A loss to Nicholls State, a Cotton Bowl appearance.
The two events share hardly anything in common, except that P.J. Fleck and the Western Michigan senior class have experienced both in their time at Kalamazoo.
Western Michigan has incrementally increased its win total over the span of four seasons, hitting rock bottom in Fleck’s first-year in 2013. The Broncos finished 1-11 with a lone victory over UMass, but possessed the foundation for the program’s future.
“We embrace our failing here,” Fleck said. “We call failing growth. You show me a person who’s really successful — I’ll show you somebody who’s failed a lot. These players are very proud of their 1-11 season. They understood where they are and what got them there.”
Quarterback Zach Terrell was thrown into the starting position during his freshman season in 2013. He finished with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. But with the help of experience, work ethic, Fleck, and teammates, Terrell underwent substantial development. During his senior year, he completed nearly 71 percent of passes for 32 touchdowns, paired with only three interceptions.
“[Fleck’s] vision from day one, what he has planned for us, and the way he has developed us as players and people is what sets him apart as one of the best coaches in college football,” Terrell said. “His belief in us and what he’s changed and his vision is second to none. He’s been consistent since day one.”
Between his first and final season, Terrell brought Western Michigan the first bowl victory in program history after a 45-31 win over Middle Tennessee in the 2015 Bahamas Bowl. That was merely a year ago — a season the Broncos finished with five losses.
“The special thing about our team is that we have a really good blend of humble and confident,” Terrell said. “We’ve been 1-11, we’ve lost versus Air Force in a bowl game. But we’re also confident. We’re 13-0, we deserve to be here, we’ve won every game on our schedule, and we won a bowl game last year. That’s what sets us apart — we have a little bit of both.”
The accolades have rolled in for Terrell and his teammates during their time as Broncos. Western Michigan fired out of 2016 with two road wins over Big Ten teams, keeping the foot on the pedal through the MAC Championship Game all the way to Arlington for the Cotton Bowl.
Terrell is one of the notable seniors who has journeyed through the highs and lows of the breakout program, but several others share the same experience. Wide receiver Corey Davis was not heavily recruited out of high school, but started for the 1-11 team in 2013, quickly establishing a role as one of the team’s leaders.
After the 2015 season, Davis had the opportunity to declare for the NFL draft, but decided to prolong his college career and finish what he started at Western Michigan.
“The progress he made here is a tribute to him,” Fleck said. “He values the experience. He values his teammates. He valued something bigger than just himself and the money and moving on to the National Football League. Here’s a kid convincing the head football coach how good we’re going to be.”
Davis, who likely has a future as an NFL receiver, grew into one of college football’s greatest receivers in a matter of three seasons. He is coming off of his third-straight 1,400 yard receiving season and is now college football’s all-time leader in the category. He also has boosted the Broncos’ scoring offense, scoring 18 touchdowns in 2016. But time is winding down for the senior with only one collegiate contest remaining.
“It’s going to be a bittersweet moment,” Davis said. “It’s the last time suiting up with my brothers, running out of that tunnel. It’s going to be a great feeling. It’s going to be very emotional. We’ve been through a lot as a group and these guys deserve everything that’s coming their way.’
Another player on the roster with a potential NFL future also fared 1-11 in college once. But like the others, he finished his college career with a 13-0 record (going into the Cotton Bowl). Taylor Moton anchors Western Michigan’s power running game on the offensive line. The right tackle has been vital all year, and throughout his entire college career, in protecting Terrell and allowing his running backs to shred opposing defenses.
“It’s a very surreal feeling just to see where the program was to where it is now,” Moton said. “We took it one day at a time. 1-11 turned into 8-5 to this, so I’m really glad I can be part of it.”
One starting senior that helped mold the Western Michigan program into a power will not be available for the Cotton Bowl. Strong safety Justin Ferguson entered Kalamazoo as a wide receiver, transferred from Notre Dame. In late November during a shootout win over Toledo, Ferguson suffered an ankle injury. Teammates approached the senior before he left the turf at Waldo Stadium for the final time. As the injury cart exited the stadium, Ferguson began moving his arms to create a “row the boat” gesture, an important mantra in the culture Fleck created at Western Michigan.
“The cool thing about Justin [Ferguson] is his attitude,” free safety Justin Tranquill said. “He always brings joy and life into a room whenever he’s in there. As soon as he went down, he’s sitting there rowing the boat. You don’t see him down in the dumps or upset. He’s still taking an active role in leadership and coaching up the younger guys — an inspiration to all of us.”
Terrell, Davis, and Moton will run out of the tunnel with oars and Bronco helmets for the final time in their career on Monday. The trio is part of the most important senior class in Western Michigan football history. They experienced the nadir, and rose to the summit, earning several bowl bids in the process. But no game the Broncos have played will hold more prestige than the 81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium against a powerful Wisconsin Badgers team.
“It will be very emotional,” Fleck said, on the final time coaching this senior class. “As a coach, when you have such a personal relationship with your players, you do everything you can not to think about it until it’s finally over. However, when you start to think about the legacy that they have left, it inspires you. They put a foundation and standard and expectation and put Western Michigan on the map.”