“Row the Boat” has been a phrase that the Western Michigan program, campus, and Kalamazoo community embraced with open arms following PJ Fleck’s turnaround of the program from 1-11 his first season, to 8-5 finishes the next two seasons before this past year’s special 13-1 finish with their only loss coming in their bowl game to Wisconsin.
It was on t-shirts and all sorts of other apparel (including oars on their helmets and uniforms eventually), local businesses around Kalamazoo proudly put up oars to show their support for the program, and Fleck used it every chance he got to make the brand stronger.
The phrase carried a deeply personal meaning to Fleck, who adopted it after he and his first wife (Tracie) lost their son shortly after birth to a heart condition. So when Fleck took the head coaching job at Minnesota, people couldn’t help but wonder if he’d be taking Row the Boat with him. Back in 2015, Western Michigan trademarked the phrase, meaning they legally own the rights to use it, and make money off it from t-shirts and apparel.
At his introductory press conference at Minnesota, Fleck made it clear that the signature phrase was much more than a calling card for the Western Michigan program while he was there – the phrase is something he considers very, very personal.
According to MLive, Western Michigan Trustree William Johnston noted that lawyers representing WMU and coach Fleck are working to release the phrase so that Fleck can use it officially at Minnesota.
“It’s just a matter of negotiating the terms of the release of that intellectual property,” Johnston noted after a recent board meeting.
The MLive article notes that fans should consider the phrase “as good as gone.”
For some, there was no doubt that Row the Boat would follow PJ, but others – most notably those in Kalamazoo who had grown to really love and embrace it – had hoped to hang on to it, but I think when you think of the personal nature of why Fleck has chosen to hang his hat on the phrase, I think we can all agree that “Row the Boat” belongs wherever PJ is because that’s where it means the most.
Head here to read the full piece with more on Fleck, WMU, Minnesota, and Row the Boat.