DETROIT – Western Michigan linebacker Johnnie Simon thinks back to the Broncos' spring practice, WMU's first workouts under new coach P.J. Fleck.
Simon remembers a fumble drill the Broncos ran. Fleck was right in the middle, trying to get the ball away from one of WMU's defensive backs.
"He's on the ground, basically tussling with him," Simon said. "We were in full pads."
Throughout Tuesday's Mid-American Conference Media Day at Ford Field, Fleck, a former Kaneland and Northern Illinois wide receiver, was surrounded by reporters, talking about his philosophy and vision for the Broncos' program. The saying "Row the Boat," seen all over his Twitter page, was heard loud and clear.
Simon describes the saying, which he heard when Fleck first spoke to the team, as a meaning for teamwork – everyone has to row the boat or else it spins in circles. Simon said Fleck's personality with the media isn't an act at all. He's like that all the time, as evidenced by the fact he's willing to dive into a pile in practice.
"Since Day 1, he's brought energy to the team," Simon said. "We had seniors that didn't want to come back, didn't know what they wanted to do. Coach Fleck made them come back. Coach Fleck made them want to play for him. As a player, that's what you want from a coach."
Ten years ago, Fleck was a wide receiver for a Northern Illinois team that went 10-2, earning wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. Just four years ago, he was the Huskies' recruiting coordinator, and Fleck remembers going to Chicago's Mt. Carmel High School to recruit current Huskies QB Jordan Lynch.
For fewer than 24 hours in February of 2012, Fleck was NIU's offensive coordinator, but chose to jump at an opportunity in the NFL as wide receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Sugar Grove native spent just one year in Tampa before being hired in December at WMU.
On Nov. 26, Fleck makes his return to Huskie Stadium. He's thought about it and is looking forward to it, but tries to avoid the thought, which will certainly be emotional.
"I thought about it one time and then I got stressed out and I stopped thinking about it. I don't believe in stress. Stress is things I cannot control. I cannot control DeKalb, Ill. right now," Fleck said. "What I control is P.J. Fleck, being the best head coach that I can possibly be today. And that's pressure, I put a lot of pressure on myself as a head football coach. I have no problem doing that, because I know these guys will back me up."
Right now, Fleck is worried about the Broncos, but he still has a respect for NIU, a program he "truly loves with all his heart."
"It was a place that I played, and bled and sweat and went to school, met a lot of my friends, and they've always been so good to me," Fleck said. "I'll be looking forward to that game, when we get to it."
Simon said Fleck still mentions his time at NIU.
"He always talks about Northern. He loves Northern," Simon said. "... He talks about how he did when he played there and stuff like that. He talks about how they have a good program. It's always positive."