Last Thursday, Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher took the podium at Ford Field to deliver his annual State of the MAC address, kicking off media day festivities and, more importantly, signaling that the long wait for 2016 #MACtion is drawing quickly to a close. In his remarks, Steinbrecher discussed the MAC’s reputation for “respecting the grind.” He discussed adjustments to challenge procedures. He voiced proposed restrictions on satellite camps. He even took the time to recite his favorite sections of A Tale of Two Cities. Sexy stuff.
The remainder of the day was dominated by coaches and their respective programs. Frank Solich gave us a glimpse into Ohio University’s improved front seven. Terry Bowden discussed building upon Akron’s program-record eight wins last season. Mike Jinks announced his plans to continue Bowling Green’s explosive success with the air raid offense. In short: standard, run-of-the-mill, coaching speak.
Then there was P.J. Fleck.
Nearly four years ago, the Western Michigan Broncos had just completed a disastrous, 4-8 campaign with a loss to Eastern Michigan, the Broncos’ worst finish since 2004. Head coach Bill Cubit took the resulting fall, his tenure in Kalamazoo ending after seven seasons, three bowl appearances, and – count ‘em – zero postseason victories. Still yet to claim a bowl victory or a MAC title in its history, the Broncos found themselves once again searching for a savior to resurrect a stagnant program.
Jesus Christ was resurrected at 33. P.J. Fleck was hired at 32. Jesus Christ is a pretty good recruiter. P.J. Fleck might just be better.
Fleck steered into the skid his first season at the helm, limping to a 1-11 season as the youngest coach in the FBS (he still is). But shortly thereafter, Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mentality propelled the program to back-to-back eight win seasons, back-to-back bowl appearances, and – finally – a bowl victory. Fleck’s marked improvements to the culture of Western Michigan even birthed a new language: Bronconese. While nuggets like Row the Boat and F.A.M.I.L.Y. might strike outsiders as a foreign language, recruits are clearly fluent in it. Fleck hauled in the MAC’s top recruiting classes in 2014, 2015, and 2016, in addition to what’s currently a sizable lead for the 2017 cycle.
Those recruits haven’t delivered a MAC title yet, but this season’s preseason media poll indicates those fortunes may be changing. Despite the fact Northern Illinois has claimed an FBS record seven straight division titles, the Broncos are the media’s overwhelming favorite to take the conference crown, signaling not only a changing of the guard among MAC elite, but among college football at large.
A 35-year-old coach in his fourth season is taking the Group of 5 by storm. And can we really be surprised?
Certainly Fleck isn’t the first coaching phenom to rise from a mid-major school, but he’s certainly a far cry you’re your average MAC coach. College football, more commercialized than ever, has assumed a climate where the P.J. Fleck’s of the country can thrive even in mediocre programs and mediocre conferences. Look towards Michigan’s recent uniform reveal, following a nearly $200 million deal with Nike. Look towards college football’s loosened restrictions on Twitter as a recruiting tool, a welcomed development for a man this skilled in the art of Twitter.
Western Michigan might not have Fleck for long, but the overall trend is going nowhere. I’m a college kid myself, and hearing Fleck’s narrative in articles and interviews makes a nerd like me want to run through walls. Young coaches like P.J. Fleck, Tom Herman, Dabo Swinney, and Kirby Smart represent a new wave of college coaches in a new era of college football. These guys aren’t sullen and curmudgeonly like certain high-profile coaches, they’re brand-oriented, message-driven inspiratory uniquely tooled to address millennials as near-millennials themselves. It’s happening in the MAC, and it’s happening countrywide.
Jon Steinbrecher, Frank Solich, Terry Bowden, and other seasoned figures across the college football landscape will continue the same old song and dance, and that’s fine. But don’t be mistaken, P.J. Fleck is the future of college football. It’s reflected in recruiting rankings, on the field, and in the locker room. The question isn’t whether or not P.J. Fleck will stick, the question is whether other programs will take notice, opting to abandon traditional, X’s and O’s coaching candidates, to find a media-savvy brand builder fit to revive a program in the reality of 21st Century college football.
So when a Power 5 school looks to fill a coaching vacancy this winter, they’ll survey a myriad of candidates. Those candidates will come with thick resumes, foolproof pro-style offenses, and run-of-the-mill coaching speak.
And then there’ll be P.J. Fleck.