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By Mike Kuchar, Lead Research Manager, X&O Labs

Over the last four seasons, head coach PJ Fleck and the staff at Western Michigan University has built the Broncos into a top 25 program, an undefeated 11-0 record and on the brink of a major bowl appearance for the first time in school history. It was all part of an off-season plan that Coach Fleck shared during a Q and A with XandOLabs.com’s co-founder Mike Kuchar last spring. Read more here...

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar



Western Michigan BroncosOver the last four seasons, head coach PJ Fleck and the staff at Western Michigan University has built the Broncos into a top 25 program, an undefeated 11-0 record and on the brink of a major bowl appearance for the first time in school history. It was all part of an off-season plan that Coach Fleck shared during a Q and A with XandOLabs.com’s co-founder Mike Kuchar last spring.

Editor’s Note: The following research was conducted as part of XandOLabs.com research report on “NCAA Player Development.”


On Developing the Off-Season Mentality of your Program…

PJ Fleck, Western Michigan University: “We have a leadership council that is picked by our players. It’s made up of true freshmen; redshirt freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Every class is represented. There are 26 total players because I think you need a quarter of your team leading your team. Every class has a voice. It’s about a 36-week course. We do it up until spring ball and then we will vote again on our leaders after spring ball. Some guys stay on, some guys stay off. It’s not a right, but a privilege to be in on there. It’s a leadership class that we meet every week for 45 minutes. We do skits, we have readings and they take notes. My job is to take lifetime lessons and teach them in a cultural way. Every lesson is geared to what they know. We will use an example like adapting leadership towards Kanye West and Drake, for example. Or, we’ll use Lebron James and Stephan Curry. I can’t use Michael Jordan and Larry Bird anymore to teach lessons. I need to be up to date. I need to show them I know what is going on. I want them to have the ability to understand me. You have to adapt to your culture. We need to continue to keep up with their culture.”

On Developing the Off-Season Physicality of your Program…

PJ Fleck, Western Michigan University (Dan Nichol, Strength and Conditioning Coach): “We talk about developing energy more than anything else. We tell them that we have no bad days at Western Michigan. Not one. There is nothing negative inside our program. It’s difficult to do because we have days where we don't’ want to do something. But we define maturity as when doing what you have to do becomes doing what you want to do. You must have energy to mature. That is a sign your program is at an elite level.”

On Developing the In-Season Mentality of your Program…

PJ Fleck, Western Michigan University: “Our position coaches meet every single week with each of their players. It’s an individual meeting, an academic meeting, and a social meeting. It can deal with football or it may not deal with football. It’s a quick 10-15 meeting with that player at breakfast and getting to know any issues or problems he is having. During the season, there are so many different stressors. You’re winning, you’re losing, you’re hurt, you’re girlfriend broke up with you, etc. The draft is approaching. As a coach, you need to have a thumb on all of them.”

On Developing the In-Season Physicality of Your Program…

PJ Fleck, Western Michigan University: “We constantly create competition, but we don’t compete against one another, we compete with one another. There is a big difference there. Competing against one another puts a divide in a team. The more you divide that team, you will struggle. How you compete with each other is you constantly be at your best and beat yourself from yesterday. You may have a matchup that’s not even close. We will pair a lineman with a skill guy sometimes in a competition but we stress the idea of failing before we see growth. It’s how much better are you getting each day individually. We flip the mindset to where we are competing with ourselves and not the other player. Can you make that play better than you did yesterday? It doesn’t matter who is across from you. If you can’t believe in yourself, than you don’t have a shot.”

On His Definition of Leadership…

PJ Fleck, Western Michigan University: “The number one element of leadership development is trust. You have to trust someone to let him develop you. You have to be real with your guys. This doesn’t mean making them happy. Real means real. Young people have a hard time accepting real but it’s our job to give them real. It develops them in all areas.”


NCAA Player Development Study

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar

“Coaching is about getting the most out of your players.” It is an axiom that I first heard uttered by Russ Grimm, the offensive line coach for the Tennessee Titans and original “hog” himself with the Washington Redskins. While it’s hard to argue the validity of that phrase, the difficulty in that task lies in what coaches call the “strain,” or the process in developing your players. There is a fine line that distinguishes mediocre and success in coaching and while much of it can be attributed to pure talent, how coaches extract that talent can often be a thing of beauty. It is that process of strain, that became the focal point of this study.

So, when we started research for this project, we reached out to many of the coaches in our network with one request: “Select one head football coach that gets the most from his players year in and year out.” While an abundance of names came pouring in, we went after those that kept reoccurring and while we didn’t get in touch with all of them, we were able to with 12 head football coaches, with all levels of collegiate ball represented, to ask them how they develop their players. Our research was segmented into four cases:

  • Off-season mental development
  • Off-season physical development
  • In-season mental development
  • In-season physical development

Most of our contributors have been head football coaches for over a decade. Our twelve contributors have amassed some staggering numbers collectively as head coaches, which include:

  • 734 wins
  • 711 win percentage throughout their tenure as a head coach
  • 47 division championships
  • 3 national championships (all within the last three seasons)

The list of contributors to this study is below:

  • Chris Ash, Head Football Coach, Rutgers University
  • Glenn Caruso, Head Football Coach, University of St. Thomas (MN)
  • Mark Farley, Head Football Coach, University of Northern Iowa
  • PJ Fleck, Head Football Coach, Western Michigan University
  • Peter Fredenburg, Head Football Coach, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (TX)
  • Vince Kehres, Head Football Coach, Mount Union University (OH)
  • Chris Klieman, Head Football Coach, North Dakota State University
  • Ron Korfmacher, Head Football Coach, Taylor University (IN)
  • Matt Mitchell, Head Football Coach, Grand Valley State University (MI)
  • Tim Murphy, Head Football Coach, Harvard University
  • Bob Stitt, Head Football Coach, University of Montana
  • John Steigelmeier, Head Football Coach, South Dakota State University

Case 1: Developing the Off-Season Mentality

In this case, we studied what these coaches were doing in the off-season to develop the mental capacity of their players. We all know that it’s the cohesiveness and resilience of a football program that is developed from January to spring ball. We wanted to find out how head coaches were developing players in this area as it pertains to the following components:

  • A character development program
  • A leadership council among players
  • The infusion of a sports psychology program

Case 2: Developing the Off-Season Physicality

Ask any successful head coach what separates their program from others in the off-season, and he will tell you the weight program. Such was the case with the twelve head coaches that contributed to this report. So, we wanted to study how they were developing their weight program, particularly their am mat drills. We wanted to find out how they (along with their strength and conditioning coach) were developing culture of competition in the weight room and getting players to compete at their highest level when expected to. Some of the components we covered include the following:

  • Distinction of weight program (mat drills, etc.)
  • Integration of Nutrition
  • Creating a culture of competition

Case 3: Developing the In-Season Mentality

Once the season starts in fall camp, collegiate head coaches get tied up with the continual routine of game prep, injury reports and media requests so it becomes challenging to check in with active (and inactive) players. But we’ve found the most successful coaches take the time weekly, even daily to track the pulse of their players. This could come in the form of individual meetings, classroom sessions or even outings and the focus is completely on their well-being. Some of the components we covered include the following:

  • Fostering the one on one interaction of student-athletes (personal relationships)
  • Finding ways to motivate players during a long season
  • Working with injured players
  • Developing accountability in academics

Case 4: Developing the In-Season Physicality

In this case, we were curious to find how coaches were getting their players to compete at a high level week in and week out. At the FCS, Division 2 and Division 3 level a football season could last up to 15 games. How do these successful programs keep its edge without getting worn out by the daily grind? How do these coaches navigate through constant injury, which was the case for Coach Stitt’s program at Montana who went through three quarterbacks the entire season? Some of the components we covered include the following:

  • Adjusting scheme to fit personnel yearly (keeping the process of consistency)
  • Developing 2nd/3rd unit players to be game ready

Bonus Case: Working with Today’s Student-Athletes

With today’s world of instant gratification and with the inundation of a social media environment, we were curious to see how these coaches were working with players in this generation. So, we asked contributors the following question: 

What is something you’ve done to adjust your coaching methodology or personality when working with today’s student-athletes?

Get the Full Report…

Join X&O Labs’ Insiders, an exclusive membership-based website, and you’ll get instant access to the full-length version of this report – including access to everything X&O Labs has ever published. Plus, if you join today, you’ll also receive up to 4 FREE books mailed directly to your home or office. Here’s just a small sample of what you’ll find in the full-length version of this report:

  • What these coaches are doing to develop the off-season mental development of their student-athletes, including character development programs, leadership councils and infusions of sports psychology.
  • What these coaches are doing to create a culture of competition in their off-season programs.
  • How these coaches are fostering the one-on-one interactions with their student-athletes in the in-season, balancing a rigorous time demands and academic responsibilities.
  • How these successful coaches are able to adapt their scheme to fit their personnel on a yearly basis and how they are able to prepare second and third unit players to be game ready.

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