P.J. Fleck is 32-years-old. He was born in 1980. He is the youngest coach in FBS and, as you can imagine, he’s brought youthful enthusiasm to the Western Michigan Broncos.
– This spring, the first-time head coach hosted something called NEKTON Neon Night on a Friday night for students. During a break in practice, Fleck, who was a wide receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, took to the microphone and asked the student section, which he named the “Waldo Crew,” to follow his lead in the “Row The Boat” dance.
In a bright-pink shirt, he showed the students what he had in mind for the start of the fourth quarter of home games. This ended up on the sports website Deadspin, which jumps on sports moments ripe for parody and devours them.
– On Feb. 16, Fleck took a polar plunge into Goldsforth Valley Pond in Kalamazoo, Mich., to raise some cash for the Special Olympics.
– Of course, there was a Harlem Shake video.
– He’s also walked on broken glass and hot coals.
Kids these days.
“I don’t think they were gimmicks at all. That’s who I am,” Fleck told Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh last week. “The who and the how in this program are everything: Who can I influence to think how I think? I try to change my life on a daily basis by expanding my brain, expanding my limitations.”
Fleck took over when the school fired Bill Cubit last November. Cubit, who’s now offensive coordinator at Illinois, led WMU to a 51-47 record in eight seasons. The Broncos were 36-27 in the Mid-American Conference and went to three bowl games.
OK, now for the games, the stuff that matters.
The Broncos are 0-3 coming into Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium against Iowa (2-1). This will by WMU’s third Big Ten opponent. The Broncos traded punches with Michigan State in their opener at East Lansing, falling 23-16. Last week at Northwestern, they allowed 332 rushing yards in a 38-17 loss to the Wildcats.
Between those Big Ten defeats, the Broncos fell to Nicholls State, an FCS school that finished with 1-10 records in each of the last two seasons.
There has been some outrage since the Nicholls defeat.
On an MLive.com post where the team’s performance was graded, readers left comments. And, yes, the “Row The Boat” was kind of a target. The whole focus on ancillaries was a target.
georgewins wrote: “I hope the coach will focus on Xs and Os and cool it with all the hokum about rowing the boat and fabricated “traditions.” He still could be a success at Western — but he needs to focus on the team and cool it with all the jibberish.”
Fleck is working on it. His football pedigree is solid. He worked with Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano for three seasons, two at Rutgers and one in the NFL. In 2006, he was a graduate assistant at Ohio State under former coach Jim Tressel. Fleck was an all-MAC wide receiver at Northern Illinois, where he also served as offensive coordinator in 2012.
The Broncos are 0-3, but they also have 27 commitments for the 2014 recruiting class, including 10 prospects with three-star ratings from Rivals.com. Since Fleck has arrived, the athletics department has seen $5 million come in the door.
This week against the Hawkeyes the challenge is muscle.
Iowa is No. 31 in the nation with 238.67 rushing yards a game. WMU is 114th in the nation in rush defense, allowing 245.0 yards a game. Iowa has running back Mark Weisman, who leads the nation with 85 carries and is seventh with 141.67 yards a game.
“I think you and I can assume, yes, I think I would [expect to see Iowa want to run the ball],” Fleck said Monday. “They’re not going to spread us out and throw it 60 times. Kirk Ferentz and his background as an offensive line coach, he wants to run the football. Iowa has always been that way, especially under his leadership.
“When you look at it and we self-scout ourselves, I think when they sit down and gameplan, they’re going to sit there and say we’ve got to run the football. We have to be ready for that.”
Fleck was lively as ever during Monday morning’s MAC coaches teleconference. He believes in “Row the Boat.” The Kool-Aid is flowing in Kalamazoo. The abstract enthusiasm, however, probably speeds up the clock for a coach.
“Iowa believes in its system, believes in its culture, believes in the football way of life at Iowa. You can tell everyone does,” Fleck said. “We’ve got our hands full this week, but I’m proud of how our kids are playing. We’re trying our best to stay healthy and developing the young and inexperienced kids we have.
“I love coaching them. We’re becoming better coaches, better players and people.”