P.J. Fleck: I’ve Always Been The Underdog, A Runt

Only a handful of teams remain unbeaten in college football. Yes, you know about Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson, but there’s also No. 20 Western Michigan. The Broncos are 7-0 after their 41-0 win at Akron this past Saturday.

Western Michigan, by the way, went 1-11 in 2013. How does a program go from 1-11 to 7-0 in such a short amount of time?

“Well, first and foremost, it’s about the right people, and we have incredible people – from our staff to our players to our administration to our community,” Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to do something like that when people want it to happen and they believe it can happen. But we focus on the process. We are not a results-riven program, which is crazy in 2016. You got Les Miles getting fired for winning a national championship and SEC titles. You got Mark Richt (losing) his job for winning 10 games. If you focus on the result, which is only data and information and that’s all you focus on, you’re probably never going to get there. So we focus truly on the process.”

Fleck, 35, knew Western Michigan would need a rebuild when he arrived.

“Year 1 was about building culture – not even building, but digging culture,” he said. “We couldn’t even build a foundation until we dug as far down as we could. We started the season 0-8 and ended up 1-11 and should have been 0-12, to be honest with you. But nothing could compromise the culture being built Year One. Period.”

After a 1-11 campaign, the Broncos went 8-5 in 2014 and 2015.

“Year 2 we taught our players how to compete,” Fleck said. “Compete with each other, not against. I think there’s a big difference with that, being able to teach someone how to win and how to lose and how to respond to those type of things when they haven’t done it. Year 3 was about expectation and nevers and firsts and we accomplished 21 firsts in Year 3. Year 4 has been about pressure. It’s been about ever since January being able to handle the pressure, handle the expectations, prepare our players for something like this. We talked about this possibly happening all the way in January, and everything we’ve done has put a ton of pressure on our players. So again, it takes a lot of people to turn around a program, especially one that’s really won one outright championship in 109 years and never won a bowl game before us. We wanted to make the past Broncos very happy, obviously, and then the current Broncos as well as future Broncos.”

Fleck, who played wide receiver at Northern Illinois and with the San Francisco 49ers, has played for – or coached under – some greats, including Dennis Erickson, Jim Tressel, Mike McCarthy, Jerry Kill and Greg Schiano.

“I’ve always had a crack on my shoulder, not a chip,” Fleck said. “I’m one of those guys that’s just, you’re just a runt. I grew up a runt. I always had to do things a little bit different, a little bit harder of a way, but I got to be me. The people I’ve surrounded myself with, they shaped my life and they’re who I am today. I’m constantly growing, constantly changing, but those people set the avenue and gave me opportunities and saw something in me – or I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Fleck, of course, will be a hot coaching commodity this offseason, as several Power 5 programs, including Purdue, are looking for a new voice. How does a young coach balance what he’s trying to build while also looking out for his future?

“Well, you got to be real,” Fleck said. “You got be real. The one thing I know is I’ve been 0-8 as a ebad football coach. Even though you’re 7-0, you got five games left; we can easily be 7-5. Thats the way my life has been. I’ve always been the underdog. I’ve always been a runt. We’re going to continue to focus on what we can control, not focus on what we can’t control and focus the internal parts of ourselves and our program. Any exposure that has to do with Western Michigan is phenomenal for our university, for our community and for everything that has to do with the Broncos. It’s incredible for our brand. We went through the same stuff last year. So I think our players understand that, they know that’s coming. But my focus is on our players. It’s on what we’re doing right now. We don’t even have time to read articles, to go over things. We are so engulfed in this bubble that a lot of things that happen on the outside world, we don’t necessarily know about but it’s there. But our players know. One thing that they get from me every single day is 100 percent attention to Western Michigan football and them. I don’t think I ever show them anything different. I think if they saw something different, maybe they could question me, but they get everything I got. That’s all I can control. That’s all I can worry about. Speculation and rumors have been a part of my life since I was born. Thats why they’re rumors and speculation. But I’m just so blessed (to be where I am).”

The Broncos host Eastern Michigan (5-2) this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. Fleck isn’t worried about a letdown.

“We have a saying: Change your best. Period,” he said. “We have to be able to be better today than we were yesterday. It’s the only focus (we have). Our players love – love – coming to practice.  They love coming to our facility, and we love having them and we hate to see them go at night. That’s what we really enjoy is our time together. We’re going to cherish that every second, just like we did last year and the year before. We cherish our time together because I want these players to create memories and moments. We created 21 nevers that have never happened in this program last year. This year, we’re already off to 17 more nevers. There’s so much that we can accomplish and we’re off to a special start, but we’ve taken the approach of a one-game season every single week and that’s what we’ll continue to focus on. We are 0-0 and we have a championship game every single week. So they’ve earned the right to have pressure. Some people never have a chance to do that. We’ve earned the right to have pressure and have every game matter.”

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