Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck the other day made a claim that induced a chuckle on the other end of the phone line.
“I’m the happiest 0-5 coach in America,” said Fleck, whose team will visit the Glass Bowl today for a homecoming game against the University of Toledo.
New Mexico State’s Doug Martin, the only other Bowl Subdivision coach whose team is winless in five games, likely won’t argue.
Fleck’s honeymoon in Kalamazoo has come to an abrupt end, the bluster he demonstrated since his December arrival unable to mask a woeful product on the field. The Broncos have been outscored 182-70, suffering four defeats by an average of 28 points. In its only competitive loss, WMU fell 27-23 at home to Nicholls State of the Championship Subdivision.
Fleck, who at 32 years old overtook Toledo’s Matt Campbell as the youngest coach in the country, said his program might have to take one step back from the recent Bill Cubit era in order to take two forward.
In eight seasons under Cubit, WMU finished with anywhere from four to nine wins and never captured a division title in the Mid-American Conference.
“You have to be able to change the community’s thought process, you have to change the administration's thought process,” Fleck said. “You’ve got to find different ways that maybe they’ve never done before that now all of a sudden you have to do. If you continue to do the same things over and over and over you’re going to get the same results.”
Fleck, who had never been a coordinator let alone a head coach, arrived to WMU flashing unbelievable charisma. He brought the mantra, “Row the Boat” — a reminder to move forward amid difficult times — and ordered himself wood business cards in the shape of a canoe. His goal is to have a boat oar hanging in every business in Kalamazoo.
Fleck, who played at Northern Illinois, became a staple on blogs. Photos surfaced in the winter of a shirtless Fleck jumping into frigid water at a Kalamazoo polar plunge. He went flyboarding on summer vacation, getting raised high into the air over a body of water by a water-powered jet pack.
He hired a disc jockey to entertain fans at Waldo Stadium. Among the hottest tracks: A hip-hop spin on the famous children’s song, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Fleck at a spring practice demonstrated for fans a dance that accompanies the song.
Fleck, who occasionally refers to himself in third person, is not for everyone. His special teams coach quit days before the season opener citing personal issues. His former director of operations, John Kuceyeski, now holds the same position at Toledo.
“Maybe in three years were 12-0,” Fleck said. “We’ve never been 12-0. There’s going to be a lot of things in this program that have never happened. Maybe good and bad. Maybe bad to start out with and good later on. That’s part of the culture change.”
If Fleck manages to prove wrong his skeptics, the rest of the MAC will have reason for concern. WMU’s 2014 recruiting class ranks top in the MAC and boasts 10 three-star prospects according to Rivals.com.
Among WMU’s 26 commitments are 10 prospects who report an offer from Toledo, the preeminent force in MAC recruiting in recent seasons.
Fleck said he and his staff have needed to “put out fires” started by other coaching staffs using WMU’s rough start as ammunition to raid the Broncos’ class.
Campbell, who shares a birthday with Fleck and is one year older, said he’s not intimidated by the momentum WMU has established in recruiting.
“We are who we are. We’re not changing,” Campbell said. “We’ve been really successful in how we’ve done things and who we’ve identified. I certainly wish him the best of luck. I know he’s a young guy kind of going through the same situation I am.”
Their teams, however, are in much different spots, a fact Vegas acknowledged when it listed the Rockets a 22½-point favorite for today’s game. Toledo hasn’t beaten an opponent by that many points in two years.
Fleck — who has lost nine starters to injury since the spring, including 2012 MAC freshman of the year Jaime Wilson — is playing 16 guys who prior to this year never took a snap in a collegiate game.
WMU’s schedule hasn’t done Fleck any favors, with road dates against three Big Ten programs.
“I think every single game we’re getting better,” he said. “We really are. I truly believe the foundation is being laid for the future. We’re building a program here, a true culture change. I think that takes a lot longer than what people think it takes.”