KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- The youngest head coach in the country is elite. Just ask him.
"How ya doin', Coach?" a familiar barista greets soon-to-be 34-year-old Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck.
"I'm elite," he replies, before proclaiming that the order at the drive-thru is on Coach's tab this morning.
Thank-yous go around. So, too, do congratulations, as Fleck has just been named to the semifinalist list for a national coach of the year award. There are also, of course, the good-luck wishes. Fleck's team is four days away from a Black Friday contest against Northern Illinois, the four-time reigning MAC champion and Fleck's alma mater.
A win, at the very least, would complete the Broncos' improbable rise from worst to first in the West division, from a 1-11 campaign in Fleck's debut season to a 9-3 mark in his second.
Success has arrived so fast for Fleck, whose personal tragedy and rapid ascent up the coaching ladder are sources for the seemingly light-hearted mantra that has come to define this overexuberant coach and his emerging program: "Row The Boat."
Row The Boat is evident everywhere in Western Michigan's football facility -- from the walls to the crew sweater that Fleck wears to practice on this day.
Like most in his profession, Fleck had a blueprint for how he would one day run his own operation. Having previously worked under Greg Schiano -- the coach responsible for overhauling Rutgers' football program -- Fleck saw the power of the Scarlet Knights' "Chop" creed, something they still use to this day.
"'Row The Boat' is a never-give-up mantra," Fleck said. "The oars are the energy you bring to your life, your family, whatever's important to you. The boat is the second part; that's the sacrifice: What are you willing to give up for something that you never had? And three is the compass, and the compass is your direction: Where are you set to go? Who's leading you? Who's following you? Where is your compass pointing?"
As elementary as it sounds, it traces back to a harrowing time in his life, in 2010. Fleck's second of four children, Colton, died of a heart condition shortly after birth. Fleck and his wife knew during her pregnancy that Colton would not make it long, and they treasured those few precious moments they had together before saying their goodbyes.
It was through a parent's worst nightmare that Fleck was able to chart a course for his life, a fail-safe method that could bring levity to an otherwise miserable one-win season with the promise of all the good that could still be had.
"If everyone can row in the same direction, the same speed, the same efficiency," he said, "we'll get from Point A to Point B faster than we thought we would."
If Row The Boat has been the theme of the WMU program under Fleck, "The How" has been the motto for this surprising season.
"This is the summit," Fleck tells his players at their Monday morning meeting. "The death toll on this is 99 percent. You're going to be that 1 percent."
A slide on the PowerPoint presentation behind him shows a mountain with the team's 2014 opponents lined up in chronological order, from the bottom to the top. Another slide offers all of the weekly nicknames attached to 2014's schedule, also known as "How Mountain." Among them: HOWkies (Virginia Tech), ToLeadHOW (Toledo), HOWcoming (Homecoming vs. Ohio).
Fleck rattles them off, punctuating IdaHOW (Idaho) to his assembled audience: "You-da-how ..."
"WE-DA-HOW!" the players shout back in unison.
"It's an active HOWcano," Fleck says, and everyone cannot help but laugh. "What's going to happen at 11 a.m. on Black Friday? The shoppers will hear what's happening at Waldo Stadium."
The origins of so many of these mantras can be found in the cavernous office overlooking the Waldo Stadium field, which doubles as a library of sorts for the kinetic architect who looks barely older than his players.
To the left of Fleck's desk hang three different framed black-and-white photos of former president John F. Kennedy alone in thought, atop the phrase "If only ..." A fourth photo, just off to the right of the others, rests above four key questions:
Who's glad? How glad? Who's mad? How mad?
Of the many dignitaries Fleck admires, none holds a bigger place in his heart than JFK, whose leadership and charisma fascinate the coach. The pictures and accompanying phrases are reminders of the seat Fleck now holds as the head of the program, responsible in one way or another for everything that happens in that building.
To see him now, it's hard to remember that not so long ago Fleck was an assistant at NIU, learning the ropes under Jerry Kill, now the head coach at Minnesota. That came after his first stint in the business, as one of Jim Tressel's graduate assistants on an Ohio State team that made a run to the national title game. Fleck arrived here at Western Michigan, in his first head job, after three years working under Schiano at two different college and NFL stops, completing the triumvirate of coaching royalty upon which he so often relies.
Fingerprints of those mentors dot his current staff, a mix of young and old that features everything from a pair of seasoned former Rutgers colleagues at both coordinator positions (Kirk Ciarrocca, Ed Pinkham), to a 33-year-old former NIU teammate at defensive line coach (Vinson Reynolds), to an up-and-coming former rival recruiter (Mike Hart) whose not-too-distant exploits at running back resonate with today's youth in a way others' simply cannot.
Fleck is building a culture at a place that has not won a league title in any of his players' lifetimes. At an overlooked program in an overlooked league, that starts at home. If that means meeting with donors to help remake the locker room, or plastering league player of the week honors on the walls, or driving a golf cart around campus and throwing gear to the student body to drum up interest, well, Fleck is not above any of it.
He isn't shy when it comes to finding unique ways to motivate his players, either.
At one practice, the former receiver took corner Donald Celiscar up on a summer challenge that he couldn't beat him one-on-one. Fleck blew right by him on the route, dunked the ball over the goalpost and made the entire team run afterward. He also has the team run in and out of the building to and from practice and up and down the stairs to and from meetings.
Slowly, the enthusiasm Fleck showed began to permeate the team. Despite a 2-3 start to the season, the Broncos started believing. They started winning, eventually ripping off six in a row, the latest a win over Central Michigan.
Before the Broncos' Monday morning meeting, Fleck starts a new tradition to honor the rivalry win.
The team gathers in the lobby, right outside a remade storage closet that now shows off some of the program's ever-growing history. Fleck dedicates the Victory Cannon, given to the winner of that rivalry, and places it in the trophy case. Players break out in the school fight song, a little extra pep in their steps as they race to their last Monday assembly of the season.
Though Fleck has made massive strides, WMU showed against NIU there is still work to be done. The Broncos finished the game with seven total turnovers and on the wrong end of a 24-0 run. Fleck was left to watch his alma mater win the league for a fifth straight time one week later, the Broncos' dream season having ended prematurely.
Still, everything remains ahead of schedule. Fleck just signed a six-year extension with the Broncos, facilities upgrades remain in the works and the incoming recruiting class is widely regarded as tops in the MAC.
"What you're seeing is wins and losses, which to me don't necessarily count in terms of the turnaround of a culture, a program," Fleck said. "We're years away from what I think this program can truly become, where 35,000 people show up every single week, win or lose. Where people around the nation know Western Michigan, understand Western Michigan's brand. Understand 'Row The Boat,' and it becomes a household name."
A win Saturday over Air Force in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl would make it an eight-game turnaround from last season. More importantly, it would mark the Broncos' first bowl win.
The trophy from that triumph would bring a new addition to that revamped storage closet that, perhaps more than anything else, draws the line between past and present for a program willfully ignorant of whatever ceiling others have imposed on it all those years before.