“Row the Boat”: The Off-Season Program That PJ Fleck Used to Build WMU

Nov 17, 2019 | Leadership / Character Development, Program Development

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…