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P.J. Fleck, The Cotton Bowl, and The Unexpected End to an Era at Western Michigan

Who would have thought in 2013 that WMU would be in the position for heartbreak in the first place?

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Western’s Wild Week

The week of January 2nd, 2017 was supposed to be the best week of WMU football’s greatest era.

On Monday, the Broncos were undefeated, with an entire coaching staff still intact. They were riding a wave of momentum into the immediate future with yet another top-ranked recruiting class. They had survived the coaching carousel. The Fleck era was still in full swing. The Cotton Bowl was all anyone could think about. Come Friday morning, none of this was true.

Fleck was hired as the next head coach at the University of Minnesota on January 6th, just four days after his team’s solid showing against Wisconsin at AT&T stadium, and just four days after stating he was going back to Kalamazoo.

He did go back, but not for long. A week that began with hope for something even better than a Cotton Bowl berth in the future ended the way it always ends in the MAC.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 02 MAC Championship Game - Western Michigan v Ohio Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are plenty of folks angry with Fleck’s decision to leave, and unjustifiably angrier with much of the 2017 recruiting class’s decision to go with him. But the idea that this wasn’t going to happen eventually is incredibly short-sighted, especially when in the MAC your coach either leaves or is Frank Solich.

The Fleck era featured players that raised the bar at Western Michigan higher than ever thought possible, and it leaves gifted players behind that deserve better than a woe is me outlook. This is entertainment for many of us, but is very real for the lives of the athletes, and Western Michigan football will be just fine because of them.

Western Michigan football belonged on the national stage at the Cotton Bowl as one of the best 25 teams in the country. It won most of its games in 2016 because, quite frankly, its players were better - a lot better. If there’s anything to take away from the last four years of WMU football compared to the era that preceded it, it’s that. Recruiting matters, and the Fleck years showed what happens when you can recruit circles around your competition.

It wasn’t always this way

It’s tough now to recall a time where P.J. Fleck wasn’t a star in the eyes of the national media, but part of appreciating the last four years is understanding that, at one point, our disappointment in Fleck knew no bounds.

He arrived in Kalamazoo in December of 2012, met with a collective “who?” from the entire fan base (and many of the players, I’m sure). He was fully-equipped with bottomless energy reserves and a litany of phrases about life and culture, all summed up with a “Row The Boat” mantra. Western Michigan fired a coach with a winning record for a guy that used the phrase “Heartwork” with a straight face. It was all undeniably insane.

And we ate it all up. His introductory press conference uprooted the status quo at WMU and was unlike anything we’d ever seen. Nobody was sure if he could coach football or not, but I’ll be damned if most weren’t willing to jump off a cliff at his command after hearing him speak. This was his allure: the ability to command a room of people. He explained in the press conference he was here to “lead, not manage” and made it clear over the coming months - though not saying as directly - that he had taken over a tradition-less, mediocre, sleeping giant of a football program. He wasn’t here to change a culture, he was here to create one.

Western Michigan v Northern Illinois Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Midway through 2013, all we had to show of that new culture was a stadium DJ (shout out to DJ IllMixx), a string of motivational YouTube clips of Fleck explaining third down choreography set to Metallica, a Google search history that included the word “Nekton” and one extraordinarily bad football team. It’s that last part that made everyone completely sick of all the other stuff.

If Fleck wasn’t literally on the hot seat entering 2014 following that 1-11 debacle, he sure was in terms of public opinion. One more year like 2013, and this tiny fan base would riot in the comment sections at MLive (NIU Twitter and WMU message boards/MLive are two of the internet’s scariest places). The Broncos opened the season with a loss, but a freshman running back from Tinley Park, Illinois made it abundantly clear where the payoff for all this culture building would come from: recruiting.

Jarvion Franklin ran all over Purdue, and was bigger, faster and stronger than any back most of us had seen at Western Michigan. He’d go on to be the first freshman to win offensive player of the year in the conference. Imagine the surprise in realizing he wasn’t even the highest rated back in his class. Corey Davis already had his breakout year in 2013, winning the freshman of the year award himself, but none of us could have predicted he’d go on to be the all time receiving yards leader in FBS history.

Just like that, the ship was righted, and aided by the talented athletes that decided to attend Western Michigan between 2013 and 2016. After going 1-11 and causing everyone to question the direction of the program, there was no no question that the team was headed for big things. There was no doubt in P.J. Fleck’s mind Christmas Eve of 2015 that the team was headed to the 2017 Cotton Bowl.

The 81st Cotton Bowl Classic

Western Michigan wasn’t a better football team than Wisconsin (most teams aren’t). But unlike Minnesota or Michigan State, teams that were routed by the Badgers, the Broncos faced questions of their worthiness to share a field with Wisconsin on a national stage. The Bronco players were just somehow unworthy of the opportunity; present at the Cotton Bowl only as a technicality. At the end of the day, the College Football Playoff committee worked so hard to keep Western Michigan out of a game it lost by eight points.

You can forgive them for that. After all, nobody in Kalamazoo thought this would be possible, even at the start of the year (except Fleck, of course). They especially didn’t think it possible four years ago, when the program’s history read like a team coached by Jeff Fisher for a century. But nonetheless, at 1:00 p.m ET on January 2nd, 2017, the Broncos would play in their most important game ever, and when the clock hit zeroes a little over three hours later, WMU had its first loss, but it was clear that its ranking at 15 was fair. It was one of the 25 best teams in the country, and somehow, improbably so, they arrived there in such a short time.

Western Michigan was 2016’s underdog story, never mind the fact that Group of Five teams had won the previous two New Year’s Six games, and everyone expected them to look the part. In the first quarter, they very much did, surrendering yards in huge chunks to Wisconsin on the jet sweep. The first quarter was over, and Wisconsin was up 14 with the ball and no signs of slowing down. Sports Twitter had declared this game over with 45 minutes left to play. Bronco fans in AT&T Stadium stood muted, waiting for something to cheer about.

They didn’t have to wait much longer.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Terrell took the ball near the goal line on a bootleg, gave a defender the slip as only “Crazy Legs” knows how, and finally ushered in cheering from the WMU side of the stadium that was 100 years in the making. The Broncos were on the board in the Cotton Bowl. There were reasons WMU wouldn’t win (slow start, Troy Fumagalli being awesome), but now zero reasons why they couldn’t. It was a football game again.

Leading up to the game, Western’s players faced question after question about the size of the video board, their impression of the Cotton Bowl hospitality and the importance of the moment for them. Wisconsin was asked about the Big Ten Championship Game. One of the 81st Cotton Bowl’s combatants was a well known football team. The other was a novelty with a well known head coach with at the very least an interesting story to tell.

Just by the line of questioning, no one expected the game to be that close. Yet, WMU managed to get within one possession late in the game after a terrible start.

The Broncos came up short ultimately, unable to recover an onside kick, stop Troy Fumagalli or the jet sweep, but they had come within a score of one of the nation’s best teams. A win was obviously preferable, but there was reason to watch in the fourth quarter. 60,000 fans left that stadium nearly as happy as when they arrived, and damn it if that isn’t the purpose of sports.

Now What?

I remember walking the sidelines of AT&T Stadium about an hour before kickoff, and noticed that most of the WMU fans, like their football team later, entered a little early. I still couldn’t believe any of it was real, and couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had made a mistake. They let us in here? They let that football team in?

“We’re us” P.J. Fleck would often say. He said it would take some time for everyone to figure out just what “us” was, and this was it. Organically, with only a handful of special teams players on the field, half of AT&T Stadium erupted in chants of “ROW THE BOAT. ROW THE BOAT. ROW THE BOAT!” Brown and gold pom-poms tomahawked towards the field in unison. The coin toss was still an hour away. Everything that was once silly about this program was now at once silly and unifying. The culture change was complete.

This is going to be difficult to let go of as fans.

It’s especially difficult for the athletes that remain in the program. But those athletes are precisely why everyone that follows this program should remain optimistic for the future. The next coach will not inherit what Fleck inherited. This is an experienced team full of leadership and talent that despite graduating two of the best players in its history, should be expected to compete at the top of the MAC West even still. Most of the program isn’t going to Minnesota.

It’s staying right where it is in Kalamazoo.

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Cotton Bowl - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Someday, we can look back on WMU’s Cotton Bowl appearance without putting it in the context of P.J. Fleck’s career arc, and I hope that day is very, very soon. But considering how on Monday the Broncos still had every expectation their head coach and super-recruiter would be around for another year, the Cotton Bowl wasn’t meant to mark the end of anything other than the 2016 season.

Nevertheless, on Friday the architect of the greatest era of WMU football history sported a maroon and gold tie, boarded a private jet, took in some of Minnesota’s freezing cold air and delivered the Ski-U-Mah version of every WMU press conference over the past four years. He’s taking “Row The Boat” with him, too. He’ll be doing “ELITE” in Minneapolis over the next few years and, of course, he’ll remind players that if they’re “juiceless” they’re useless.

So now what? Kathy Beauregard will, as she’s often done, get this next hire right. And the next hire will inherit a pretty full cupboard even with the significantly smaller 2017 recruiting class.

The next head coach will also inherit lofty expectations, which is something Kalamazoo is not used to having. Make no mistake about it, P.J. Fleck was the brand, not Western Michigan (as much as I’d like it to be) but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be.

Continuing to win is the next order of business, and nothing else. Conversations about what happens to “Row The Boat” only distract from the fact that there’s a damn good football team returning to Waldo Stadium next year, and we should all be looking forward to seeing it.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Western Michigan at Ohio Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports