Things at Western Michigan have never been better. The Broncos are 10–0, sit at no. 21 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and have earned a visit this Saturday from College GameDay. Nothing says a program is legitimate like the GameDay nod, the official sign that a school is worthy of having the groggy eyes of a college football nation cast upon it.
Back in 2012, it was tough to say if P.J. Fleck was going to be the best thing ever to happen to Western Michigan or just some babbling lunatic leading a seemingly normal college football program off a hilarious cliff. Hero or maniac, though, he got our attention.
Fleck was just 32, and his most high-profile job had been as offensive coordinator of his alma mater, Northern Illinois. But he had quit that job after just one day to be a wide receiver coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He left that job to become head coach of a school that had blended into the middle tier of college football, a program so unimaginative that its primary color scheme is wet cardboard brown.
At his introductory press conference, Fleck yelled stuff about how energetic and different he was and repeated his random mantra: “Row the boat.” WMU’s mascot is the Bronco, which cannot row a boat because it has hooves, its legs don’t move that way, and also because it’s a horse and doesn’t know how boats work. The school is located in Kalamazoo, about 50 miles from Lake Michigan. But, um, row the boat.
In his first year, Fleck did a lot of very silly things. He hired a stadium DJ and made funny videos and pulled scholarships from players who had committed to previous coach Bill Cubit — wait, that doesn’t really fit into all the cool, fun things he did at all, why did he do that? He also dove shirtless into a Michigan lake in February, and most importantly, did ridiculous boat-rowing dance moves.
Oh, and Western Michigan went 1–11. Fleck seemed more like a failing flash-in-the-pan madman than a visionary.
Except, then Fleck flew. He’s landed the best recruiting class in the MAC in each of the past three years. But he didn’t just out-recruit his conference opponents; he grabbed players who might have gone to major conference schools.
This year, the Broncos are led by three standout skill-position players. Senior quarterback Zach Terrell is completing 70 percent of his passes, with 23 touchdowns and just one interception. Running back Jarvion Franklin has run for 100 yards in every MAC game, including 281 against Akron. But the star is wide receiver Corey Davis, considered by many to be a first-round talent ahead of next year’s draft. He’s fast, tall, and springy, and although he has two hands, he probably needs only one.
Fleck is our most millennial coach, and I mean that as a compliment! I don’t mean that he’s “entitled” or “lazy” or whatever else millennials are, according to people who don’t like millennials. I mean that he does things in a way that seems stupid to the 50- and 60-year-olds who typically run college football. He makes videos he wants to go viral, and he even created a hashtag — #RTB — in case you run out of characters.
Success in college football relies on being able to appeal to 16- and 17-year-olds. And all things considered, Fleck is about as good at that as anybody in football. He’s gotten many good football players to play for a program with no history of success in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He might be 35, but he’s an honorary millennial.
Western Michigan is not the first school with a Bronco mascot to invent a new and confusing calling card for a program. Think about Boise State’s blue turf.
Boise State should not be good at football. There isn’t a ton of football talent in Idaho. There aren’t a ton of people in Idaho, period. Fewer people means fewer resources, and fewer resources means even fewer reasons to persuade talented football players to leave their homes and come to a cold place they aren’t from.
When Boise State started winning conference titles in the late ’90s, the Broncos weren’t just some other forgotten school having a nice season. They were the team with the blue turf having a nice season. The field made people pay attention. It turned a commuter school in Idaho into a nationally known entity. I’m sure more casual sports fans know Boise’s blue field than they do essential details about longtime power conference teams, like where Purdue is located, or what NC State’s mascot is.
Other schools have tried to mimic Boise’s success. On the other side of the mitten from WMU, the Eastern Michigan Eagles play on a gray-colored field. Just a few miles away from the Idaho border is Eastern Washington, which plays on the BLOODTURF. (The Eagles don’t officially call it the BLOODTURF, but I do, and I disagree with anybody who chooses not to.) And Central Arkansas plays on this hellscape that should be burned. But they’re not Boise State. They’re biters.
It is hard to sustain the success Boise State has had. Many mid-major football programs have good seasons. Hawaii went 12–0 and made it to the Sugar Bowl one time. Northern Illinois had a decent string of success with five straight 10-win seasons. Hey, look at Houston last year, going 13–1 and beating Florida State in the Peach Bowl! But for the most part, those moments are brief. Coaches leave for better jobs, star players graduate, and teams regress back into the mediocre middle class.
It’s tough to say what’s next for Western Michigan. Fleck is probably gone after this year. His $800,000 salary is the largest in the MAC by a lot, but would be barely half of the lowest coaching salary in the Big Ten. Honestly, it’s surprising Fleck wasn’t hired away last year after the team went 8–5 with a bowl win.
With all that in mind, this year is the most important one in the history of the program. The Broncos have two regular-season games left, and then the MAC championship game. If they win out, they could be in line for the New Year’s Six bowl slot allotted to teams from the Group of Five conferences. But right now, they’re ranked 21st, and Boise State is in line to take that slot at no. 20.
I beg the playoff committee to reconsider this in the weeks ahead. For one, WMU is undefeated. WMU has done everything asked of it, while Boise State lost to Wyoming. Fleck’s team has even beaten two Big Ten teams, Northwestern and Illinois. The Broncos could probably win the Big Ten West if they wanted to, but their schedule doesn’t give them the chance, and that’s not their fault.
But more importantly: Boise has had its moments in years past and it’ll have more in years to come. The blue field cannot move; it is Boise’s forever.
Western Michigan is in the midst of a unique moment, reliant on a special coach and the special set of players he recruited. Maybe “Row the boat” will last forever. Maybe Fleck will leave with it. Maybe the next guy tries to use it, but lacks the requisite charisma and energy that made Fleck successful. Maybe Fleck fails at a bigger school in need of a more conventional coaching style. Maybe this is the best it will ever be for Fleck and Western Michigan.
Dear playoff committee: Let WMU row the boat. Let those Broncos row as far as any horse can.