Row the boat: Western Michigan emerges under Fleck

This is a story about Broncos and boats and a young coach with a catchphrase that doesn't sound so corny when his team is contending for a conference championship.

A year after Western Michigan went 1-11 in coach P.J. Fleck's first season, the Broncos are 6-3 and riding a four-game winning streak into their home game with Eastern Michigan on Saturday. A victory would put Western Michigan in a tie for first in the Mid-American Conference's West Division with perennial league power Northern Illinois.

Fleck, at 33 the youngest head coach in FBS, arrived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, last year and implored his wayward players to ''row the boat,'' to focus their energy on the relentless pursuit of selfless self-improvement.

''We needed to become a team,'' Fleck said this week. ''We were so far away from being a team it was ridiculous. So how fast we became a team was how fast the turnaround was going to happen.''

Pretty darn fast, it turns out.

Still, row the boat? For the Broncos?

Even the players were skeptical when Fleck swept down on Kalamazoo, a torrent of optimism and enthusiasm with a slogan that sounded like it came from a self-help book.

''Honestly, when I saw the first press conference I was a little surprised,'' sophomore quarterback Zach Terrell said. ''I didn't know how coach Fleck was going to make the Broncos fit in with rowing the boat. But obviously it's something we have adopted, something we use not only as a slogan for our football team, but we use it in our everyday life and school. We always talk about rowing the boat. Coach Fleck has really brought it into the community.''

Fleck had seen firsthand what was needed to build a program.

He had been a star wide receiver at Northern Illinois when coach Joe Novak was building the Huskies into a mid-major power. He returned to DeKalb, Illinois, as a coach when Jerry Kill was in the process of rebuilding NIU into the MAC's dominant team. Then he went to Rutgers and worked for Greg Schiano, the architect of one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history with the Scarlet Knights.

Fleck realized Western Michigan had no traditions. No history. The football team had won two MAC championships in 108 years. The Broncos had played in five bowl games and never won one.

''If we were the Western Michigan Sailors I don't think it'd be much of a big deal,'' he said. ''Broncos have nothing to do with a boat, but it has nothing to do with that. It just had to do with a way of life.''

Never give up was the message behind the mantra.

''Maybe it doesn't make sense to people now, but maybe 100 years from now people look back saying that's when the tradition of Western Michigan really started,'' Fleck said. ''When you try to develop traditions, they're not traditions yet. But once they catch on and once you win, that's when it becomes an expectation. This program needs an identity.''

This year, Fleck added the top-rated recruiting class in the MAC, according to Rivals, to the holdovers from last year's team, and let the kids play. Western Michigan started the season with 18 freshmen listed on its depth chart.

None has made a greater impact than running back Jarvion Franklin. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he immediately stood out to the older Broncos.

''When I first saw him I was just like, `This man's a beast.' He doesn't look like a true freshman. He looked like a grown man,'' Terrell said.

Franklin has developed into one of the top backs in the nation. He leads the country in rushing touchdowns with 22 and is fifth in yards per game (147.8) and tops in carries per game (27).

''Once you got on the field and you saw the way he ran the ball and the way that he punished tacklers, has the vision he has, we knew right away he had something special,'' Terrell said.

The season is setting up for a special finish for the Broncos. After playing last-place Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan finishes with Central Michigan and a home game against Northern Illinois that could be for a spot in the MAC title game.

Thirty-five miles east of Lake Michigan, everybody seems to be rowing the boat now.

''There's oars hung up in every bar, every restaurant, every hotel, every Laundromat in the town of Kalamazoo,'' Fleck said. ''There's not one person that looks at an oar the same as before we got here.''

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/RalphDrussoAP

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