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Row The Boat: A Rowing Mantra Inspires a Football Program
by Ed Moran, row2k.com
posted on December 6, 2016

Photo courtesy of Western Michigan University Athletic Media Relations

The distance between Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan where John Bancheri coaches crew, to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where P.J. Fleck coaches football, is not far - about a 45 minute drive

It was still far enough away that Bancheri, focused on coaching his rowing team, did not notice all the noise coming from Fleck and his Broncos football squad, the team that adopted the mantra "Row the Boat" to take them from a losing program to an undefeated team that won a conference championship Friday night to earn a Cotton Bowl bid to play Wisconsin.

At first, "Row the Boat" did not get a lot of media attention; but as the Broncos piled up wins, the mantra came up regularly in the news and in team interviews. Now it's getting national attention - the Cotton Bowl is a big deal - along with the team's rowing mantra.

Eric Garvelink, Grand Valley's club sports director, picked up on it, and sent Bancheri a link to one of the articles about Fleck and his team. Reading the article, Bancheri recalls thinking, "This sounds awfully familiar. This guy would be a great crew coach. He is basically talking about the commitment it takes from everyone on his team to be competitive.

"This whole article was about the team commitment, that everybody carries the burden and if everybody carries the burden, then that's five pounds off the next guy's back," Bancheri said. "(Legendary rowing coach) Steve Fairbairn said that 100 years ago.

"I sent the article to my team, and reminded them that they row the boat all the time. I told them, 'you guys are doing the same thing, you're making the same commitment. And if you're not, you're doing what we call in canoeing 'Lily Dipping.' That's when you're canoeing and one guy is doing all the work and the other guy is putting his paddle in the water and just getting it wet.

"And this was coming from a football coach, of all things."

The story behind Fleck's mantra has gained a lot of attention, and in response, Fleck has explained its very personal origins. "Row the Boat," did not begin as a mantra for just a football team.

In 2011, Fleck lost his second son, Colt, to a heart condition shortly after his birth. "Without question, it was the most difficult thing I've ever experienced," Fleck wrote last month. "When you lose a child it changes you forever. It tests your faith and it also makes you reflect on your purpose in life.

"After a lot of prayer, what I realized was that my life wasn't about me. It was about honoring my son. And what I came to understand was that when I was able to touch another person's life, it made me feel closer to him. And that was the greatest feeling of all.

"So with my son in mind, I invented this phrase you might have heard: Row the boat. It has nothing to do with football, or sports really. It's just a mindset."

A mindset was what Fleck felt he needed when he took the Bronco's head coaching position in 2012. His first year at the school followed a 1-11 season. Western Michigan had no history to fall back on. The team won only two MAC championships in 108 years, played in five bowl games and never won.

He had a rebuilding task in front of him, a team rebuilding process that would need something to rally around. "Row the Boat" became that rallying point.

Fleck told his team the phrase meant doing the little things right, not just during a game, but every day -and accepting the results. It meant everyone pulled an oar, brought energy to the team and moved the boat forward.

This is a concept that the U.S. national team training center athletes have embraced for years, especially under coach Tom Terhaar. And their success is hard to argue - three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the women's eight, 11 straight Olympic or world championships.

"Having been part of the women's team for as long as I have been, I know every day that you feed off of each other," said Meghan Musnicki, who has two of those Olympic medals. "And when you train and practice as much we do you're going to have good days and you're going to have bad days and what gets you through the bad days are your teammates and the ability to push each other."

Terhaar doesn't use a mantra. Like Bancheri said, it's just what rowers do.

"It's kind of second nature and when you hear other people referring to it, you're kind of surprised because we already have that kind of mantra," Terhaar said. "I guess that's just the nature of the different types of sports.

"The only consistent thing I've said is no one does it alone. You need each other every day, in every practice and about every ten minutes, and they all recognize that. And even as the athletes get older they recognize that."

Terhaar said he has been asked recently in the post Rio debrief if he would allow experienced athletes to train on their own and come into the group when it's time. He said he has never been against that, but that the athletes usually want to come back to the group without any prodding.

"It's usually after about six months," he said. "They want to come back because they know it's much more manageable when their teammates are around. They realize that we are so much better together than we are individually and whatever you have to give up is definitely worth it because you become a much better person, and it's much more enjoyable and the success is magnified."

Last Friday night, (Dec. 2) the Western Michigan Broncos capped an undefeated 13-win season with a Mid-American Conference Championship victory over Ohio University and earned a Cotton Bowl bid to play Big Ten runner-up and eighth-ranked Wisconsin on Jan. 2 in the Dallas Cowboys' home stadium.

Following the win, Fleck, and his team, reflected to the core of his mantra - rowing one stroke at a time, taking the season one game at a time, with a group goal of reaching the A final.

"All we can control is winning the games on our schedule, and we've done that,' Fleck said after Friday's victory. "We deserve to be in the gosh darn Cotton Bowl. Write it down."

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