DeKALB – P.J. Fleck tried hard to fight back his emotions while talking about his alma mater.
Many thought the day would come where Fleck, a former Northern Illinois wide receiver and assistant coach, would return be the head coach of a team playing in DeKalb. Some even thought it would happen after current Minnesota coach Jerry Kill left NIU in 2010. But not many imagined Fleck would be in the position as a visitor.
Wearing black sweats and a gray jacket with long sleeves marked by the gold letters "ROW" – representing the "Row The Boat" mantra that Fleck has quickly instilled in his short tenure – Fleck paused several times as he recalled his playing days and coaching career at NIU.
Despite the fiasco that was his one-day stint as NIU's offensive coordinator in 2012, Fleck reaffirmed his love for his alma mater.
"I have so much respect for Northern Illinois," Fleck said after the Huskies beat the Broncos by a score of 33-14 on Tuesday. "If it wasn't for Joe Novak giving me a scholarship on the last scholarship he could possibly give, I would not be right here."
Right now the gulf between NIU and Western Michigan, to play on Fleck's own boat metaphor, is as wide as an ocean. While the Huskies are headed to Detroit for a fourth consecutive season, boasting a perfect 12-0 record, the Broncos have now recorded back-to-back losing seasons, just escaping the bottom of the MAC with a one-point win over lowly UMass.
It's hard to believe that only five years ago it was Western Michigan asserting its dominance in the series with a third consecutive victory over NIU. But such are the ebbs and flows of college football, as fortunes can shift quickly with merely a change in quarterback or head coach.
And that's why Fleck and Western Michigan might not be at the bottom for long.
Fleck's youthful energy and emotion are contagious. He's easily spotted on the sideline throwing fist pumps, chest-bumping players and bear-hugging others. He's the type of coach many players are drawn to these days.
Already he's been a hit with high school recruits. According to Rivals, the Broncos have secured 27 verbal commitments and have the No. 1 recruiting class in the MAC. A handful of those players are from the Chicago area and some even carry scholarship offers from NIU.
Whether they all stick around through Signing Day in February remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the accumulation of prospective talent is impressive.
The first-year coach still has a lot to learn, but struggles were to be expected with a young team in 2013. The problems were only exacerbated by an inordinate number of injury issues.
Many NIU fans won't forgive Fleck for his last 24 hours as a Huskie, something he said was "the only decision I ever made that I regret for how I handled it."
But they may not be able to ignore him as a coach much longer. There are likely better things on the horizon for Fleck and Western Michigan, even if the Broncos' boat hasn't traveled far from shore.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.