NCAAF Teams
Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer 317d

A 120-yard walk with Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck

College Football, Western Michigan Broncos

It's a few minutes past 11 on a Friday night at Detroit's Ford Field. Most of the 46,000 people who just watched No. 15 Western Michigan clinch the MAC championship and improve to 13-0 on the year filed out the exits and are steering their way toward home.

P.J. Fleck is ready to leave, too, but the rest of the Broncos faithful who stuck around to celebrate are not going to let him slip away so easily.

The Broncos' coach is standing 120 yards -- a football field and two end zones -- away from the tunnel leading to his team's locker room. He and his players just finished singing their fight song with the marching band and a few dozen fans. Several strain their arms for a high-five with Fleck. One of them, a woman in a Broncos T-shirt, is holding a sign with Fleck's headshot in the corner and the words, "We [heart] you. Please don't row away."

The problem with watching a spirited, 36-year-old coach take your favorite team from a 1-11 doormat to the Group of 5's best program in the course of four years is that everybody else starts to watch him, too. That nebulous "everybody else" has deep pockets, big stadiums and prestigious history, while you're sitting there with a hoarse voice and a cardboard sign and a distant hope that if you yell loud enough, maybe he'll listen.

It probably wasn't the sign that did it, but a week has passed and Fleck remains the coach at Western Michigan. No Power 5 coaching slots remain unfilled. There weren't many to begin with in 2016, and that certainly has helped the Broncos hang on to him to this point. Those that were open didn't show sufficient interest in the coach, or at least sufficient interest in waiting for him to wrap things up with this season, which culminates with a trip to the Cotton Bowl to take on No. 8 Wisconsin.

Fleck told reporters in Detroit he hadn't talked to any other teams as of that Friday night. He parried away speculation about his future by saying if he's learned anything in his young coaching career, it's that this job will eat you alive if you can't figure out how to just live in the moment.

At the moment, he's made it a couple of yards out of the corner of the field and is locked in an embrace with prominent Western Michigan donor Bill Johnston. If you've read anything about Fleck in the past year or two it won't surprise you to learn he's not a pull-away, one-armed hugger. He's a rib-cage-squeezing, chin-tucked-on-your-shoulder, hand-on-the-back-of-your-head kind of hugger. So Fleck and Johnston sway next to the end zone pylon whispering to each other about how this is exactly what they imagined it would look like when they met four years ago.

Johnston is one of the folks who have been instrumental in providing funds for the football program to grow. There appears to be more where that came from. He and his wife, Ronda Stryker, donated $100 million to seed a medical school at Western Michigan a couple of years ago. Kalamazoo is a town that takes pride in its philanthropy. (It's one of the few towns in the country that has raised private money to promise to pay full tuition to in-state colleges for any graduates of its public schools.) It isn't afraid to shell out some money for the things it deems important. Johnston played on the 1966 Broncos team that also won a MAC championship and sees Fleck as someone who ignites the community.

"We've had a real legacy in the MAC of some of the best coaches in the history of football," Johnston said a few days after the Broncos' big win. "One of the things the conference hasn't [done] is to retain one of those legacy coaches. Perhaps universities didn't have an appetite to do that. ... I think you can create an environment where a coach could say, 'Yeah I can be a legacy coach here.'"

Johnston and Fleck separate, and Fleck finds his wife's hand as they trot past a couple of more back-patters. Lt. Jeff Lillard, the Western Michigan police officer charged with keeping Fleck safe, wheels around and tries to keep pace. There was a team of five who rotated through the football coach security detail during Fleck's first season. The other four don't do it anymore.

A pair of Western Michigan dance squad members pop into his path at the 20-yard line and ask if he'll stop for a photo. Of course, he says, and the rest of the girls come jogging out to crowd around the coach.

The fans are next. A young man wearing a silver hardhat leans over the stadium wall near midfield and summons the coach for a selfie. A few others get high-fives. Fleck backs away and waves. He turns as someone beside the fan in the hardhat yells, "Wherever you go, thank you! Thank you!"

A player stops for a hug. Then a staffer holding the MAC trophy wants a photo. A man in a long brown overcoat pulls Fleck in for a long one -- it's his agent. He's at the 20, the 10, the 5, then he spots a couple of young fans with programs in the front row waiting for him. He changes course and signs a few autographs, a few more pictures.

Kathy Beauregard stands nearby and watches. The Western Michigan athletic director got her hug a little earlier in the night. She hired Fleck four years ago without the aid of a search firm by asking herself in part what her then-20-year-old son would look for in a new coach.

She's got her own fans leaning over stadium walls these days. A couple of weeks ago a young alum at a home game hollered down from the stands: "I've got a $50 bill. Will that help you keep Coach Fleck?" She promised to do her best and let him hang on to the cash. That's not the first time it's happened.

Beauregard says there's a plan in place to try to keep Fleck. She traveled to Boise with him for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl two years ago and together they tried to dissect the Boise State program and how those Broncos inserted themselves in the realm normally reserved for college football's bluebloods and cash cows. They talked about the possibility of building something similar with their Broncos.

Boise, of course, doesn't have two Big Ten powers and Notre Dame within an easy Saturday morning's drive. Keeping a fan's attention and loyalty in Kalamazoo takes more work. It takes a team or a personality that one can't help but keep watching to get them to stick around. Beauregard found that in Fleck. Now she has to find a way to keep him around, too.

"He needed to see progress. He needed to see commitment and passion," she said. "He saw the response."

Beauregard is realistic. She knows there might come a time in the not-so-distant future when Fleck needs to row on out of town. Heck, even Chris Petersen left Boise State eventually to get himself to the College Football Playoff. For now, though, Beauregard says she believes that Fleck thinks that "there is still business to take care of here."

It's a few minutes shy of 11:30 when Fleck finally makes it into the hallway beneath Ford Field's seats. His wife is by his side. Lt. Lillard is close behind catching his breath. He looks down at the FitBit on his wrist.

"I'm at 14,000 steps," he says. "This guy is hard to keep up with."

Beauregard says that Western Michigan is in the midst of "very positive" negotiations to extend Fleck's contract and almost certainly add a significant increase to what is already the highest salary among MAC coaches. There is nothing imminent, she says, but there are reasons for optimism in Kalamazoo.

Fleck is hard to keep up with, and eventually he'll be hard to keep. For now, Western Michigan is taking all the necessary steps.

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