Kalamazoo — The bracelet on P.J. Fleck’s right wrist, once sparkling white and now dirty from three years of never taking the grubby thing off, reads, “W2F.”
This bracelet, which Fleck started wearing after the miserable 2013 season, stands for, “Worst to First.”
And, officially after Friday night’s 55-35 rout of Toledo, that’s the route Western Michigan has taken in Fleck’s four years on the job — from 1-11 in Year 1 to 12-0 and a spot in the Mid-American Conference championship game this year.
“If you dream it and you vision it and you have the right people and the right culture, and you have the right process in life, eventually it will happen,” Fleck said in a wildly passionate postgame press conference at Waldo Stadium after the victory over Toledo. “The hard thing about college football is you don’t have enough time to do it these days.”
WMU and athletic director Kathy Beauregard were patient with Fleck, who was hired at age 32, even amid all the losing and chaos that first season.
And it’s paying off big-time this year.
A win over Ohio in the MAC championship game this Friday night at Ford Field, and the Broncos almost certainly are heading to the New Year’s Six Cotton Bowl — to be played, actually, on Jan. 2, because New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday.
“I have never been happier for all of Bronco Nation to be able to celebrate Western Michigan University together with the distinctive success of an undefeated football team,” said Kathy Beauregard, WMU’s athletic director for 20 years.
“How fun was that?”
The fans, who braved chilly, rainy conditions, sure had fun, storming the Waldo Stadium field after the victory. And the players and coaches sure had fun, still singing and chanting in the locker room more than a half-hour after 12-0 was secured.
With stars all over the field, including several who will play on Sundays soon — senior receiver Corey Davis set the record for Football Bowl Subdivision career receiving yards, senior quarterback Zach Terrell has Heisman-caliber numbers, junior defensive back Darius Phillips has four interceptions, including one to finish off the victory against Toledo — WMU has become quite the storyline, not just in West Michigan, not just in Michigan, but throughout the country. It’s ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll and 21st in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, and both rankings are likely to get a boost this week.
“It’s a blessing. God is good,” said sophomore running back Jamauri Bogan, who had 200 rushing yards against Toledo, after missing significant time following an ankle injury suffered early in the season against Central Michigan. “Days like today are the reason we came here. We knew it was gonna be special.
“We didn’t know how fast it was gonna be special, but this blows my mind.”
Western Michigan now has its first appearance in the MAC championship game since 2000, and with a win there would have its first undefeated regular season since 1941.
It has a dynamic offense, but also an underappreciated defense — at least, from the national perspective.
The Broncos defense has forced 23 turnovers, including three Friday night — two interceptions, including a pick-6 on the first play from scrimmage, and a fumble. Those three turnovers led to 21 points for Western Michigan, which won by 20. On offense, WMU didn’t have a turnover through its first six games — the only team in the country that can make that claim.
Overall, the Broncos’ turnover margin is 18, tied for first with Washington, which could be in the College Football Playoff.
In 2013, Fleck’s first season at Western Michigan, the Broncos were last in turnover margin. Worst to first, again.
Fleck lives by the motto, “The ball is the program.” The ball has been secure in 2016, and the program has never looked better.
“We’ve come so far, we struggled so much,” said Davis, the first receiver in history to record at least 50 touchdown catches, 300 receptions and 5,000 receiving yards for a career.
“Just to see the smiles on these guys’ faces and the fans light up, it’s just a blessing. It’s a sight to see.”
WMU told his players in that Year 1 that those who stay will be champions. It was a page out of late Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s book of inspiration.
And, officially, that’s what they are now — MAC West champions, looking for more at Ford Field against Ohio (8-4, 6-2 MAC).
They haven’t won an outright MAC title championship since 1988, when Fleck was just 8, 24 years before he became WMU’s coach, and 25 years before he started wearing that bracelet, right alongside the gold, “Grow Higher” bracelet.
He wears that bracelet to remind him where his program was. As painful and frustrating as it was in 2013, Fleck has no plans to forget the tougher times.
After all, it makes the present times that much sweeter.
“If you believe in something greater than yourself, that’s what can happen. Never run from challenges,” Fleck said. “I’m so thankful for 1-11. It’ll probably be the most memorable season in my my mind.
“The 1-11 guys, they all get to leave here a champion.
“I’m just glad I didn’t lie to them.”
MAC Championship game
Ohio vs. Western Michigan
Kickoff: Friday, 7 p.m., Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Ohio (8-4, 6-2 MAC), WMU 12-0 (8-0)
Tickets: $10-$20, available at mac-sports.com