BEST OF 2016 | Western Michigan rows the boat all the way to Cotton Bowl
P.J. Fleck made "Row The Boat" Western Michigan's football mantra when he took over as head coach in 2013.
Now, in Fleck's fourth season, the Broncos are rowing quite merrily.
Their journey continued Tuesday, when they arrived in Arlington, Texas, for the Cotton Bowl. They play Wisconsin, their third Big Ten opponent this season, on Monday. The eighth-ranked Badgers lost 38-31 to Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game.
It's a big payoff for Western Michigan and the MAC, and not only in prestige. According to the CFP's projected revenue, the MAC will receive $4 million and the Broncos $2.16 million to cover expenses.
Western Michigan has earned it as one of the nation's two remaining undefeated teams. Alabama is also 13-0.
While the Crimson Tide are playing in their third consecutive College Football Playoff, the Broncos are playing in their first New Year's Six bowl game as the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt).
This is also the first season in school history that WMU has been been ranked — currently No. 12 in the AP Top 25, No. 14 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 15 in the College Football Playoff Rankings.
They are averaging 496.7 yards and 43.5 points per game, led by running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan, quarterback Zach Terrell and MAC career receiving leader Corey Davis.
Davis, an ASN FBS Player of the Year nominee, also set the FBS career record for receiving yards (5,005).
The defense is allowing only 353 yards and 19.5 points per game, both No. 1 in the MAC.
The Broncos won their first MAC championship since 1988 and beat two Power 5 opponents for the first time in one season, the Big Ten's Illinois and Northwestern.
Still, it's been a tough row at times for the Broncos. The College Football Playoff committee rocked their boat on Nov. 15. That's the committee ranked one-loss Boise State ahead of WMU. CFP committee chair Kirby Hocutt cited Boise State's 31-28 victory against Washington State in Week 2. After an 0-2 start, including a 45-42 loss to Eastern Washington, the Cougars have won eight consecutive games and are 7-0 in the Pac-12.
"The committee continues to place high value on that quality win and believes Boise State deserved to jump over Western Michigan into that 20 spot this week," he said on a media conference call. "Western Michigan at this point has one win against an FBS team that has a winning record, and that's against a 6-4 team."
But that 6-4 team is Eastern Michigan — again, which beat Wyoming, which beat Boise State.
Also, Wyoming beat Boise State seven weeks after Boise State beat Washington State.
But Boise State lost again while Western Michigan kept winning. It's all part of "Row The Boat," which Fleck explained in 2013.
"There are three parts to rowing the boat," he said. "There is the oar, which is the energy behind rowing the boat. There is the 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.”
Success has made the 35-year-old Fleck the MAC's highest-paid coach. The Broncos have won 15 consecutive games, the third-longest in FBS behind Alabama (25), and 20 of their past 22 games. They are 29-10 since a 1-11 record in Fleck's first season.
He played receiver at Northern Illinois and for two seasons with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers before coaching receivers for Dave Doeren at NIU, and Greg Schiano at Rutgers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He wore cleats during Bucs practices, often running routes and simulating defenses with the receivers.
At 32, Fleck became the youngest head coach in FBS when WMU hired him on Dec. 17, 2012. He's also the first FBS head coach born in the 1980s and clearly can speak to the hashtag generation.
Row The Boat — or RTB — resonates with players. At his news conference following a 49-10 victory against Central Michigan on Oct. 1, Fleck coined a new acronym for WMU's season.
"I'll start by saying ADS," he said. "Ain't Done Squat. We really haven't. That's the message we've given our players. That's how we feel. We've got a long way to go."
Merrily down the stream.
Photo courtesy Western Michigan Athletics