KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Stand at just one hour-long practice and you might feel your blood quicken, your skin perk up and your body wish to go block someone even if you shouldn’t. Notice that hill beside the pretty stadium and the sprouting stump of a meaningful bamboo tree. Hear the music from the DJ — the DJ! — from Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire” to Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” to a quick country turn with Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country.”
Look. Here he comes now, across the field, the biggest 35-year-old football coach going. He has a storm’s energy and so much charisma he could give it out in bags and keep plenty. His voice has preceded him, because through practice he has pushed a button and interrupted the Smashing Pumpkins or Kid Ink or the Beastie Boys’ eternal “Intergalactic” with instructions such as, “You’re always auditioning! Every play!”
Should practice actually raise consciousness? “It should,” said P.J. Fleck, whose Western Michigan program has gone from 1-11 in his first season (2013) to 9-0, No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 1 among second-tier teams. “We want every sense out there touched. We want every sense out here to be explored, whether it’s the volume of the music or what actually is being played. What song, at what period, if you listen to it, is very thought-out, exactly what’s playing. When a field goal kicker kicks something, it’s the ‘Pressure’ song [‘Under Pressure’] by Queen [and David Bowie]. We do a lot of things that way to make sure that all the senses are met. And even after practice, we catch wet balls, frozen balls.”
The football building has bloomed into an ecosystem of stimuli both predictable and unusual. A Bahamas Bowl trophy sits in the lobby, near hallways with homages to former players, a compelling black-and-white photo of the first Broncos team (1906) and framed photographs reminding that these hallways once were blank. There’s a sign about nektons because nektons are “able to move independently of water currents.” There’s a sign about the famed late runner Steve Prefontaine, who “NEVER paced himself,” just went full-on.
Above water fountains: the sign “HE’S HERE,” with “HE’S” standing for “hydrate, eat, sleep.” Above locker room urinals: color-coded placards to show how to measure proper hydration. Next to the locker room: a sign paying homage to the 1-11 season.
Who pays homage to a 1-11 season?
“Oh, I wouldn’t change the 1-11 season for anything,” said senior quarterback Zach Terrell, the nation’s fourth-rated passer.
Failing, as their saying goes, isn’t failure.
“We promote failing every single day in the most positive way you can imagine,” Fleck said. “Failing is growth. Failing is amazing.”
The man keeps a three-wick candle on his desk. “The senses,” he said. He lights it mornings upon arrival and snuffs it nights upon departure. He matches candles to seasons, so right now it’s pumpkin coconut. “Has to be the three-wick,” he said, as it reminds him to “provide light for other people.” He walks the hallways multiple times per day, asking assistants and staff whether they need anything.
“We have leadership council meetings every single week,” Terrell said. “It could be, ‘Hey, the faucet on the drinking fountain isn’t running like we want it to,’ and he will get it fixed the next day. It can be as little as, ‘Hey, Coach, we don’t like that jersey combination.’ It could be anything, literally anything, and he’ll make sure it gets done.”
He does have the energy.
He arrived with it as a 5-foot-10, 191-pound wide receiver out of Northern Illinois to the 2004 San Francisco 49ers. “I love to talk about P.J.,” said Dennis Erickson, the 49ers coach then, a two-time national champion coach at Miami, nowadays the assistant head coach/running backs coach at Utah. And: “He first got there. He’s a free agent coming in. So what, you know? But then I watched him running routes and making plays and catching footballs. ‘This guy’s got a chance to make it.’ ”
He remained on the practice squad until the final game, when he returned a punt 10 yards, then stayed one more year on injured reserve. Erickson: “Everybody was rooting for him.” And: “He’s got a great charisma about him.” And: “It looks like his team is exactly like him from what I can see. They’re tough and they have fun playing.”
Before that, he arrived to Earth with it, the energy, said his mother, Linda Fleck, who with her husband, Philip, raised P.J. in Sugar Grove, Ill.
“It was fun; it was busy,” she said. “I remember asking the doctor, ‘He never, ever sits. Is he okay?’ And the doctor said, ‘Just an active little boy.’ ”
She warned the kindergarten teacher, but then came something curious: The energy merged with burning curiosity. “Well, he was a perfect student,” Linda Fleck said of kindergarten, and, come the homework years, “He would always go above and beyond whatever he had to write, or whatever homework he had to do.” On Saturday mornings before 8, he’d stand ready to get busy, alone if necessary. Sometimes, “He would pretty much throw the football to himself, catch it and run,” Linda said.
“I was always king of the ‘too’s’: too small, too short, too young, too inexperienced, too slow,” P.J. said. Briefly after college, he taught social studies to sixth-graders in Illinois. “You’ve got to teach 31 12-year-olds, 11-year-olds ancient Rome. . . . They’re looking at you like, ‘Really, history?’ And you’ve got to make it fun, dynamic, interesting, creative,” said Fleck, who keeps the History Channel documentary “America: The Story Of Us” on his desktop computer.
Question: “Could you sit in an office in a suit?”
Answer: “No way, not for more than 15 minutes.”
So, yes, he did appear before his team one day dressed as a pirate. (“If I just show them a movie, the kids will fall asleep, but if I come in dressed as a pirate, or I come in yelling, ‘The British are coming! . . .’ ”) They discussed pirates. They had “a lesson plan” about volcanoes. They’ve hatched their own Broncos dialect with, he said, 217 words.
Chronic in their lexicon, with their mantra “Row the Boat,” is that distinction between “failing” and “failure,” which conjures 2013, when Fleck tried to implement the culture, benched good players who neglected it and sat home nights in the dark mulling the “Rubik’s Cube” (his words). Terrell reckons he and Fleck were the two least popular people in Kalamazoo, before 1-11 turned to 8-5, 8-5, 9-0.
“You need to use [failure] to serve other people who might do the same thing,” Fleck said. “You get divorced? I got divorced. Fifty-three of my players, at some point, statistically, will be divorced. Guess what. They’ve got a guy in me who’s been there, and I want people who haven’t had a perfect life, because life’s not perfect. If somebody’s life’s really perfect and you’re looking at them like, ‘Wow, this isn’t much adversity,’ I don’t know if I’ll ever believe that person, or I never want them around my organization.”
At the corner of that organization, and the pretty stadium, they’ve named the hill “How Hill” for Fleck’s love for the “how” in life. There’s what they call a “Chemis-tree,” and also a young bamboo tree because, he said, “The bamboo tree, you plant a seed, for three years, you see nothing, nothing. The fourth year, it can grow anywhere between 90 to 100 feet, which we’re in Year 4, and we’ve all of a sudden gone, ‘Whew.’ Coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences, so I don’t think so.”
Years from now, he suspects, former players might enjoy the bamboo, especially those who went 1-11.