Western Michigan brass skipped this week's big college football convention in Nashville, preferring to ramp up its search for a new coach from its Kalamazoo campus.
Athletic director Kathy Beauregard and president John Dunn are not using a search firm to find a replacement for P.J. Fleck, who left for Minnesota last Friday. But that’s not to say they haven't made significant progress on a wide-ranging hunt.
A decision could be made this weekend, with an announcement as early as Monday.
One name that is on the radar, if not the front runner, is Tim Lester, a former Western Michigan quarterback who was in the mix four years ago, even if Fleck was the only one offered the job.
Lester has talked with Beauregard, according to a source with knowledge of the search who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the process. That said, it's unclear if that interview took place on campus, as was reported Wednesday by WWMT in Kalamazoo.
Lester, 39, was a record-setting quarterback at Western Michigan under Gary Darnell in the late 1990s before moving on to a coaching career that — unlike when Fleck was hired four years ago — has included multiple stints as a coordinator and a head coach, albeit at some lower levels.
He spent 2016 as the quarterbacks coach at Purdue.
There was another former college star that's name popped up late Wednesday and early Thursday, especially on Twitter via eye-opening well-wishes from Michigan running back De'Veon Smith. But while former Michigan running back Tyrone Wheatley, the current running-backs coach under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, was expected to interview with Beauregard, he appears to be out of the running, according to a source.
Wheatley, 44, an Inkster native, has been a running backs coach at Ohio Northern, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, and Michigan for Harbaugh's two years, and has long has desired to become a head coach. His limited resume, at least position-coach wise, wasn't believed to be a hindrance if Beauregard's hiring of Fleck, long a wide-receivers coach, from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was any indication.
Meanwhile, it's another member of Harbaugh's staff, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, 47, that has emerged as a possibly intriguing candidate, despite having just signed a new, five-year, $5-million deal at Michigan, The News recently learned.
It appears Beauregard is more intrigued by Lester and possibly Drevno than a couple current, in-state head-coaching stars, in Grand Valley State's Matt Mitchell, who hadn't been contacted for an interview as of a couple days ago, and Ferris State's Tony Annese.
Western Michigan is coming off its best season in school history, finishing 13-1 with its first Mid-American Conference championship since 1988, and its lone loss to Wisconsin, 24-16, in the Cotton Bowl. The Broncos, who had never been ranked in the national polls before the 2016 season, finished 15th in the final Associated Press poll and College Football Playoff rankings, and 18th in the final coaches' poll. There is a strong sense Western, with its recent success and significant publicity, feels it might be beyond tapping a coach from the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, such as when Central Michigan hired Brian Kelly from Grand Valley State after the 2003 season.
It also doesn't appear to be reaching for the moon and the stars, either, as Les Miles, who won a national championship at LSU in 2007 but was fired by the school this past season, nor his two agents have been in contact with Western brass, including Beauregard, the source said. Miles is not a candidate.
There remains no timeline to make a hire, Beauregard told The News on Thursday, reiterating what she said at a news conference on campus last Friday. Still, there is reason to work fast, which is why no fewer than 10 candidates or agents for potential candidates have talked on the phone with Beauregard as of Wednesday night.
National Signing Day is Feb. 1, and the next hire will have to be a miracle worker to salvage a once highly ranked class that is in shambles since Fleck's departure. At last count, nine Western Michigan recruits have followed Fleck to Minnesota — some without having previously setting foot on the Minneapolis campus.
This weekend is an official-visit time at Western Michigan, and some top recruits — including U-D Jesuit cornerback A.J. Thomas — will be meeting with the likes of Beauregard, Dunn and some of the Fleck coaching staff holdovers, including defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham. He was the biggest name who didn't get an invitation to join Fleck in Minnesota.
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, receivers coach Matt Simon, special teams coach Rob Wenger and offensive line coach Brian Callahan have been hired by Fleck.
Simon, the enthusiastic and young position coach who some have called a Fleck clone, had been considered the most likely internal candidate for Western Michigan job.
That said, Pinkham is scheduled to talk with Beauregard on Friday, with his interview said to be the final one of the first round, and possibly the final round of discussions.
Beauregard said at last Friday's news conference that the phone already had been ringing off the hook, and that hasn't stopped. The calls from wannabe candidates or their agents, or both, have been significantly more intense than the last time Western Michigan made a hire.
Back then, the Broncos had never even won a bowl game. Now, they've got a little bit of national cache, making the job more attractive, if still a step or two below the likes of Cincinnati or Boise State, other successful Group of Five schools.
The list of those interested in the Western Michigan job remains long — likely, way, way longer than the list of candidates Beauregard, herself, is overly interested in. She's looking for the perfect fit, like she was when she found a fellow named Fleck four years ago. She has a knack for finding just that — like she did when she hired Jeff Blashill, now the Red Wings head coach, to be Western Michigan's hockey coach, and when she hired Billy Gernon, part philosopher and part motivator, to be the coach of an on-the-rise baseball program, among several other quality hires.
The next football coach will have to be far more than a football coach — but a tireless recruiter, enthusiastic fundraiser and community spokesman and lobbyist, as Fleck was.
There are other names to keep an eye on for the football job, outside of the apparent front runners — as there's always the chance negotiations might not go smoothly. After all, Western Michigan is not totally committed to paying the next coach as much as they paid Fleck, who earned an $800,000 base salary plus bonuses that took him well over $1 million for 2016. His contract extension, which was nearly signed before the Cotton Bowl — and thus before he took the Minnesota job — was worth way more than that.
Western Michigan and its small army of generous donors are willing to pony up for the next coach, too, but the financial commitment will have to make sense, too, given the next coach's experience and resume.
Former Michigan running back Mike Hart, 30, made an excellent impression on Western Michigan brass during his brief time on Fleck's staff, before heading to Syracuse to be the running backs coach. He earned a reputation as an excellent recruiter, too.
Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson reportedly had an interview Thursday, according to the Lansing State Journal's Graham Couch. That makes sense, given Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is advising Beauregard on the search, as he did on the Fleck hire, too.
And Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten can't be ruled out, either.