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updated: 9/12/2013 10:28 PM

Former Kaneland star comes to town with WMU

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  • P.J. Fleck of Kaneland is the youngest head coach of a major college football program. His Western Michigan Broncos will face No. 17 Northwestern on Saturday night in Evanston.

    P.J. Fleck of Kaneland is the youngest head coach of a major college football program. His Western Michigan Broncos will face No. 17 Northwestern on Saturday night in Evanston.
    Photo courtesy of Western Michigan Athletics

  • Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck

    Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck

  • Video: WMU football trailer

  • Video: WMU Game Day Traditions


First-year Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck can be described a number of different ways.

The Kaneland High School graduate is the youngest coach in FBS at age 32. He'll return home Saturday when his Broncos take on Northwestern at Ryan Field (8 p.m., BTN).

Fleck made his name as an undersized receiver at Kaneland and Northern Illinois, then scrapped his way into two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.

To say he jumped into this Western Michigan job with both feet would be way off. Fleck did a cannonball, then climbed back up the high dive and added a belly flop.

His enthusiasm has been boundless and it backfired last week with the release of a video titled, "New Game Day Traditions 101." In it, Fleck explained to WMU fans his expectations for the new program. Here are some highlights:

•A foghorn will sound 20 minutes before game time, a signal for the fans to pack up their tailgates and get into the stadium.

•A deejay will be on hand during home games (DJ Ill Mix) to help entertain fans in conjunction with the WMU marching band.

•When the opponent reaches third down, DJ Ill Mix will fire up Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" -- and Fleck demonstrated hand gestures fans should execute to the music.

•At the start of the fourth quarter, every Broncos fan is to face right and perform a rowing motion. This coincides with the team's theme, "Row the Boat."

•After games, the players will lock arms, sing the alma mater with fans, then one player will climb a ladder and lead the band in the school fight song -- not with a baton, but with an oar.

The video drew attention on the Internet. Kalamazoo, Mich., isn't the most nautical-oriented town, so taken by itself, the "Row the Boat" theme and the oar stickers on the players' helmets can seem silly.

Then everything fell flat last Saturday when the Broncos fell behind 21-3 and lost at home to FCS opponent Nicholls State from Louisiana.

Now, based on message boards and comment pages focused on WMU football, there are two primary perceptions of Fleck: He's a ridiculous self-promoter who should shut up and just coach. Or he's the ideal candidate to turn Western into a consistent winner.

"I was hired to build a program, not build a season," Fleck said. "Did I fail last week? You bet I failed. I've failed a lot in my life. I'm not a failure, but I've failed a lot in my life. I knew it would be hard when I took the job."

For inspiration, Fleck can turn to this week's opponent. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald took on his current job at age 31, and after some rough beginnings he has the Wildcats ranked No. 17 in the country. Fleck considers Fitzgerald a mentor and said he's provided plenty of coaching advice.

"He lost to New Hampshire his first year (2006)," Fleck said. "So before we all dive into the water and jump out of the boat, sink it, drill holes in it -- just remember, Pat Fitzgerald, who has a top 15 program -- he lost to New Hampshire in his first year, too. That stuff is going to happen."

Fleck was both defensive and determined when speaking to the media this week. He suggested his frequent public appearances were designed to set a tone for the program and won't be a long-term occurrence.

Besides the "Traditions 101" video, Fleck can be seen doing a polar plunge with "Row the Boat" painted on his chest, and also demonstrating the rowing dance for students at some sort of spring pep rally.

Fleck also takes time to explain the personal nature of his "Row the Boat" mantra. He and his wife, Tracie, took it on after losing their second child to a heart defect shortly after birth. The idea is that no matter what happens, you have to keep rowing to get anywhere. And facing backward, you never know what sort of waterfalls might be in the way.

"Row the boat is not just something we say," Fleck said. "For anybody who understands the origin of that, personally, to me and my family, and whether they want to mock that; that's your choice. But that's why that's here. When adversity strikes, you're still rowing."

Fleck is still looking for his first win, but he's already built a massive recruiting class with 27 commits -- including Lakes quarterback T.J. Edwards and Stevenson lineman Zach Novoselsky.

"We know each other well. I'm very happy for him," Fitzgerald said of Fleck. "For sure it takes time. You can pop in that Michigan State tape (in Week 1) and be really, really impressed with the way they played."

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