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P.J. Fleck photo

Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, right, congratulates receiver Corey Davis (84) on the sideline after a touchdown reception in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Akron on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Akron, Ohio. Western Michigan won 41-0. (AP Photo/David Dermer)


ARLINGTON, Texas — Not long ago, when many key players from this season’s undefeated Western Michigan football team were freshmen, the only victory the Broncos could muster was a one-point win over UMass, a program only a few years removed from the Football Championship Subdivision.

Quarterback Zach Terrell, in his fourth year as a starter, remembers that game very well. Western Michigan stopped a two-point conversion attempt with 22 seconds left to preserve its victory.

“I mean, we should have been 0-12, honestly,” Terrell said. “We should have lost that game we won.

“And all that failing that we went through. … Just to go through everything we did that season really is what set the foundation for our team and our older players.”

College football didn’t see Western Michigan coming this season, and even some of its players had trouble seeing this type of end result with P.J. Fleck when he was a first-year head coach in 2013.

Fleck came to Kalamazoo, Michigan, from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the wide receivers coach and at the time was only seven years removed from being a graduate assistant at Ohio State.

“It’s kind of hard to see the vision at that time, because a lot of guys were kind of down in the dumps,” wide receiver Corey Davis said. “Coach Fleck just stayed with us. We bought into that mantra, the ‘Row the Boat’ mantra. And it has everything to do with this program and everything to do with the adversity that we faced just to keep going whatever you are going through. We believe in it. We saw a vision for this program to be a top program and be a nationwide program, and we’re on our way.”

The “Row the Boat” motto originates from a tragedy Fleck experienced in 2011, when he lost his second son to a heart condition shortly after birth. Fleck said there are three parts to the saying — the oar is the energy one brings to their life; the boat is the sacrifice one is willing to give up for something they never had; and the compass represents the direction of one’s life.

What does this have to do with Western Michigan’s program, or even football at all? Fleck said the “Row the Boat” idea focuses on turning your back to the future and only controlling the present.

“The only thing you can control is rowing in the present, your oar staying in the water — no matter how bad the sea’s out, how bad the storm is,” Fleck said.

“No matter how much sunshine there is or calm it is, your oar stays in the water. … You are looking at the past. The past is something you cannot take back. You can’t control it anymore. It’s done. But it’s the only thing when you row the boat that you can learn from.”

Western Michigan’s 1-11 season was far from the type of real-life tragedy Fleck experienced in 2011, but the Broncos believe that learning from that year and focusing on the present day in order to steadily improve has helped elevate the program to heights it’s never seen.

To be expected after the Broncos’ success, Fleck was a hot name for coaching vacancies around college football this month, but he now expects to sign a contract extension.

That certainly gives the Broncos (13-0) a boost for the Cotton Bowl against the University of Wisconsin (10-3) on Monday at AT&T Stadium. Fleck and some of the players on this roster remember that 1-11 season, and it was Fleck’s vision that began digging Western Michigan out from the cellar of the Mid-American Conference.

“We have been a part of all that,” Terrell said. “We have been to the bottom. And now, so to speak, we’re almost to the top. And I think a lot of that has to do with everything we have been through. And that humility that it’s built inside of us is something we’ll never forget.”


Jason Galloway is the Wisconsin Badgers football beat writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.