There is a pile of clothes in the basement of the Madison family home in Warren, and it contains nothing but Western Michigan gear — sweatshirts, sweatpants, T-shirts, hats.
All of that should be hanging in Delano Madison’s closet in his dorm room in Kalamazoo.
Instead, red, white and blue sweatshirts, sweatpants, T-shirts and hats dominate Madison’s closet in his dorm room in Pittsburgh, where he recently enrolled at Robert Morris University.
How the Birmingham Brother Rice graduate who committed to Western Michigan in the summer of 2014 wound up at Robert Morris is a cautionary tale.
It reveals the side of college recruiting that no one likes to talk about, especially college football coaches who will actively recruit over 100 high school kids each year and sign less than a quarter of them to national letters of intent.
It also shows what may be a college coach’s new tactic in running off committed players he has changed his mind on and no longer wants to sign.
The main characters in this case are Madison, a 5-foot-8, 162-pound slot receiver who had two surgeries that wiped out his junior season in its entirety and all but the first half of the first game of his senior year.
The other headliner is Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck, 35, the youngest head coach in Division I football, whose catchphrase “row the boat” has been copyrighted by him and the university.
Fleck seems to possess boundless energy and is a master motivator. When a vacancy occurs at a high-profile program these days, his name is often among the names mentioned as a possible candidate. He is so hot a commodity that Sports Illustrated college football writer Pete Thamel spent three days in Kalamazoo last fall and observed that Fleck “is the youngest and most intriguing coach in college football.”
So you can understand why Madison, once a prized recruit, couldn’t wait to play for him.
Yet today he sits in Pittsburgh, preparing to play for a lower Division I school instead of being a grayshirt recruit at top Division I Western.
How this came about is a bit of a he said/she said debate, and the exact details are open for interpretation.
Madison claims Fleck waited until a few weeks before he was going to enroll at Western Michigan to all but pull his scholarship offer, telling him he would never play at Western and offering only a medical redshirt.
Fleck insists the decision not to come to Western was ultimately Madison’s. Fleck said said Madison was not healthy enough to compete at Western. However, Madison was never examined by a WMU team doctor.
Madison’s injury problems began on the first day of practice before his junior year at Rice, when he fractured his left femur and had surgery the next day, missing all of the 2013 season.
He spent countless hours in rehab after the season and that winter consistently ran impressive times of 4.3 seconds for 40 yards.
In the summer of 2014, he met Western assistant coach Vincent Reynolds, who recently took a job at Syracuse, at a camp Western sponsored at Oak Park. Reynolds invited Madison to attend a camp at Western, and he did well.
He met Fleck in Kalamazoo and a few days later received a call from Reynolds, who told him an offer was coming. Reynolds then put Fleck on the phone, and Fleck made it official.
Madison committed on the spot.
“I liked what they had going,” he said. “They came off a 1-11 season. They turned it around and went 8-4. The offense seemed just perfect to my skill set. They gave me the notion that’s where I was supposed to be.”
That sentiment grew stronger following Rice’s opening game his senior season. The first three times Madison touched the ball, he intercepted a pass, caught a touchdown pass and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
But after catching his fourth pass of the day late in the first half, Madison tore his ACL and his meniscus, and his high school football career was finished. He underwent surgery again.
Madison feared the Fleck would drop him, but that didn’t happen.
“I heard from them probably about a week after I got out of the surgery,” Madison said. “He told me they were going to honor the scholarship. He said that that wasn’t something I had to worry about and I could just focus on getting back and training as if I was going to come play that season. He basically told me to attack it like a monster, as if I really loved the game.”
That was easy for Madison to do, because he loves the game. And his admiration for Fleck grew considerably.
“I put my faith in him,” he said. “Anyone who would take a chance on a kid who didn’t play junior year, who barely had a senior season, and then to still honor it … I thought that was amazing.”
As signing day approached, Fleck floated the idea of grayshirting to Madison when he and his father, Rufus, visited WMU.
Grayshirting is a relatively new phenomenon in college football. Seniors don’t sign letters of intent in February and do not enroll in August. Instead, they enroll the following January and effectively become a part of the next year’s recruiting class.
“When they first told me, it kind of hurt a bit, because I would be sitting out another season and it would be two or three years to pretty much play,” Madison said. “It was kind of hard to swallow at first, but then I looked back and pulled out the positives of it all and realized I could take the time to work out and get my body even stronger and better myself as an athlete.”
Helping convince Madison to take the grayshirt opportunity was his father, who understood Fleck’s reasoning.
“He explained that Delano did so much trying to come back and play football that he wanted to do it this way — give Delano some time, don’t think about football,” Rufus said. “One thing he said that got me was, ‘You’re going to be up here with me.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to have to play the role of dad, and I’m going to take care of our kid. I’ve got his interest at heart.’ ”
And so it was resolved. Madison would stay home during the fall semester and then join his teammates and classmates in January. But he did attend and participate in Western’s fall camp in August.
Madison sat out the fall semester but remained in contact with the Western coaches.
“We had access to them,” Rufus said. “They were real prompt getting back to you.”
But everything changed on Dec. 4. Madison was driving to his job when he received a phone call from Fleck.
“He told me that he didn’t trust my knee,” Madison said. “He said he didn’t think I would be able to play at that level because of my knee. He said with the ACL surgery, he thought it would be better if I didn’t try to play on it. They offered for me to take a medical redshirt. He said I wouldn’t play. He didn’t see me moving up the depth chart at all at Western Michigan.”
Madison’s mind raced as he listened to Fleck. He couldn’t figure out how it had come to that point.
“He asked me if I wanted to play football,” Madison said. “I told him, ‘Yes. It’s my life. It’s what I do.’ He said he could find me another scholarship (at a different school). He told me nothing was final, and I was just saying: ‘Well, you pretty much just told me how you felt about me. I respect it, but Western Michigan is a place I don’t need to be. I want to play football. I need to.’
“He said it wasn’t final. He said he would have another talk with the coaching staff, the receivers coach, and then he’d get back to me on what they decided to do.”
Madison is still waiting for that next call from Fleck.
“I felt crushed,” he said. “It was a state of pretty much depression. I’m going around, and now I’m trying to find coaches who would still take a chance on me.”
Fleck, who is heading into his fourth season at Western, expressed surprise that Madison was caught off guard by the call. He also denied saying Madison would never play at Western, but he did acknowledge that he said he did not think his chances of getting on the field were good.
“I told him, ‘You are more than welcome to come here, but you as well as I know being here playing, you might not fit here in terms of the skill level,’ ” Fleck said. “I think he knew that and decided on his own, ‘You know what? I’m going to go play.’ He was more than welcome to come, but in terms of playing, I think he really kind of saw that he probably wasn’t going to play here.”
According to Fleck, he came to the realization that Madison would not be able to play during Western’s fall camp, even though Madison was not going to enroll until January.
“He came in for training camp and wasn’t healthy with his knee at all,” Fleck said. “I think both parties found out he might not be able to play at this level, and he actually wanted to go play. He felt the best way was to drop a level and go play. His exact words to me were, ‘Coach, I want to play football.’ ”
Madison is adamant he never said anything about dropping to another level, and he was surprised Fleck was able to discern much of anything from his performance at fall camp.
“He said I didn’t have a good training camp, but I wasn’t sure where he was getting all that from because all during training camp I was on the sideline,” Madison said. “When I did get on the field, it was toward conditioning. I was beating out some of his top receivers and top players on the offensive side of the ball in sprints.”
Brother Rice coach Dave Sofran was surprised Madison was invited to participate in the fall camp considering the ACL and meniscus surgery.
“If I had an ACL injury in October, November of 2014, why am I at camp in the fall so quickly when you’re supposed to report in January?” Sofran asked. “With an ACL, it’s usually a 12-month recovery process.”
Fleck said the conversation about a medical redshirt began after fall camp, denying he sprung the idea on Madison in December.
“I think this was mentioned, not even by me,” he said. “This was mentioned previously by one of my other coaches. He knew that before from one of our coaches that recruited him.”
Sofran does remember former Western assistant Mike Hart telling him about Madison’s physical struggles.
“He mentioned Delano had come to camp in the fall and didn’t really, I guess, perform as well as they would have liked or whatever,” he said. “Shortly after that, coach Fleck disclosed to me that from a medical standpoint he wasn’t doing some of the things that he had seen before he was injured for a second time.”
Sofran was surprised Fleck didn’t immediately share that information with Madison.
“If he’s saying he wasn’t notified until December, man, I thought he had a meeting with the head coach right in the fall about the circumstances,” Sofran said. “The hard part in this is Delano is such a great kid. I love Delano. He’s a wonderful human being.”
Fleck admitted that no WMU doctor examined Madison’s knee when he was in Kalamazoo, but somehow Fleck knew that the knee would not improve even though it was less than a year since the surgery.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. In October, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told Southfield running back Matt Falcon, who had committed to U-M before suffering a season-ending knee injury for the second year in a row, that U-M would not honor his playing scholarship but would allow him to attend on a medical redshirt scholarship.
Fleck bristled at the comparison and said the situations are not comparable.
“That affects my character, and that is not right,” Fleck said. “If I did it, that’s different. If I was malicious and said, ‘Screw this kid. We don’t want him. Let’s forget about him. Let’s just say medical redshirt and let him ride off into the sunset because that’s sort of what Michigan did possibly, with Matt …’ But that was not the case.”
By the way, Falcon has committed to play at Western.
Madison’s father came up with one dramatic difference in the two situations.
“(Harbaugh) gave him enough time to open up his recruitment,” Rufus said. “I know P.J. knew what he was doing. When we went to the camp, P.J. said he didn’t have the scholarship. He told his guys he wasn’t bringing in anymore receivers. He said he had to have Delano on his team because he would not want to play against him.”
After Madison spoke with Fleck, he called Central Michigan.
“Central called me that day I met with Robert Morris,” he said. “They wanted to offer me, but they didn’t have any scholarships to offer me.”
Most Division I schools were out of scholarships so close to signing day, and it appeared Western was, too — until Fleck called Madison.
After Romeo won the Division 1 state championship in late November, Fleck offered a scholarship to receiver Brad Tanner, who accepted it.
“That thing rung true because he knew — he knew! — that if Delano left he would have a spot somewhere else in the MAC and he would have to play against that kid. He knew it!” Rufus said. “That’s one of the things that hurt me so much. He didn’t leave the kid with any options.”
Suddenly, the lines of communication to the assistant coaches, which had been so good, were cut off.
“I reached out to those guys,” Rufus said. “No one returned e-mails, didn’t return texts. This is the first time we could never get them on the phone.”
Because Madison is at Robert Morris, Fleck won’t have to play against him.
“We were part of the process to help him find another spot,” Fleck said. “Kids transfer from programs every year. When they transfer and decide to leave, we find them a home. There’s not one kid that’s ever gone through this program that I haven’t helped find a home if they decide to leave.”
So Fleck arranged for him to attend Robert Morris?
“I didn’t pick Robert Morris for him, but we made calls,” he said. “I think one of our assistants did. I personally did not, no.”
After speaking with Fleck, Madison called George Yarberry, who runs the Michigan Elite 7-on-7 team Madison played on. Yarberry began calling coaches he knew, which included Robert Morris defensive coordinator Scott Farison.
“They came and met with Delano and his family,” Yarberry said. “It was just a good fit. Robert Morris needed a playmaker slot receiver, and Delano needed an opportunity because his was taken away from him. Long story short, he is there, and he’s in classes, and the coaching staff at Robert Morris is thrilled to have him. It was a bad story that turned into a good ending.”
And Madison is delighted to be there because the coaches actually want him to play football.
“I was perfectly content with it,” he said. “I liked that they preached opportunity, which was far different than what Western was trying to get across. One thing they promised me: I’ll graduate. That is what brought me in closer, and then they told me about what they’re trying to do here and that pretty much sealed the deal.”
Of course, Madison and his parents thought they had a sealed deal with Fleck. Madison couldn’t wait to row the boat for Fleck.
Now he has a new perspective on Division I athletics, and his father has a new opinion of Fleck.
Initially, Rufus was so impressed with the way Fleck spoke about his program and the way he described it.
“Every single time it was, ‘Be elite,’ ” Rufus said. “He’d say, ‘We do things around here elite. Everything we do is elite.’ They have a whole different way of speaking up there. Everything is ‘elite,’ ‘row the boat,’ ‘family.’ It doesn’t seem anything like family that I know of.”
That is why the pile of Western Michigan gear is in the basement of the Madison home.
Delano will take care of it the next time he is in town.
“When I come back,” Madison said with a chuckle, “we’re going to have one big bonfire.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.