Friday, August 2, 2013

Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck talks "Row the Boat", everyday changes, future expectations

Ever since Western Michigan University hired P.J. Fleck last December as its new head football coach, the well-spoken and untested Fleck has ruffled some feathers. That's just how he likes it. Fleck is unafraid to speak his opinion or make sweeping changes with the Broncos' football program.

He has seemingly recruited very well and has added another layer to the rivalry with Central Michigan University. The Central Michigan faithful have been outspoken about how they are not exactly fans of Fleck's style of doing business.

Meanwhile, CMU head coach Dan Enos had a "no comment" when asked what he thought of Fleck's hiring. Enos might not have meant anything more than he said right there, but by not saying anything it kind of says it all. 

With a coaching resume that only dates back to 2006, the 32-year old Fleck is certainly untested as a head coach. Whether his "Row the Boat" motto and "change something every day" ideas take hold and help develop a consistent winner in Kalamazoo remain to be seen, but from watching Fleck at MAC Media Day last week it's clear he can take charge of a room. If only vernacular talent and ability to address the media won football games, Western Michigan would be all set.

The Broncos were picked to finish fifth in the MAC West Division this year and while no one is expecting a whole lot from WMU this season, if a highly competitive football team is not put on the field by late 2014 and into 2015 I wouldn't be surprised if Western Michigan fans get exhausted by his way of doing things.

Of course, if what he is doing in Kalamazoo takes hold then look out. Western Michigan could be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Here is some of what Fleck had to offer at MAC Media Day:

What does "Row the Boat" mean?
"Row the Boat’ is very simple. It’s a family mantra my wife and I had. We lost our second son and had to start living it instead of talking about it. I kept it in my back pocket until I was a head football coach because I thought it was something I could give back at that point. The oars are the energy of the program. The boat is the sacrifice to get into the boat. The community is the players and the focus is where we set sail. When you are rowing a boat, you are facing the opposite direction you are actually going. You are going toward the future, but you can’t quite see what is there. You have to trust in your process and trust where you are going. When one person stops rowing, another player has to pick it up and row for two instead of one. We can look back into the past and see where we’ve made mistakes and then try to correct them. We don’t care what’s ahead of us. Calm seas, waterfalls, rocky seas, injuries. It doesn’t matter. We are going to continue to row the boat."

You are getting a lot of attention these days for the recruiting you are doing. Are you pleased with all that attention?
"Recruiting these days stems from how much attention you are getting. Where do you rank? Where are you? That was never the case when I was growing up in the profession. Now it is. I don't really know if the stars project as accurately as people have them as far as who is going to be a player and who is not. It's really a true guessing game. But I'm really happy with all the progress we are making in recruiting. The number one job in our program is to recruit. Recruit these guys on a day-to-day basis. Make these guys think that Western Michigan is the greatest place they'd ever want to be. Make them happy. But I'm really happy with our staff and how long they work. They work long hours. It's nice to see some results. We don't know who we're going to sign or where we are going to be. We're going to lose some spots just because of the high numbers we have. Some of the other teams haven't signed as many, but I know this class is going to be really special."

It will be your first year in the CMU-WMU rivalry. Have you been reading up on the rivalry and what does the rivalry mean to you?
"It's a phenomenal opportunity for our players to play in a true tradition game. You aren't playing for something that no one knows about that is just between the team. It's the eighth-greatest rivalry in all of college football. That says something. That is awesome. The trophies have win-loss records that go back 100-some years ago. It's absolutely incredible. I want our players to understand that they can play within the Mid-American Conference in a huge traditional game. You don't have to go to the Big Ten or the SEC or the ACC to play in that. We have that in the MAC. We have the eighth-greatest rivalry in all of college football. Now I don't know who rates that. Maybe it's seven, maybe it's nine. But I know it's one of the greatest in all of college football and I'm proud to be the coach of Western Michigan that gets to play in it." 

The last week of the season you go back to DeKalb? What is your thought process for that one?
"You know, I thought about it one time and I got stressed out so I stopped thinking about it. I don't believe in stress. Stress is things I cannot control. I can't control DeKalb, Illinois right now. I can control P.J. Fleck and be the best coach I can possibly be today. And that's pressure. I put a lot pressure on myself as the head football coach and I have no problem doing that because I know these guys will back me up just like I'll back them up. Pressure is a day-to-day thing. Stress is down the road. But I'll tell you this, I have a lot of respect for that program. I truly love it with all my heart because it is the place where I played. It's where I bled, sweat, went to school. I met a lot of my friends there and they've always been so good to me. I'll be looking forward to that one when we get to it. That's for sure."

Is that program at Northern Illinois a blueprint for where you want to be?
"We're going to be us. That's a standard answer, but we're going to be us. We don't want to be anybody but ourselves. We're going to define that one day. If people want to be like us one day, OK. If they don't, that's fine too. But we're going to be us. I like to see what NIU has done, because I was a part of that. I remember going to recruit Jordan Lynch at Mount Carmel High School because I was there. The last senior class is the last one I had as a recruiting coordinator. They are a wonderful group. An elite group of men. They deserve all the success they've had, that's for sure."

How big do you think the BCS berth was for the Mid-American Conference?
"Tremendous. I don't care who went there. Whether it was Toledo or Northern Illinois or Eastern Michigan, it didn't matter. Having a MAC team in the Orange Bowl is one of the greatest feats this conference could ever have. I think it stems back to 2003 when Northern Illinois beat Alabama, Maryland, and Iowa State. That opened the door for a Boise State. And now look what Boise State has done. Because we went 10-2 and didn't get into a bowl game at that time. I think with Northern Illinois going to the Orange Bowl, who knows what can happen now. I think the new playoff system is going to help everybody. It gives people like us a chance to possibly win a national championship. To get into that top four one day and compete for it. It can happen more now than it could with the BCS, I promise you that. So we're excited for that challenge."

How do you think it changes an outsider's view of the conference?
"I think it changes the thought process and shows people it is possible. It helps increase the fan base and makes people take this program and this conference seriously. It takes wins like that to make people buy in. It shows someone that they don't have to go to the University of Illinois. They can go to Northern Illinois and get the same experience. I don't have to Michigan State or Notre Dame, I can go to Western Michigan with 36,000 people in the stadium just loving you. We can do that in this league. I think you are seeing that with Dan Enos being held over at Central Michigan, a team with so much turnover. I think you are seeing it at Bowling Green with Dave Clawson. Tenured guys in this conference. Frank Solich at Ohio. You are starting to get coaches that actually stay. Once that happens, you start building the league fan base and see things really take off."

You've had some facility upgrades already in place at WMU. Do you expect more improvements?
“Oh yeah. Every day we are looking for something that can be changed or asking ourselves what can be changed. What other door can I open? There will be a ton of changes around our building. Six months from now, nothing will look the same. From the field turf to the lockers to the hallways to the logos and possibly other things. Nothing will be the same. But that's me. I’m a firm believer in taking something and breaking it whether it needs to be fixed or not. You take a horse and you break it. You build it back into a horse, great. At least you took the chance in breaking it to see if it did need change. If you take that horse and break it and now it's a turtle, you needed to change it. You changed it to what it needed to be. That's what we're doing within our program and that's what these guys are being taught on a daily basis. To break themselves on a daily basis and find out about yourself. We're going to do that every day.”  

You have a lot of early away games against Big Ten Conference opponents. Do those games worry you?
"I think we have to change people's perspective because that's what everybody says. They say well if they go and lose against Michigan State, then no one is going to show up. They are the same old team. It's about changing the mentality of the town. Changing the mentality of the people. That's my job. I've been working the last seven months doing that. Rowing the boat has been a huge part of that. It's like a stock. You almost control a part of the team. If you can get 100,000 people at businesses or houses or wherever, they are going to have ownership of that program. I want that game day experience to change. They broke it down. It's like a 90/10 split. It was an NFL study, but it works for college too I think. Ten percent of the people that come to the game are the die-hard "you better win or else we will fire you" types. Then ninety percent just want to be entertained. We want to provide an entertaining atmosphere when you come to Waldo Stadium. Not only for these guys playing, but for the fans too and have it be interactive. There are going to be changes every year. Every day. Every day you come into the building there will be something. There might be a new lock on the door. There might be a new light switch going in. Or whatever. But every day something is going to be changing."

You talk about all the changes, but what older traditions at Western Michigan are you hanging onto?
"I think when you look at the Central Michigan/Western Michigan rivalry, it's the eighth-greatest rivalry in the nation. That's all of college football. Think about that. You can come to the Mid-American Conference and get the eighth-greatest rivalry in college football. You can get that within this conference and that is special. It's special to these players and special to me. We're going to keep that tradition alive. And then we're going to invent new ones. A hundred years from now, they'll talk about the traditions we started. This program needs that. It needs the stability. When you look at, what other traditions are there? It comes down to the fact that all the people show up. We're going to change everything. The problem with change is that everyone wants change until you have to change. They wanted change until they got me. Then they asked if they really want change or if this is what they signed up for. If they bought in, then they bought in. But everyone wants change until you have to change. That's hard for a lot of people. But if you want to get to where you want to get to, you have to accept change. Positive or negative, you have to change. So that's what we continue to do."

Some players adapt to change better than others. Do you ever think there could be too much change?
Oh I think so. About 30 years ago, Coca Cola changed its formula. Coca Cola went to the New Coke. That was the only time in the history of soda that Pepsi outsold Coke. Six months later, Coca Cola went back to their old formula and back to outselling Pepsi. So yeah, there are times too much change is bad. But we're not sitting there changing our name to the Mustangs. We're not doing that. What we're doing is establishing a new era that we're going to continue to build on. We're changing in order to make ourselves better on a daily basis. You break the horse and it comes back as a horse, you didn't have to change it. But we're going to challenge ourselves to change on a daily basis. That's fine as long as you challenged yourself and broke yourself to see if you've changed today. We'll always learn something every day that's changing."

When you built your coaching staff, did you want guys that fit your mold with constant energy? Or did you want coaches who offset your style?
"I think you want both. If there are too many me's, I don't know if you'd like that. I think what I wanted to do was to hire guys who offset any strengths I may lack in. I think I did that with every single one of my coaches. Whether that was personality-wise or X's and O's-wise or recruiting-wise, everyone had a role in why they were hired. It was a strategic plan and I got everyone that I wanted. I got my first choice with every single guy. I was pretty proud of that and proud that every one of these guys wanted to be a part of this program. I couldn't ask for any two better coordinators and our coaching staff does a tremendous job."

What would you say the number one thing is that you've learned as a head coach in six months?
"It's very simple. It's that not everyone is willing to change, but you have to find a way to still get to them. There are a lot of people in this organization that haven't had to change in 30 years. It's hard to change after 30 years. Now you've got this young punk coming in here telling you that you need to change and here is where we are going. Here's the direction we are going and hold on tight. That's been the biggest challenge, to get everyone on the same page. Not just the football team, but the organization and the administration. That's going to be the biggest challenge with me being the head football coach."

There have been some former players or alumni groups that haven't been on board with some of the changes you've been making. If you could tell them something to help get them to understand, what would you say?
Row the boat. That's all I'll tell them. Row the boat is a mantra that can be used in their everyday life that can help them. Just try that and then see if you want to be part of our program. I'm not going to make everybody happy. I don't plan to make everyone happy. It's lonely at the top because you have to make some tough decisions. There is never going to be a time where there is 100 percent feedback that everyone loves Coach Fleck. There are probably guys at this table that probably can't stand me. I don't have a problem with that. I'm not going to make everyone happy, but that's OK with me. Because I am doing the right thing and what I know is the right way. to get this program where it needs to be. That's what I got hired to do. I wake up every morning and think about how I can make Western Michigan elite."

With your philosophy on change, is that what made the Western Michigan job so attractive to you?
"It did. To be honest, making the jump to the NFL I didn't know how long I'd be there. When you buy a house, it tells you we are going to be somewhere for a long time. We built a house at Western Michigan, so that tells you I plan on sticking around a while. I feel like this program has so much to offer. I feel like it's just a hidden gem and a ticking time bomb. You have the rural area and you have the urban area. It's a true college town. You have some of the best restaurants in America in Kalamazoo. You have 26,000 students and a community around you. You have malls and shopping. You have pure Michigan. You have all these things to offer and it's just a hidden gem. It just needs to be dusted off a little bit and shined up. That's what I'm doing and the changes are to do that. It's not to change everything about the institution, it's to say this place can shine. Let's show how it can shine. Here is what I am going to do to make it shine. That's all it needs. A little buffering."

What do you say to people who bring up the fact that you've never been a coordinator and are therefore unqualified to lead a program?
"Well, I know a lot of head coaches right now that have never been coordinators. Offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator are totally different jobs than being a head football coach. Being a head football coach is all about leading. You organize, you hire. You structure. As a coordinator, you are locked into the X's and O's. That's your job. My job is to oversee everything. I've been around enough offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators and called plays. Maybe I didn't have the title, but I've called enough plays during a game. Just because you are a phenomenal offensive coordinator, it does not make you a phenomenal head coach. I've seen tremendous coordinators flop as head coaches. I've seen a lot of non-OC and non-DC's flop as head coaches as well. It just is what it is and I don't think it has to be a prerequisite to be a head football coach. Not just because it is me, but because I am living that job right now and it has nothing to do with being a good head football coach. I am living it on a daily basis and I think people are look way too into the whole coordinator deal. The progression they really need to start focusing on is that when you are an assistant, you are in charge of 15 young people. That's is who you are responsible for. As an offensive coordinator, now you are in charge of 50. It's the next progression. As a head coach, you are in charge of 105 plus the rest of your staff and everybody else. But just because you are good at being responsible for those 50 doesn't mean you will be a good head football coach. Some people believe otherwise. Living the job on a daily basis, the things I have to do, if I was a phenomenal offensive coordinator but not a very good people person I probably wouldn't be a very good head coach."


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