fleck's hiring, he and Beauregard had another three-hour sitdown to go over everything Fleck thought the program needed.

At the end, Beauregard turned to Fleck and said, "Great. I don't have money for any of this."

P.J. Fleck is an Illinois native.

So the two of them got busy reaching out to donors, and within a year, they already had $5 million of the $9 million they were seeking, and the two football fields — indoor and outdoor — had new turf, and the football offices had makeovers. In each of the made-over rooms today, there's a photo of what they looked like before.

Fleck's first recruits arrived on campus already having seen a significant change from when they made official visits.

Then, in 2014, WMU went 8-5, with a trip to a bowl game. In 2015, 8-5 again, with the program's first bowl victory, seven tries in.

Then came this year. And what a season it's been — one that could end with a trip to the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.

It's left many wondering just how long Fleck will be in Kalamazoo, and just how much WMU can shell out to keep him.

"We have a community that can make that happen," said Beauregard, who recently suggested there have been at least initial conversations with Fleck's agent regarding an extension and a significant salary bump.

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"But it's gotta be a two-way street. It's gotta be what he wants ... himself and his family."

Beauregard said she and Fleck have agreed that any such serious discussions should not take place during the regular season, as Fleck's Broncos look to go undefeated into the MAC championship game.

There's an open line of communication between Beauregard and Fleck.

There already are job openings around college football, including at Purdue and LSU, neither of which is considered a serious landing spot for Fleck — Purdue because, frankly, it might not be a better job than Western Michigan, and LSU, because it always is obsessed with finding a big name with a longer resume than Fleck's. Fleck, being a Midwestern guy who knows the recruiting trails here very well, might prefer to stay closer to his roots.

Recently married for the second time, his wife, Heather, is a Kalamazoo native.

Would he change his tune if, say, the Texas job opened? Who knows? The one job that many around Western Michigan circles is concerned about — Notre Dame, where Brian Kelly could be on the hot seat.

"Obviously, it depends on what kind of jobs are out there exactly, and what his intentions really are and what's gonna make him happy," said Beauregard, whom Fleck, a former sixth-grade, social-studies teacher, adoringly refers to as "Boss Lady."

"Right now, he loves where he is. It's gonna come, if it's not now it's gonna be sometime with him. We know that. We all want the best for him and his family, and right now we believe that's here with the Broncos.

"And then, we'll see."