This story appears in the Feb. 9, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The glow of an iPad illuminates P.J. Fleck’s face in the predawn darkness. It’s the Thursday before Signing Day and the third-year Western Michigan coach is watching film of four prospects from De La Salle Collegiate High near Detroit as he rides in the back of a black Infiniti SUV to watch their 6:30 a.m. workout. Fleck has been up since 5:15, as he is most mornings, and although he chugs coffee today, when he’s home he starts off with a drink from Biggby Coffee called the Coach: sugar-free Red Bull with ice, five strawberries, a banana and whipped cream -- double-blended.
At 34, Fleck is not just the youngest head coach in the FBS; he has changed WMU from a directional afterthought to a force on both the field and the recruiting trail. The catalyst behind this transformation? His enthusiasm. Between Fleck’s four years as a wide receiver at Northern Illinois and his two seasons playing for the 49ers, he spent a few weeks as a sixth-grade social studies teacher in DeKalb, Ill. When his kids studied ancient Rome, they wore togas: “I wanted kids to say, ‘I don’t want to be with Mrs. Johnson, I want to be with Mr. Fleck.’” He uses the same approach as a coach and recruiter. Fleck treats every team meeting like a pep rally, crowd-surfs after wins, shows daily hype videos and makes highlight tapes out of mundane things like winter workouts. “That’s what makes it so much fun,” says junior quarterback Zach Terrell. “There’s no monotony. Never.”
The effect is notable. A few weeks after the Broncos sputtered to 1–11 in Fleck’s first season, he landed the highest-ranked recruiting class in MAC history. In 2014, WMU went 8-5, pulling off the conference’s biggest turnaround ever, and as Signing Day 2015 approached, Fleck was poised to once again haul in the MAC’s top class. It includes Scout.com four-star defensive back Justin Tranquill (Carroll High), the highest-rated prospect in school history, who picked Western over Indiana, Illinois and Purdue. Not bad for a program that’s never won a bowl game.
Over the next 13 hours Fleck will bring his infectious energy to eight stops around Detroit, providing a peek at how he works his magic. “It’s a sickness,” he says of the search to connect with kids and motivate. “You can never rest.”
By 8:30 A.M. defensive line coach Vince Reynolds has steered the Infiniti out of the duo’s third high school stop. (Per NCAA rules, SI didn’t enter schools where the coaches visited recruits or sit in on home visits.) In the back Fleck preps for his next meeting and works the phone. He tweets or Facebook messages all of WMU’s committed recruits daily. Overall, he makes the maximum number of calls allowed by NCAA rules. “Hey,” he says into his phone around 10:30 a.m. to one prospect, “why aren’t you in class?”
Freshman safety Asantay Brown, a three-star gem of the 2014 recruiting class who picked Western Michigan over Minnesota, says Fleck directly contacted him 60 percent to 70 percent more than any other head coach. When three-star quarterback recruit Chance Stewart stopped by Kalamazoo on the way back from a basketball game last year, he arrived after 1 a.m. Fleck rallied 15 members of the coaching staff to greet him. “That’s the point,” Fleck says, “we really captured him.” Stewart chose Western over Wisconsin and Illinois. Two-star defensive end Andre Turner had late interest from Michigan State around Signing Day 2013, but seven Broncos-coaches -- instead of the usual one or two -- shoehorned into his home visit. “That sealed the deal,” Reynolds says.
As he makes his way around Detroit, Fleck wears a plaid skinny tie from Charles Tyrwhitt and one of his 50 pairs of sensory overload Happy Socks. Fleck is old school enough to keep one of Joe Paterno’s ties in his back pocket during games and funky enough to have worn a bow tie on the sideline. Kids remember. When he walked into Southfield (Mich.) High, he says, half a dozen football players sported bow ties in his honor, and they showed him socks that featured everything from palm trees to cheeseburgers to a disco theme.
Lest anyone think Fleck is all style and no substance, he churns out more catchy phrases and homespun wisdom than a fortune cookie factory. He and the university have trademarked the program’s motto --Row the Boat, which he relates to a shared sense of responsibility, trust and belief -- and he ends all text messages with “RTB.” (There’s a wall in the WMU facility with “row the boat” in a dozen languages, including Greek, Hebrew and Japanese.) When someone asks Fleck how he’s doing, without fail he answers, “Elite!” Ask any Broncos player and he’ll answer the same way. “He hypnotizes his guys,” says Greg Schiano, who employed Fleck as the wide receivers coach for two years at Rutgers. “He says it over and over and over again until it becomes part of the fabric.”
Fleck remembers coach Joe Novak’s speech before Northern Illinois beat No. 20 Bowling Green in 2002. Novak fired up the team by singling out the opponent’s cocksure young coach: “Who does he think he is?” Novak asked. He was Urban Meyer, who was making few friends while tearing up the MAC. Fleck realizes his slogans, style and recent success have made him similarly divisive. He has the highest salary in MAC history ($800,000) and brings back a team on which freshmen and sophomores played 80 percent of the snaps. “Now, I’m that guy,” he says. “Here’s the thing about me, you either really like me or hate me. There is no in between.”
Recruits seem to like him. Fleck’s first verbal commitment in the 2016 class is Top 20 quarterback Matt Little from Evanston (Ill.) Township High, who had planned to visit Florida before pledging to WMU. Little’s father, Gary, is a veteran of the recruiting process who saw his older son, Chris, lose a scholarship offer from Wyoming when a coaching change was made after the 2013 season. (Chris ended up at South Dakota State.) Fleck earned Gary’s respect when he told Matt, “This might not be the place for you. Maybe I’m too hard on you. Maybe you don’t want to be coached.” Fleck also went through the strengths and weaknesses of all the quarterbacks on the roster. Gary Little found the honesty refreshing. “The secret sauce,” he says of Fleck, “is that he’s intoxicating.”
After six high school stops, two home visits and a recruit’s wrestling match, Fleck heads to the Oakland County airport. Tomorrow four recruits are visiting Kalamazoo, and the coach will be up and waiting for them, workout over, caffeine slammed and feeling elite!