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A brief history of P.J. Fleck’s ‘Row the Boat’ phenomenon at Western Michigan

P.J. Fleck, still rowing that boat. (Bryan Bennett/Kalamazoo Gazette-MLive Media Group via AP)

Western Michigan football was almost completely anonymous when P.J. Fleck took over as coach in December 2012, the kind of vague obscurity that comes with having a cardinal direction in your name. The Broncos had been to four bowl games, but they weren’t the kind you’re usually proud of: One of them was a game named after a pizza chain, and another was played in Toronto. The program could be counted upon to win anywhere between three and maybe seven games in a Mid-American Conference season, and that was about it.

P.J. Fleck has brought excitement to Western Michigan in his fourth season

But Fleck, who’s all of 35 years old, has changed everything — so much so that ESPN will bring its “College Gameday” road show to Kalamazoo on Saturday ahead of the 10-0 Broncos’ game against Buffalo. Western Michigan currently sits 21st in the College Football Playoff poll, one spot behind Boise State. The higher-ranked of those two teams at the end of the season will play in the lone New Year’s bowl slot reserved for teams outside the so-called Power 5, this year the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.

And it’s all because the Broncos “row the boat.”

That’s pretty much all Fleck has been saying since he arrived, and he explained why to in 2013, before he even had coached one game:

“Row The Boat is a method of how our whole program will fit together,” Fleck said. “It’s also a saying that has such a simple meaning, but there’s so much behind it in terms of a way for the whole community, the whole faculty, administration, players and student body can rally behind something greater than itself.
“I had ‘Row the Boat’ a long time ago, but I never brought it out. It’s very simple when you break it down. There are three parts to rowing the boat. There is the oar, which is the energy behind rowing the boat. There is boat, which is the actual sacrifice, either our team or the administration or the boosters or the audience or whoever is willing to sacrifice for this program. There is also the compass. Every single person that comes in contact with our football program, fans or not, they are all going for one common goal and that is success.” …
“When you literally talk about rowing the boat, you’re facing the opposite direction the bow of the boat is actually going,” he said. “You’re not able to see the future. We’ve set sail and we’ve set our direction from point A to point B, whether it’s right now to win a MAC Championship, or be the first person in your family to get a college education or to beat cancer.
“We’re making it global and community-based. Everyone can relate to this. The boat is set in a direction and we’re rowing. We can’t see the future but we can see our past. Our past is the program. It’s the people. That’s what we’re looking at and we’re learning as we go. We don’t know if there’s a waterfall ahead of us, rocks, smooth seas or sunsets. We have no idea. We just have to keep rowing.”

The Broncos went 1-11 in Fleck’s first season but were 8-5 in each of the two seasons after that, winning their first-ever bowl game last year. Now they’re 10-0, and Fleck’s name is being attached to just about every big opening out there. You can see why in some of these pregame pep-talk videos.