ESPN’s College GameDay tends to spend a weekend each year at a place that loves football but doesn’t see much time in the national spotlight. In the last few years, that’s been places like Harrisonburg (James Madison), Boston (Harvard), and Fargo (North Dakota State).
This year brings a new locale: Kalamazoo, home of the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos. P.J. Fleck’s program heads into Saturday’s game against Buffalo (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU) 10-0 and with a 65 percent chance to finish the regular season unbeaten.
If they hold on through the MAC’s championship game, they could be the Group of 5 representative in the Cotton Bowl against a top-10 team.
For the Broncos, it’s been a hell of a transformation. They went 1-11 in 2013, their first year under young head coach Fleck, a receivers coach who’d recently been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers. In 2015, the school won its first-ever bowl.
Now they’re one of the best non-power teams in the country, ranked in the AP Poll and the Playoff rankings for the first time in school history. They’ve got a dizzyingly good offense, and the soon-to-be 36-year-old Fleck is one of the business’ hottest coaches.
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The Broncos have earned this. Let’s learn about WMU together.
1. The football team has been good at points before. WMU started playing in 1906, and the Broncos posted six undefeated seasons by 1941. They’ve never quite had a first-team All-American, but they’ve had 16 other All-Americans, and a few Broncos have made it pretty big in the NFL. Greg Jennings and Jason Babin, for instance.
Here’s Jennings singing WMU’s fight song:
The school’s all-time record is 553-440-24. This isn’t some start-up program.
2. The program has only made eight bowls in its history, and it didn’t make any between the 1961 Aviation Bowl and the 1988 California Bowl. Things have been a lot better since 2007, when they started a run of six bowl seasons in 10 years, including this one.
3. So the Broncos really have never had a season with national impact like this one. They never sniffed anything like the BCS, or the BCS-equivalent bowls of the era before that, or the New Year’s Six the last two years. They’ve never even won 10 games in a season until now.
4. They’ve got a cool, old stadium. It’s called Waldo Stadium. It holds a bit more than 30,000, but WMU has crammed as many as 36,361 in before. WMU has half of the 10 highest single-game attendance numbers in MAC history.
5. The current team is really fun. It’s difficult to say exactly how good the Broncos are, because they play a MAC schedule and haven’t beaten anyone better than the likes of Northwestern, the other directional Michigan schools, and Illinois. But they have a top-10 national offense by both points per game (44.4) and the advanced stat S&P+. The defense is fine, and the Broncos are, overall, definitely good.
6. They’ve got a potential first-round NFL wide receiver in senior Corey Davis. He’s already over 60 catches and 1,000 yards, with 14 touchdowns and an 11.4-yard average per target. Davis could start just about anywhere.
Here’s the speed:
And here’s the skill:
7. WMU has gotten this way with a hyper-local recruiting approach. Fleck has signed the top class in the MAC three years in a row, and he’s done it by religiously sticking to what he says is a “six-hour radius” from Kalamazoo. The Broncos don’t waste their time chasing talent on the coasts or in Texas, where they probably won’t get it. They stick to the Midwest, and they’ve made it work. The vast majority of this roster comes from Michigan and Illinois.
8. Row the boat. That slogan has become the hallmark of Fleck’s Western Michigan. Here’s how Fleck describes the rowing of the boat as it relates to football:
“When you literally talk about rowing the boat, you’re facing the opposite direction the bow of the boat is actually going,” he said. “You’re not able to see the future. We’ve set sail and we’ve set our direction from point A to point B, whether it’s right now to win a MAC Championship, or be the first person in your family to get a college education or to beat cancer.
“We’re making it global and community-based. Everyone can relate to this. The boat is set in a direction and we’re rowing. We can’t see the future but we can see our past. Our past is the program. It’s the people. That’s what we’re looking at and we’re learning as we go. We don’t know if there’s a waterfall ahead of us, rocks, smooth seas or sunsets. We have no idea. We just have to keep rowing.”
He adds that he wants “an oar in every school, every hospital, every bakery and everywhere,” because rowing the boat is about service, not just football.
Is the whole “row the boat” thing a bit coach-speaky? No. It’s more than a bit coach-speaky. It’s the coach-speakiest thing that’s ever been spoken. But Fleck believes in it, and his players look like they do, too.
Western Michigan’s good, and now Western Michigan gets to have a big GameDay party.