Fleck sees Western Michigan as more than speck on map

College game's youngest head coach working to take Broncos to national scene

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KALAMAZOO, Mich.

— To illustrate a different way of thinking for Western Michigan football, P.J. Fleck walked across hot coals in a YouTube video.

To build tighter bonds at a program he envisions becoming the Boise State of the Midwest, Fleck and his assistants tiptoed together over broken glass. To raise money for Special Olympics, he plunged shirtless into 30-degree water at a lake on campus.

To create a recruiting buzz, the adrenaline junkie led his coaching staff in the Harlem Shake as the cameras rolled. To increase fan enthusiasm, Fleck risked mockery introducing game-day traditions in a video that included him demonstrating dance moves and chants.

If Fleck weren't coaching football, he might be chasing storms.

"I don't think they were gimmicks at all. That's who I am,'' Fleck, 32, the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, said Tuesday in his office. "The who and the how in this program are everything: Who can I influence to think how I think? I try to change my life on a daily basis by expanding my brain, expanding my limitations.''

As a result of the exposure, the Western Michigan athletic department raised nearly $5 million, and Fleck gained 27 oral commitments for a 2014 recruiting class experts consider one of the program's best ever.

"Anybody would want to play for that man if you heard him speak,'' Broncos running back Brian Fields said.

Through all the out-of-the-box, attention-grabbing stunts, Fleck never felt uneasy on the job until returning to work after Saturday's loss to Nicholls State in his home debut. Even then, reflecting on Western Michigan's 0-2 record created a comfortably uncomfortable feeling as Fleck stared at the stack of negative feedback on his desk.

"Losing is unacceptable here, but it's nice to see people are pissed off because expectations are high,'' said Fleck, a record-setting wide receiver at Kaneland High and Northern Illinois. "I'm 100 percent at fault for losing that game. My dad always told me your best isn't good enough unless you change your best.''

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald gave Fleck similarly sage advice over lunch four years ago that still resonates when addressing players or community groups in Fleck's quest "to make Kalamazoo elite.'' Fitzgerald, Fleck's counterpart Saturday night at Ryan Field who once was the country's youngest head coach, spoke from the heart about leadership — and from experience.

"Fitz told me, 'P.J. remember this: Being a head coach is not about managing people. You're not a manager. You're a leader,''' Fleck said. "That stuck with me and I think it's a big reason I got this job.''

Natural charisma is another. Former 49ers coach Mike Nolan sensed it in 2006 when he asked Fleck to join his staff the same day San Francisco cut the wide receiver before his third season. That would have been where Fleck started if then-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel hadn't surprisingly offered a graduate-assistant position. The two never had met.

"I had just flunked my physical trying out for the Bears so it was time,'' Fleck said.

That led to a job at NIU under college coach and mentor Joe Novak until Fleck left in 2010 for Rutgers to work under Greg Schiano, who changed his life. Schiano pushed Fleck like no boss ever had. He once worked 60 hours straight, happily.

"I never knew what my best was until I met Greg Schiano,'' Fleck said.

That respect contributed to Fleck's only coaching regret: accepting the offensive coordinator position at his alma mater Feb. 2, 2012. One day later, Fleck resigned to rejoin Schiano, the new Buccaneers coach.

"I never should have taken the NIU job knowing I was doing it to make everyone else happy,'' said Fleck, whose leaving alienated folks in DeKalb. "Maybe they wouldn't have gone to the Orange Bowl with me as OC. Everything happens for a reason.''

That reason became more apparent in December after Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard acted on former NIU athletic director Cary Groth's strong recommendation of Fleck. As Fleck packed for his introductory news conference, his wife, Tracie, made an announcement.

"My water broke,'' she told P.J..

Hours later, the Flecks welcomed daughter Paisley into the world one day before Beauregard introduced Western Michigan's new football coach to Broncos Nation. Reflecting on that flurry, Fleck maintained the motto he preaches to his team comforted his family.

"Row the boat,'' Fleck said, pointing out oars around the room.

What sounds trite to some was born of personal tragedy. The Flecks lost their second son, Colton, minutes after his birth in 2010 to a heart condition. They learned seven months into Tracie's pregnancy how short Colton's life would be. Repeating the words to each other helped the couple cope.

"It was another way to say never give up,'' Fleck said. "You can't know or see where you're going but you just put the oar in the water and row. We said if I ever became a head coach, we'd use that to help change a culture.''

One bold stroke at a time, the changes keep coming at Western Michigan.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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