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Fleck, Candle add to rivalry of WMU, UT

08/03/2016, 12:15am EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Both young coaches have track history of strong recruiting

Fleck, Candle add to rivalry of WMU, UT

Circle the date. Nov. 25: University of Toledo vs. Western Michigan. 

Until then, enjoy the coming attraction: P.J. Fleck vs. The World. 

Or don’t. Heck, if you are a fan of Toledo or Bowling Green, you are hoping The World boat-races the swaggering 35-year-old coach of the Broncos. 

“You either really like me,” Fleck said, ”or you really hate me.”

Either way, it all comes to a head this year for the league’s best salesman and can’t-look-away showman. 

Fleck has signed three straight top recruiting classes, elevated the Broncos from one win in 2013 to eight, and the program’s first bowl victory last year, and now has WMU perched as the clear MAC favorite. 

All he must do now is beat his new contemporary, 36-year-old Rockets coach Jason Candle — twice recognized as the league’s recruiter of the year by Scout.com during his time as a UT assistant. 

With respect to Northern Illinois, which will probably prove us muttonheads and win the MAC West for the seventh straight year, Toledo and WMU may be the conference’s best rivalry. 

Both in living rooms across the Midwest. And on Nov. 25, where the Rockets will look to even the score after Western vanquished their league title dreams in last year’s finale. The guess here is the rematch will be a play-in game for both teams. 

Should be fun. 

OK, maybe fun isn’t the right word in MAC circles, though we disagree Fleck is hated. In recent memory, only one league personality perhaps fit that bill: Bobby Hurley. You may recall the former Buffalo basketball coach for his in-your-face pleasantries with officials — including his technical foul 54 seconds into a 2014 game against Toledo — or for ex-BG coach Louis Orr declining to shake his hand after a game. If the nicest guy in basketball has a problem with you, it is time to look in the mirror.

Fleck inspires more eye rolls than contempt. 

Everything about him is different. He wears cleats to practice and a tie to games. He employs a rap-spinning DJ. He bleeds caffeine. 

Just ask Fleck how he’s doing after just missing the last flight home on Christmas Eve, and the reply will not change. ”Elite!” 

The fourth-year Broncos coach is trilingual in English, “Bronconese” — players must learn 200-plus words — and the language of the sea. His Row-The-Boat mantra is more than a slogan. 

“It’s everything,” he said. “You come to my house one day. You’ll see more boats than you’ve ever seen in your entire life. People can make fun of it. People can recruit against it. ... ”

And they do. 

It is easy to write Fleck off as a walking gimmick, the human version of an inflatable wacky waving tube man atop a car dealer. But you won’t see that criticism here. What we think of him is not the point. It’s what 16-year-olds do, and nobody in the MAC appeals to them like Fleck. 

For perspective, WMU has finished with a higher-ranked class than power programs Colorado, Purdue, and Wake Forest each of the last three years. The Broncos’ class in 2017 is ranked 29th by Scout.

This season, with 13 starters returning for what figures to be Fleck’s last year in Kalamazoo, the Broncos finally may row across the finish line. 

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck shouts to his team during a game last season vs. Ohio State. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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