March 9, 2013

Fleck says he has experience to lead

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Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

P.J. Fleck has never been a coordinator in six years of coaching, but he is plenty experienced.

The 32-year-old is the youngest head coach among FBS-
level programs. He took over at Western Michigan on Dec.
17 following the dismissal of Bill Cubit after an eight-year tenure that resulted in a 51-47 record but failed to meet the expectations of moving the program to the next level.

Fleck said the attention on what he hasn't done is foolish when compared to what he has done. He added that his experiences will make it easier to recruit.

"I can tell any prospect or parent to just look at me and my life," he said. "I was the players I am recruiting.

"I was recruited by MAC schools and played at a MAC school. I succeeded on the field. I went to the NFL. I coached under a lot of successful coaches, and I am now a head coach. I can honestly tell these kids that you can go to the MAC and you can get to the NFL. Really, you can make any of your goals in football happen. I know what it takes."

A lightly recruited prospect himself, Fleck played receiver at Northern Illinois. As a senior, he led the team with 77 catches and 1,028 yards -- his reception total is second all-time for the program in a single season. He is third in career receptions (179) and fourth in receiving yards (2,162) at Northern Illinois. Additionally, Fleck played on special teams and has the program record for punt returns (87) and is second in return yards (716).

He was also an academic all-American.

After playing a limited role in the NFL and suffering a major shoulder injury, Fleck was released. The day following his dismissal, then-49ers head coach Mike Nolan told the Sacramento Bee he would welcome Fleck as an assistant coach and that he believed it was going to be the future for the young player.

"I have been in seven places in eight years," Fleck said. "I played under Mike Nolan; I coached under Jim Tressel and Joe Novak and Jerry Kill and Greg Schiano. I don't think there are many people with the resume that I have, and just because I wasn't a coordinator doesn't mean that I was not qualified for this position.

"Everyone has a first job. Vince Lombardi and Nick Saban both had a first job. Being a head coach is a lot more about the ability to lead people than it is about the X's and O's, and just because I didn't call the plays didn't mean I wasn't on the path to being a leader and a head coach."

One of the biggest decisions Fleck made was to hire a full-time recruiting coordinator at Western Michigan. It is a position that has never existed at the school.

Fleck said recruiting needs to have someone paying attention at all times. His philosophy will be taken directly from one of his mentors, Kill.

"We are going to load up on local players, I'd say within a six-hour radius, and then Florida," Fleck said. "I believe that when you keep kids close to home it makes them more accountable. Their teachers can come see them, their family, friends, grandparents are all right there. That six-hour distance makes it far enough to be away from them for a college experience, but it is close enough that they don't want to disappoint anyone.

"That is what we had at Northern Illinois. I know people use the cliché that it was a family, but (the players) really were almost all from Illinois or Wisconsin. We were all so similar, under-recruited, under-ranked, and it brought us together."

The class of 2013 represented exactly the math Fleck wanted.

There were six players from Michigan, five from Illinois, four from Florida, two from Indiana and one from California.

Nearly the entire 18-man class was assembled after Fleck was hired. After Western Michigan went without a commitment from July 30 to his hiring, Fleck added 14 players in January and February.

"The vision I had really came together," Fleck said. "It was great to see it all come together."

The next step is pushing the program forward. After a 9-4 season in 2008, many fans expected Cubit to capitalize on that success. The team never finished above third place in the division and fell to 4-8 in the 2013 season.

Fleck understands the immediacy of the industry.

"Because of the money involved in college football, the expectation is to win," he said. "What I think will make us successful at Western Michigan is that, while winning is important, we are also in the business of developing men of character who will come out and be ready to lead the country. We are still expected to win -- and that is what I am getting paid for -- but I don't think it is a bottom line situation because we want to develop men and we want kids in class and doing what is right.

"I know that we have some challenges and some hurdles ahead of us, but I am not a negative guy and I don't allow people around me to be negative. We will look forward at what we can accomplish."

He said he believes Western Michigan can accomplish what MAC member -- and his alma mater -- Northern Illinois did last year: a BCS Bowl.

"It had never been done before by a MAC school ever. Ever," Fleck said. "So that is a lofty goal, but having a team like Northern do it -- and Kent State was just as close; had it won that game, it may have gone -- it takes away any excuses for anyone in this program.

"It can be done. We can play on the highest level, and we need to be striving to do just that."



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