Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck: A coach for the millennial generation?
KALAMAZOO, Mich.—An hour after the biggest night in Western Michigan football history, P.J. Fleck collapses on a chair in his office. The final family members, friends and staffers have trickled out after midnight, leaving Fleck to reflect on the Broncos' 37–24 loss to No. 5 Michigan State in the season opener. Tiny Waldo Stadium had rocked like no other night on Sept. 4. A sell-out crowd of 30,885 and a national television audience watched Western Michigan hold its own against one of the top teams in the country.
The night also offered a showcase for the unconventional Fleck, whose three-year tenure in Kalamazoo has evolved into the laboratory for college football's most fascinating coaching sociology experiment. Fleck wears cleats to practice, fancies himself more of a motivator than an X's-and-O's savant and has endured criticism for everything from putting a DJ booth in Waldo Stadium to a using a cache of catchphrases so expansive it has created a language—Bronconese.
On the biggest stage in school history, the stadium shook with an energy befitting a transformative moment. Chants of "Row! The! Boat!" echoed through the venue, a nod to Fleck's favorite phrase. (He and the school have "Row The Boat" copyrighted.) Fans swayed as the DJ played The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face," moving their arms in a rowing motion after the third quarter and creating an electric atmosphere.
"You hope that people took the feeling away," Fleck says. "Not just the game, but the feeling of how it was to be at the game. That's what it should feel like, look like, taste like and smell like every single week."
Fleck, 34, is the youngest and most intriguing coach in college football. He looks different than most of his peers; his good looks and close-cropped hair give him a boy-band appearance, and he occasionally wears bow ties on the sideline. He sounds different when he uses a microphone at practice, exuding all the energy of an over-caffeinated aerobics instructor. Everything about what Fleck has done at Western Michigan feels different, as back-to-back top-ranked MAC recruiting classes (according to Rivals.com) have turned Kalamazoo into a trendy mid-major destination.
Fleck holds a 10–18 career record heading into Saturday's game at No. 1 Ohio State, so it's still too early to make grandiose predictions about his future. But he may be an archetype for what college coaching could look, sound and feel like in the future. Fleck's emergence signifies that the next generation of coaches could more closely resemble stimulators than dictators, as his philosophy of motivating players to constantly "change your best" resonates. And as the end of Tim Beckman's tenure at Illinois—amid allegations of player abuse—reinforces, the era of autocrat coaches is ending. Players want to be motivated, not berated, which is why the next generation will likely feature more coaches with Pete Carroll's enthusiasm than Nick Saban's scowl. "Players want to be coached, they want to be taught," Fleck says. "They don't want to be screamed at. They don't just want to think of football as a job."
Is Fleck a flash in the pan or a glimpse of the future? No one is quite sure. Deadspin has mocked Fleck as the "Swaggiest Bro-Coach to Have Ever Swagged," and rivals have belittled his slogans and pointed out his lack of coordinator experience. But NFL scouts marvel at the crispness, pace and efficiency of Broncos practices and note that Western Michigan has more draft-caliber prospects than Michigan. Virginia Tech men's basketball coach Buzz Williams became so captivated by Fleck that he flew up to spend a day with him this spring.
"My job as a head coach is to lead, to be the motivator, the stimulator of the program, the brander of the program," Fleck says. "How do I want to transform our kids on a daily basis? My job is way bigger than X's and O's. My job is the person. Not the player."
Fleck gave Sports Illustrated all-access to Western Michigan for three days leading into the Michigan State game. What unfolded was a glimpse at the consummate coach for the millennial generation—and perhaps a sign of things to come.
I talked to a very special guy today. Jim Craig is the hockey goalie from the 1980 U.S. Olympic team when they shocked the world and won the gold medal. Here's what he said. Tell them that the team that they're destined to be is the team they decide to be. If you preach the ball, tell the guys on defense to go get the ball. That's what our coach told us, 'If you want to win, goalie, stop the puck.' Your instincts are built for you to do that. He said, 'End it with this.' The last thing you need to tell them is this—LIMITATIONS ONLY EXIST IF YOU LET THEM IN THE MIND. Get on the bus.
The moment Fleck delivered the final phrase of his pregame speech at 4:13 p.m. in a meeting room of the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo, 105 players stampeded out the door. It was if, well, they believed in miracles. Fleck says he has made as much as $10,000 for an hour of motivational speaking to private companies, and it's easy to see, but tricky to describe, his ability to captivate a room.
Fleck is a small man, as he stands at just 5' 9" with a size-31 waist. It's striking to see him in person and imagine him playing receiver for two years in the NFL, or even starring at Northern Illinois. (Fleck's Jeep Cherokee in college had a vanity plate highlighting his skill and jersey number: Hands 82.) He appears boyish enough to still get carded, and small enough to be mistaken for a member of the band.
In January, SI spent a day with Fleck on the recruiting trail as part of an assignment trying to figure out how Western Michigan is becoming an unlikely recruiting hotspot. (The father of three-star quarterback recruit Matt Little said Fleck's secret is "he's intoxicating.") Fleck came off as completely different than any coach making his way up the ladder.
Back in 2004, when Urban Meyer was at Utah, he paused in an interview to dial into the Mountain West reporters' weekly teleconference and listen to Wyoming coach Joe Glenn. (Meyer jotted down notes when Glenn mentioned Utah had small cornerbacks and used it as motivation all week.) At an Akron Subway in '07, Shaka Smart, then an assistant at Clemson, came off as intellectually as one could over a Cold Cut Combo. Brian Kelly broke down President Obama's campaign in his office on a Sunday in '08 while coaching at Cincinnati.
There are no clear indications of where Fleck's coaching arc will reach, but he quickly delivered a similarly lasting impression. On the Wednesday before the Michigan State game, he burst into a theater-style room for a 9 o'clock team meeting and said, "How are you, men?" Nearly 100 Broncos screamed back in evangelical unison, "Elite! COACH!"
Fleck asked the players to repeat themselves, reminding them of another of the program's sayings: "Your volume is your confidence!" If volume was a way to quantify the acceptance of Fleck's style, the room sounded more like the site of a religious revival than of a special teams meeting. Fleck is as comfortable in front of his team as Springsteen is on stage. "His energy," says redshirt junior quarterback Zach Terrell, "transcends down into everyone."
For all of his catchphrases and energy, though, Fleck connects on a deeper level. The genesis of Western Michigan's hallmark Row the Boat mantra reveals a bit of what drives him. On Feb. 9, 2011, Fleck's son, Colt, died shortly after birth from a heart condition. "People always ask me, 'Why do you have so much energy?'" Fleck says. "I have no choice. I'm living two lives. His life is the energy that I have. I'm living his life for him."
An hour before the team meeting that day, Fleck sat in front of 20 Broncos players at a leadership council meeting. The council is voted on solely by the players, and features a cross-section of classes, positions and personalities. Such gatherings are common around college football, but it's hard to imagine any others beginning with Fleck's statement: "This program is about serving and giving. It's not about you. It'll be that way as long as I'm the head football coach."
Fleck then went around the room and had all of the players define leadership. A common theme emerged—leading by example isn't good enough; listening is one of the most powerful leadership tools. "He practices what he preaches," Terrell says. "That's why you've seen the buy-in. We believe what he's saying, and he acts it out."
In the leadership meeting and later in the team meeting, Fleck hammered home one of the week's most clever themes: "Your perception is your deception."
He focused on the mismatch between Western Michigan senior defensive tackle Cleveland Smith, who weighs 262 pounds, and Michigan State's offensive line, which averages 314 pounds per player. He also rolled a clip that showed Spartans coach Mark Dantonio peeking at his notes during a press conference to identify specific Western Michigan players. "What's the perception?" Fleck asked. "He's never heard of you! Our perception is our deception."
Over and over as Fleck repeated this line, it became clear he could have easily been talking about himself.
Gimme your eyes. Gimme your eyes. Elite teams understand elite moments and elite opportunities. They understand that. You created and brought excitement, spirit, purpose back to Kalamazoo. You can feel it, you can see it. You can hear it. Tonight, leave nothing. LEAVE! NOTHING! Burn it all. But take everything. TAKE! EVERYTHING! Tonight is the night we get on our high horse, and we march the streets of Sparta to prove that our perceptions are deceptions. Men, we've got a date. WE'VE GOT A DATE! I promise you, that date is with destiny. Let's go pick her up.
Fleck delivered this message about seven minutes before kickoff of the Michigan State game. And no one understood the goose bumps that accompanied the moment better than Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard, who came to the school as the gymnastics coach in 1979 and never left. She is an anomalous lifer in a league known more for stepping-stone positions than for long-term job stability.
Beauregard's date with destiny came soon after she fired football coach Bill Cubit in November 2012 following a respectable tenure (51–47) that fell flat after eight seasons. In her research for a new coach, Beauregard called New Mexico AD Paul Krebs. In Bowling Green at 2000, Krebs hired an unknown 36-year-old receivers coach from Notre Dame. It was unconventional given that Urban Meyer had little playing pedigree and never worked as a coordinator.
"I asked him what he saw in Urban then, and he said was looking for someone with energy and strong relationships with the student-athletes," Beauregard says. Sitting in a Starbucks in Kalamazoo, she flashes a mischievous grin. "We know how that story ended."
Beauregard honed in on the qualities she wanted by tapping into her maternal and coaching instincts. Her 24-year-old son, Brad, was college-aged at the time of the hire. That gave her insight into the mindset of today's generation of college students. She also spent a few hours with a handful of the Broncos players. "Some of that was a wonderful conversation," she says. "Some of it was hard to hear."
Beauregard's takeaway was simple: The millennial athlete has a better response to prodding than to screaming. She sought someone with the energy and personality to completely rewire the program. Fleck popped up on Beauregard's radar through her friend and former MAC colleague Cary Groth, who was the athletic director at Northern Illinois when Fleck played there from 1999 to 2003.
Beauregard flew to Tampa, where Fleck worked as the receivers coach for the NFL's Buccaneers, and scheduled dinner at The Capital Grille. Fleck planned to be there for a half-hour because of game-plan duties. But three hours blinked by, and Beauregard found the same qualities that Krebs saw in Meyer. Her instinct said recruits would follow.
Beauregard arranged a follow-up phone interview for five members of her staff. It wasn't the easiest sell, as Fleck wasn't on anyone's radar. After two seasons playing with the San Francisco 49ers, Fleck worked as graduate assistant at Ohio State (2006) before completing stints with Northern Illinois (2007-09), Rutgers (2010-11) and the Buccaneers (2012). But when Beauregard asked Fleck to make an impromptu five-minute speech that he would give in his opening team meeting, he instantly gave her goose bumps. "One minute in," she says, "and I was ready to play for him."
By taking a risk, Beauregard left herself open for criticism. Plenty followed. She got second-guessed for Fleck's age (32), coaching inexperience and low profile. Fleck also went through a divorce that first year, as his wife tired of the constant moving and long hours inherent to coaching. (Fleck got engaged on Sunday to Heather Jackson, who he met in Kalamazoo and dated for the past year. He and his first wife, Tracie, have three kids—Carter, 5, Paisley, 3 and Harper, 2—and Jackson has a son, 8-year-old Gavin, from her previous marriage.)
Fleck's exuberance led to him emerging as a target from rivals and beyond, especially after going 1–11 in his debut season. In the most extreme case, Fleck found himself tied to such vicious message board rumors last year that one of the program's major boosters sued three online commenters for spreading them. A settlement was reached in June, with no terms disclosed.
"When you do thing right and your efforts start to breed success, people want to bring you down," Fleck says. "When they can't attack your career, they are forced to attack the personal side. Sadly, in the era of social media those false messages spread quickly."
Fleck was annoying, but not threatening, to opponents at 1-11. However, after engineering the country's biggest turnaround by going 8-5 last fall and finding success on the recruiting trail, Fleck is now a far more prominent source of other coaches' frustration. In December Beauregard made him the highest-paid coach in MAC history, with a salary of $800,000 per year, which only caused more grumbles.
"Sometimes when you're that young, you don't have any fear," says Greg Schiano, who hired Fleck at Rutgers and later in Tampa. "That's not a negative. You're full of ideas, and you're driven by goals. You're not going to let anything get in your way. If you offend some, so be it."
Gimme your eyes. Impossible is nothing, guys. Opportunities. Football comes down to three or four plays here and there. We had three or four plays on our side we didn't make. They had three or four plays on their side that they did. Guys, it's 0-0. Don't look at it like you're down 17 [at halftime]. Trust me. Trust me on this. Defense, come out flying around. Offense, one play at a time. Special teams, we're going to make something happen this half. I tell you what, at the end of 30 minutes, don't be around those goal posts. They're really heavy. AND THEY'RE COMING DOWN!
In his climb from NAIA student manager to the ACC, Virginia Tech coach Williams has sought out unconventional people. He has spent time in the off-season with former NFL coach Jon Gruden, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. He has met with everyone from author Jon Gordon (The Energy Bus) to pastor Steven Furtick. Williams connects based on a simple theory: "Peculiar people are attracted to one another."
This May, Williams cold-called Fleck after reading about him and flew to Kalamazoo. The two now talk or text nearly every day. "His plan is not exclusively tactical, it's also emotional," Williams says of Fleck. "I think that he's ahead of the curve in terms of how to teach and relate and coach this generation of kids."
There's no better sign of the changing mindset of coaching millennial athletes than the focus of Williams's off-season study—emotional intelligence. By understanding what makes his players tick, he can motivate them accordingly. "How can you help leaders better understand who they are leading," he says, "and be more aware of how they think and how those following them think?"
Williams considers himself an old-school coach, but acknowledges that players aren't wired to be motivated through fear, yelling and cursing anymore. Williams says there is merit to the way Bobby Knight coached, but the impact of that style would be limited now because the audience has changed so drastically. Fleck certainly yells and curses, and has enough football coach paranoia that he reminded his staff to check the trash cans to make sure no Western Michigan game plans were discarded there. But his motivational repertoire goes much deeper, from visual stimulation through daily videos to showing up to a team meeting in a karate robe to get a message across that he needs fight for his team.
With social media available as a way for players to vent and lawsuits against schools and coaches becoming the norm, Fleck's style is an acknowledgement that coaching needs to be more nuanced than it was 20 years ago. When star sophomore tailback Jarvion Franklin—the MAC's best player last year, who rushed for 1,551 yards—took a vicious hit to head against Michigan State, Fleck decided to sit him the rest of the game. When team doctors told Fleck there was a possibility Franklin could return, he never considered putting him back in.
Williams sees Fleck as an outlier, much like he was viewed when touting statistical analysis before it became mainstream. Williams says it's easy to pick on Fleck for being different, but those are the types of coaches who become agents of change. "I think his ceiling is unlimited," Williams says. "I think he'll coach at the highest level of college football and I think he'll coach in the NFL and be successful at everything."
First of all, I love you and I'm proud of you. Let me tell you a second thing, YOU'RE REALLY DAMN GOOD! You let the fifth team in the country slide out of here. SLIDE! OUT! What you just didn't know, is that you're really good. I tell you that because I think you're a mature football team and I'm passionate about you. My energy is for you. This needs to be a stepping stone. You looked like No. 5 tonight, besides three plays. I tell you, that's pretty damn elite. I expect you to change your best tomorrow and come to work with passion, energy and drive for 12 weeks starting tomorrow.
When Fleck first arrived in Kalamazoo in December 2012, one of the biggest criticisms of him was the zeal with which he pushed the Row The Boat mantra. Western Michigan's nickname is the Broncos, which has nothing to do with rowing. But Fleck spent his first few months on the job getting local businesses to hang up Row The Boat oars. He even jumped shirtless into a lake in February with Row The Boat written on his chest as part of a charity polar plunge.
The slogan captures the duality of Fleck's perception and reality, as there is a meaning and method behind the mantra. The first level of meaning behind Row The Boat comes from the obvious team metaphors—the oars are energy, the boat is the team and the more effort put into rowing the further the boat will travel. The willingness of Fleck to share—both publicly and to his team—the deeper meaning tied to his son's Colt's death shows a vulnerability and sensitivity uncommon in football coaching. "That's what I want people to understand," he says. "No matter what happens in your life, even the loss of a child, your life will go on. Your oar must stay in the water."
When Fleck decided Row The Boat would define his program, he followed through with quintessential enthusiasm. Instead of saying goodbye, he ends every conversation with Row The Boat! (In texts, he abbreviates it to RTB!) He has a lamp in his living room with oars holding up the lights. Fleck lives on a lake, and his own boat is named "Rowing."
Another of Fleck's coaching friends, Becky Burleigh, the women's soccer coach at the University of Florida, adopted the Row The Boat mantra after meeting with Fleck this summer to talk about process and philosophy. The Gators keep an orange oar on the sideline. And after upsetting No. 1 Florida State in August, Burleigh credited the Row The Boat concept in an interview. Fleck smiled upon seeing the clip. "There's one for Colt," he said to himself.
Where will Fleck's boat lead him next? No one is sure. The foundation is secure at Western Michigan for a strong run in the MAC, as only eight players on the Broncos' 44-man two-deep are seniors. (Junior receiver Corey Davis, who torched Michigan State for 154 yards, will have the option to leave early for the NFL.) Yet with a bevy of lower-tier Big Ten jobs expected to open at traditionally listless programs, Fleck could provide an intriguing antidote. He laughs off any notion of taking another job, noting that averaging four wins a season typically gets coaches fired, not hired.
As Fleck continues to defy convention with his endless energy, he has shown that wherever he ends up will look, feel and sound a whole lot different. And considering the way that coaching and recruiting is trending, it's easy to see the next generation of coaches following in his wake.