If you have tuned into any games featuring Western Michigan you have heard the term “Row the Boat”. It’s on helmets, signs, t-shirts, banners and just about everything that features a Western Michigan logo. It is a term that Broncos coach P.J. Fleck uses to motivate his team but it is more than just a cheeky saying.
Fleck described it as a “never give up mantra” in a recent interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. He explained there are three main parts to the philosophy. To row the boat you need an oar. Fleck described the oar as “what you bring to life” and explained that people choose whether their oar is in or out of the water. To move forward, the oar must be in the water.
The second part of the philosophy is the boat. “What are you willing to give up for something you have never had,” Fleck explained to Van Pelt. Finally, the compass is what you use to figure out the direction you are going.
The idea was birthed when Fleck and his wife, Heather, lost their second child to a heart condition. He explained to Yahoo Sports how the adversity helped inspire the philosophy that has become the center piece of the Western Michigan program.
“We had a second son after Carter, we had a second son name Colt. And Colton had a heart condition and we lost him shortly after birth. We knew toward the end of the pregnancy that we were going to lose him, it was just a matter of how long he’d be with us. We got to spend time with him, be with him, hold him. But to watch your son pass away in your wife’s arms is an amazing experience in terms of the amount of sorrow and the amount of frustration, questions. But it was something that I had in the back of my mind to say, ‘Hey, no matter what happens, no matter what we’re going to do here, we’re just going to keep rowing,” Fleck told Yahoo Sports.
Star wide receiver Corey Davis explained to the Dallas News that the phrase has become meaningful to him. “I kind of wish I knew ‘row the boat’ when I was a little kid. Whatever adversity you’re facing, just keep pushing, keep going through it. You can’t control the past, you can only learn from it,” Davis told the Dallas News.
Fleck expanded on the philosophy to The Washington Post.
“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,” Fleck told The Washington Post.
Western Michigan joined Alabama as the only undefeated teams in the country. The Broncos 13-0 season earned them a trip to the Cotton Bowl to face Wisconsin. The school is located in Kalamazoo, Michigan and has an enrollment of 23,556. Fleck has been mentioned for coaching positions all over the country but has opted to stay at Western Michigan.