DeKALB – P.J. Fleck was beloved when he was a Northern Illinois receiver from 1999 to 2003.
Fleck, who grew up in nearby Sugar Grove and won two Class 3A state championships at Kaneland High School, went on to play two seasons in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, and spent 2007 to 2009 as the Huskies’ receivers coach, the last season as the team’s recruiting coordinator, as well.
However, Fleck since has become public enemy No. 1 among Huskies fans. In his first year as coach at Western Michigan, Fleck has let his voice be known at the rival Mid-American Conference West school, with his “Row the Boat” mantra and energetic personality.
Fans also weren’t happy with Fleck’s infamous one-day stint as offensive coordinator in February of 2012.
However, Fleck hasn’t said anything negative about his alma mater since he took the Western Michigan job. As his 1-10 Broncos, listed as 35-point underdogs, take on NIU, a program looking for its second straight Bowl Championship Series bid, Fleck has nothing but praise for the Huskies.
“Northern has been very, very good to me; it holds a special place in my heart,” Fleck said during Monday’s MAC coaches teleconference. “It’s a great place, special place that my family and everyone who has been around me truly respects. They’ve done a tremendous job in the last few years. Really excited about going back.”
Fleck is familiar with not only NIU’s program, but the current players, as well. He was NIU’s recruiting coordinator when the current fifth-year seniors were committing to the Huskies.
He could have been running NIU’s offense last season, but after agreeing to become offensive coordinator, Fleck resigned a day later to become the receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The short stint was a surprise to players and coaches.
“He got a better opportunity to go somewhere else and you can’t blame the guy for doing that,” NIU senior guard Jared Volk said. “He’s a great guy, great coach. We’re looking forward to seeing him again [against] Western Michigan.”
Fleck’s debut season hasn’t gone as he or Broncos fans had hoped. However, Western Michigan has fought through injuries all season. Fleck said the team is missing a number of starters, including last season’s MAC Freshman of the Year, receiver Jamie Wilson. Fleck has gotten a number of facility upgrades since he arrived, and Rivals.com ranks the Broncos’ Class of 2014 the top recruiting class in the conference.
“It’s been a very challenging year, it really has. But as a first-year head coach, I’ve been thrown a ton of different curveballs, which has been great, you want all this stuff early, I believe that,” Fleck said. “I think if everything’s easy your first year, then I think maybe you take things for granted. This has been a very difficult year, a very challenging year, but at the same time, it’s been a very exciting year because I think I’ve learned so much in my first year that I think maybe takes people 10 years to learn.”
NIU'S FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH
1. Can the Huskies earn some style points?
Northern Illinois surprised everyone by jumping Fresno State in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings. Some also fear the Huskies will fall back behind the Bulldogs next week, with Western Michigan hurting NIU in the computer rankings. It's possible a blowout win could sway a few voters, which NIU might need to keep ahead of Fresno.
2. Can Jordan Lynch put up more big numbers?
It's the third consecutive nationally televised game for Lynch. Waiting for him is a defense that is giving up nearly 36 points a game. Should Lynch have a big game tonight and another in the MAC Championship Game, he possiblily could get an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
3. NIU's receivers
Tommylee Lewis, Angelo Sebastiano and Da'Ron Brown all are dealing with injuries. Coach Rod Carey said if they are healthy, they'll play. If NIU isn't at full strength at wideout, it's another opportunity for Juwan Brescacin, Chad Beebe and Jacob Brinlee to step in.
4. Will P.J. Fleck get booed?
Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, a Kaneland and NIU alumnus from Sugar Grove, isn't the most popular person in DeKalb, despite what he's done for NIU's program as a player and assistant coach. It will be interesting to see the fan reaction when he's introduced.
5. Fan support
NIU's crowds have been impressive. The showing at Ball State was good, as well, considering the circumstances. We'll see how many people show up in the cold, against a bad team on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.