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Spillane overjoyed to see Broncos’ vision pay off

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — One visit. That’s all it took.

Robert Spillane made the trek from suburban Chicago to Kalamazoo in February 2014, spent about eight hours on campus, then finished the day seated in Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck’s office.

He was offered a scholarship, and he accepted.

No fuss ... unless you count the stunned and disgusted look on his mother’s face.

“His mom said, ‘No you didn’t! You are not committing today!’ ” Fleck said. “ ‘Wait until we tell your Dad!’ ”

Spillane stood his ground.

“I belong here,” he told his mother. “This is my destiny.”

Spillane, a junior linebacker, made arguably the two biggest plays for the team this season — a forced fumble late in the victory over Northwestern, and a late interception in the Mid-American Conference championship victory over Ohio.

In a season that’s been so storybook — Western Michigan is 13-0 and playing Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2 — it’s only fitting it’s had such memorable bookends.

All because Spillane — the grandson of a Heisman Trophy winner — knew where he wanted to be coming out of Fenwick High in Oak Park, Ill., even when the coach was telling him his running back days were over.

“I really felt the sincerity and the trust I was getting from him,” Spillane said of Fleck. “A lot of recruits look at the school name and the logo. Coach Fleck always told me, ‘Don’t look at the logo, focus on the people.’

“I understood very quickly.”

Asked if he’d like to identify other schools that were interested, Spillane said, “Nah, I’m good.

“I don’t like talking about recruiting,” he said. “It was never part of my high school experience. I didn’t have to deal with all that playing favorites, just playing with coaches’ heads.

“My verbal commitment was my word, my bond.”

Bookends were nail-biters

From Games 2 through 12, Western Michigan steamrolled through the back end of its nonconference schedule, then its conference slate. It won those 11 games by an average of nearly 28 points.

But Games 1 and 13 were nail-biters, first against Northwestern — the first of two victories over Big Ten teams — then against Ohio for Western Michigan’s first conference title since 1988.

In the first, Western Michigan scored a late touchdown on a fourth-down play to go up 22-21, only to watch Northwestern storm back to the Western Michigan 6-yard line. A score, and the Broncos would lose.

“We need the ball,” Spillane remembered saying that day. “Do whatever it takes to rip that ball off.”

On first-and-goal, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson ran a keeper, rolled to his left and looked to be heading for the end zone.

Before he got in, though, sophomore defensive back Sam Beal hit Thorson low, spinning Thorson clockwise, where Spillane was able to get his left hand in and strip the ball loose.

Game over.

Western Michigan was 1-0.

“And we’re not 13-0 without 1-0,” Fleck said.

Three months later, Western Michigan found itself in the MAC championship game playing for a perfect regular season and a New Year’s Six bowl.

At halftime, it looked like the Broncos would cruise to victory.

But in the second half, Ohio’s defense got tough, Western Michigan’s defense got a little loose, and the Bobcats mounted a comeback.

Ohio took over at its own 25 with 1 minute 24 seconds left, trailing by six. A few plays later, Ohio was at the Western Michigan 37.

But, two plays after that, it was over — Greg Windham’s pass sailing into the arms of Spillane.

Game over.

“It was pretty much like a slow-motion play,” said Spillane, who still was holding onto the game ball more than a half-hour later. “The first few plays, we were dropping deeper and they were moving the ball a little too fast.”

Spillane credited the coaches with making a quick adjustment and disguising the defense.

It worked, creating the 26th forced turnover this season.

Spillane had a hand in five — two forced fumbles and three interceptions — and earned second-team all-MAC honors.

‘He wasn’t lying’

Spillane isn’t a huge fan of talking about himself.

During the postgame news conference after the MAC championship, he talked about his teammates and trusting the process.

And he doesn’t bother to mention his grandfather, Johnny Lattner, won the Heisman Trophy as a halfback for Notre Dame in 1953.

And he doesn’t like talking about recruiting.

After he became the first commitment for the 2014 class, Spillane got to work on Fleck’s behalf, having a hand in bringing several guys aboard, including fellow Illinois native Jarvion Franklin, who rushed for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.

“My job was to recruit guys like Franklin and other guys and get them committed and get them in the boat,” said Spillane, 21. “Jarvion still talks about it, ‘You know you got me here.’

“We had known each other from high school camps. We were able to form a relationship and come here, and became even better friends.”

The next test, however, will be the toughest, against Wisconsin, which has three losses, all by a touchdown, to three of the top six teams in the College Football Playoff rankings.

One more win, and the No. 12 Broncos won’t be just 14-0, but could finish in the top 10.

That’s a long, long way from Fleck’s first year of 1-11 — and from that February in 2014 when Spillane put his faith in Fleck.

“That was the vision the whole time,” Spillane said. “We knew coming in as a freshmen class that we had talent. As long as we would buy into Coach Fleck’s culture and program, we would be successful.

“And he wasn’t lying.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

Getting to know ... Robert Spillane

Position: Linebacker

Year: Junior

Ht./Wt.: 6-2/218

Birth date: Dec. 14, 1995 (Oak Park, Ill.)

2016 stats: 105 tackles, 56 solo; nine tackles for loss, two sacks; two forced fumbles, three interceptions

Fun fact: Spillane’s grandfather, Johnny Lattner, won the Heisman Trophy as a halfback for Notre Dame in 1953.