It took $50,000 of his own money, but Gophers coach P.J. Fleck officially secured the trademark rights to the phrase “Row the Boat” from Western Michigan University on Wednesday.
Hired in January from Western Michigan, Fleck intends to make that three-word phrase an integral part of the Gophers football program, believing it will help connect the whole state of Minnesota to the team.
“It’s a way of life; it’s a never-give-up mantra,” Fleck said during a 30-minute session with Star Tribune reporters. “It’s something anybody who comes in contact with our football program — or our city, or our state — can benefit from. And I wouldn’t have brought it, if I didn’t feel like it can make a major impact.”
Fleck began using “Row the Boat” as a mantra in 2011, when he was an assistant coach at Rutgers in 2011 and had an infant son, Colt, die of a heart condition.
“As you hold your son as he takes his last breath, your whole life changes,” Fleck explained to ESPN. “You’re living your life for someone else.”
Fleck compared that to the way a crew needs to row together, as one. Extending the symbolism, Fleck compares the boat to a shared sacrifice for the players, coaches, administration and fans. The oar symbolizes “energy,” and the compass points to the shared goal of success.
“When you’re rowing a boat, you can’t see where you’re going,” Fleck told ESPN. “Your back is toward the future, you can’t control it. You’re rowing in the present, which is the only thing you can control. But you’re looking at the past, which is the only thing you can’t change — but you have to learn from it.”
At Western Michigan, Fleck had words “Row the Boat” plastered everywhere and handed out oars to emphasize the theme of rowing together.
Under the agreement with Western Michigan, “Fleck will legally assume ownership of the phrase and be able to use or transfer it at will,” according to a WMU news release.
“You look at how it made an impact for a Kalamazoo [Mich.] community forever,” Fleck said Wednesday. “Even though it comes with me [to Minnesota], they can keep all the things that are up and celebrate it and really use it in terms of the memories of what it was able to do.”
Fleck, who signed a five-year, $18 million deal with the Gophers, said he had no problem paying his old school for the rights.
“Western Michigan — I absolutely love,” Fleck said. “Kalamazoo will forever be home to me.”
Fleck noted that he and his wife, Heather, are keeping their house in Kalamazoo.
As part of the agreement, for five years, Fleck will make a $10,000 annual gift to Western Michigan, which will go toward a scholarship for a Broncos walk-on football player.
The scholarship donation “was actually our idea,” Fleck said. “We wanted to do something to be able to provide a scholarship. I’m big on walk-on scholarships. I was almost a walk-on [at Northern Illinois], so I wanted to be able to keep that and everything I can ever do for Kalamazoo or Western Michigan University, I’m always going to do.”