Fleck's energy has Western Michigan surging

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- The bucket list rests in the Franklin Covey planner on the coach's desk. It is a single piece of 12-year-old composition paper that has survived stints from San Francisco to Columbus, Ohio; from DeKalb, Illinois, to Piscataway, New Jersey; and now from Tampa, Florida, to here at Western Michigan.

"Have you ever seen that from him?" Broncos athletic director Kathy Beauregard asks with glee. "Oh, you should ask him sometime."

The bucket list made its appearance nearly four years ago when Beauregard visited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' facility to interview the receivers coach about the possibility of leading Western Michigan. It had been written back in 2004, back when P.J. Fleck was a recent college graduate without much of a direction, back when he became a sixth-grade social studies teacher and was not sure if a 5-foot-9 receiver like himself could cut his teeth in the NFL.

Personal and career goals are split into two different categories on the list, with everything written in red marker. Check mark upon check mark has been scribbled in pen or pencil in all the years since, including next to the first objective under the career section:

Be the youngest head coach in Division I-A.

Fleck earned that distinction during that job interview in 2012, at the age of 32, winning over Beauregard. Together, they withstood a rocky 1-11 debut campaign in 2013 that cast plenty of outside doubt about what either was thinking upon entering this marriage. Three years later, Western Michigan is ranked for the first time in program history -- No. 20 ahead of Saturday's game against Eastern Michigan -- and sports a 7-0 record.

The bucket list offers just one of the glimpses into the coach's worldview, which has its own mantra -- "Row the Boat" -- that at this point has seemingly become as synonymous with this upstart program as the letters "W-M-U" themselves.

"This was right when I was transitioning between being an educator and going into the NFL, around that time of what I really wanted to see where my direction was going," says Fleck, who had a brief stint as a player with the San Francisco 49ers. "Because right out of college I taught, but then the NFL came along so then I always loved football. So it was like: 'What do I want to do with my life?' .... And then once I started playing I'm like: 'All right, I have to stay in football the rest of my life. I need it.'"

As he says this, Fleck notices a missing check mark, so he crosses off another item, this one on the personal list: Fly in a jet fighter.

The list shows he has seen the Washington monuments, spent a Christmas in New York and has taken his kids to Disney World. He has yet to learn how to ski or meet the President of the United States, although those both seem like much less of an achievement than the biggest stat that has driven his Broncos to their perfect start.

Western Michigan made it through its first six games without committing a turnover, something no FBS team had accomplished in the previous 20 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It is a testament to yet another of Fleck's mottos: The Ball is the Program, which players repeat again and again in interviews. They end practice daily with "program" drills that put ball carriers through gauntlets. The one constant on their weekly "Purpose Three" -- keys for the upcoming game -- is "The Ball." Into a microphone at practice, Fleck regularly screams "chin it!" in any and all situations. (A Davon Tucker lost fumble ended the no-turnover streak last week at Akron.)

"Whoever has the ball, whoever has anything to do with the ball or while that ball's in your hands, you pretty much have the program in your hands," says junior Jarvion Franklin, who broke the program's single-game rushing record with 281 yards in its 41-0 win against Akron. "So the program's either going to sink or swim depending on what you do with the ball."

There's that boat theme again, a sign that permeates so much of what this program has done during Fleck's four-year run, even if it was met with skeptical eyes at first.

"Honestly my first reaction was: 'What does a boat have to do with a bronco?'" says redshirt senior quarterback Zach Terrell, who had redshirted under former coach Bill Cubit. "And how's a bronco going to row the boat?"

When interviewing Fleck, Beauregard had become aware of the now often-told story of how Fleck had lost a son, Colton, shortly after birth to a heart condition, and how that life challenge would shape much of his philosophy. But it was not until his introductory news conference that he mentioned "Row the Boat," blowing his boss away then with his ability to be himself in public.

If that sounds quirky, consider that Fleck has given each of his players a vile of dirty water as a reminder of the harm that bad company can do. Or that he keeps a miniature trash can on his desk that was given to him by his wife, Heather, to represent all the problems he must handle when others enter the head coach's office.

There have been the over-the-top videos of walk-ons receiving scholarships. There have been the T-shirts that have worked in the word "HOW" -- another program maxim, this one to chart what makes your "who," be that as a person or a football season -- into pop culture items like "Star Wars" or "The Simpsons."

There have been ... well, just let the players share their personal favorite Fleck surprises:

"Last week he came in dressed as a pirate," senior end Keion Adams says. "Since we have a boat, pirates protect what's on their boat, and what's on our boat is our culture. We want to protect that. We never want to expose that or let any bad into it. ... Go into someone else's harbor and take their treasure, so there's something funny behind it. His imagination got going."

It tends to do so quite often, safety Justin Tranquill attests.

"There was one time last year he came in with all the other coaches and they had like styrofoam balls and they looked like rocks because we had themes each week, and the one last year was a rock fight," the redshirt freshman says. "But he comes in and they just start like launching them all across the room. And they weren't throwing them soft. Pelting guys, guys just getting beaned in the head and throwing them all over the place."

Adds Franklin of another team meeting: "Last year he came [in with] the Rocky music, dressed as a boxer, eye blacked out. He busts in, has his hands taped up, started punching guys in the front row like he's actually going to fight them. But he has gloves on. Throwing stuff around the room."

All this was hardly a premonition, and even Beauregard admits the story she's about to tell is cheesy, but she cannot shake the image she saw when arriving back to her Tampa hotel after one of her meetings with Fleck. A Kalamazoo native, she had come to Western Michigan as a gymnastics coach in 1979 and has been here ever since, now enjoying her 20th year as AD. But nearly four years ago, with her most important hire to date on the line, she saw crew team after crew team practicing near her room on the water, and she was blown away by the sport's scene in Central Florida.

"I could not help but reflect back to the fact that now all the crew that I watched in that hotel room when I was there interviewing him was the way we were going to end up going," she laughs. "A little symbolic to me. I'm a little karma, I'm a little superstitious, I'm totally a person who believes things happen for a reason. And it's the right time, the right place and it's the right person."

Franklin describes that right person as a ball of energy who has a contagious effect. If Fleck isn't fired up, which, Franklin notes, he has never seen happen, it might not matter, because the team's leadership is confident enough to carry the ever-present message.

Such an environment has helped Fleck sign the Mid-American Conference's top recruiting classes year-in and year-out, and he is quick to note there are no secret Xs and Os for drawing out success better than simply having good players. To his point: Terrell is one of two quarterback in FBS to have not thrown an interception (minimum 100 attempts), Franklin was the MAC's offensive player of the year in 2014, receiver Corey Davis is on pace to break the NCAA's career receptions record, and Adams leads the MAC in tackles for loss (11).

Fleck entered this season as a career 17-21 coach, and his rise has certainly rubbed rivals the wrong way. In the past month alone, Central Michigan coach and cancer survivor John Bonamego said after a 49-10 loss that he'd rather go through eight weeks of chemotherapy radiation again than lose to "that" team the way he did, while Akron players smashed an oar on the field before their 41-0 loss last week.

Fleck laughs at the notion that his lack of coordinator experience made him unqualified to be a head coach. His holistic approach contrasts sharply with the stereotypical Belichickian nature of his profession. He wants to motivate players to wake up and play for him each day, and he says he has zero desire to ever chase any coaching records, as he makes sure everyone is out of the office by 10 p.m. each night.

His bucking of conventions may best be exemplified on the field through the suburban Chicago native's two games against the Land of Lincoln's Big Ten programs. The old adage is that line play separates the big boys of that league from the skilled-but-undersized MAC challengers. But the Broncos held the ball for more than 39 minutes during a one-point win in the opener at Northwestern. And two weeks later in a 24-point rout of Illinois, they won the rushing battle 287-3.

"It all comes back to the culture that coach Fleck has established here, and that's one thing that hasn't changed since Day 1," Tranquill says. "He came in and he implemented 'Row the Boat' and the core values that come along with that, and that's been consistent all the way through. And a lot of people don't see that because people haven't kept up with Western and just see our success now, and they don't understand what all we've had to go through to get to this point.

"One thing is you get guys, and you get guys that come in and it takes a little bit for them to adapt to the culture, because it is tough, it's not easy. But just consistently applying that and coach consistently reinforcing that and drilling that into our heads and then us taking that and applying it is what's going to build an elite program, which is what we're working toward each and every day."

Everything Western Michigan has built this season points to a Nov. 25 showdown with Toledo (5-1, 2-0), with a perfect season and MAC West Division title on the line. And, should other Group of 5 teams cooperate, the season could very well end in a New Year's Six bowl, too.

The reality of college football is Fleck will be a hot commodity in the coaching world regardless of how the Broncos finish this season. Beauregard feels as though this is a good position to be in, and she lauded her coach's open line of communication when suitors have called in the past. She says the school will do whatever it can to keep the 35-year-old Fleck, who is youthful enough to have pinch-me moments in a business that's always about the next play, the next practice, the next game.

Fleck is always changing his best -- yes, that's another saying around his program -- and that applies to his bucket list, too. Beside the line "Become a head coach at a major BCS program," there is a check mark, along with an addendum in pencil declaring that WMU is becoming major.

"How about that stuff, though?" Fleck says as he goes down the list. "I wanted to be the youngest ..."

His voice trails off, and the liveliest coach in America is, for the moment, at a loss for words.

"What are the odds?"