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Tim Lester 'welcomed home' as Western's new coach

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

With its reputation at an all-time high, Western Michigan football was afforded an opportunity to take its coaching search national.

It ended up staying local. Hyper local.

Tim Lester, a record-setting quarterback for the Broncos in the late 1990s, was named as P.J. Fleck's replacement Friday night.

Lester had met with the current roster of players earlier Friday, and later was set to meet with a number of potential recruits. This is a big recruiting weekend in Kalamazoo, a big reason why Western Michigan's search intensified during  the last two days — after Fleck had flipped nine Western Michigan recruits to Minnesota since taking the Big Ten job a week ago.

Lester, 39, most recently was quarterbacks coach at Purdue this past season, under Darrell Hazell and, after he was fired, Gerad Parker.

Unlike when Fleck was hired four years ago, Lester does have some head coaching experience, albeit at smaller levels — a season (2004) at Division II Saint Joseph's and five seasons (2008-12) at Division III Elmhurst. His career record is 40-23.

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Lester resigned from Elmhurst after making the Division III playoffs in 2012 to join the staff at Syracuse, where he coached from 2013-15, first as quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator, and then as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Scott Shafer.

Shafer, a former Michigan and Western Michigan assistant coach, is believed to be a candidate to join Lester's staff in Kalamazoo. Fleck took almost all of the offensive coaches with him to Minnesota.

Lester's coaching career began shortly after his college playing days, in high school back home in Illinois before joining Elmhurst as an offensive coordinator in 2001. From 2005-06, he was quarterbacks coach at Western Michigan under his old coach, Bill Cubit.

"Being an alum, that kind of helps," Cubit said Friday night, of Lester's appeal for the job. "Hopefully, he brings some more alums back on his staff."

While close in age, Lester isn't Fleck, 36, who's one-part coach, one-part motivational speaker, and one-part philosopher.

A math major in college, Lester is more into the Xs and Os part of the job.

"He's not an in-your-face guy," said Cubit, who coached Western Michigan for eight years before his firing paved the way for Fleck. "He likes being around players."

Lester and Cubit still keep in touch and saw each other this past week at the college coaches' convention in Nashville.

It'll be interesting to see if Lester wants the experienced Cubit, out of a job since being fired as head coach of Illinois in 2015, as part of his staff. Cubit and Western Michigan didn't have the easiest parting of ways.

Athletic director Kathy Beauregard made the announcement on Lester on Twitter, saying, "Welcome home, TIM!"

Beauregard was very intrigued by Lester four years ago, though an offer never was extended. Others at the university strongly urged her to make the next hire — after eight years of Gary Darnell, then eight of Cubit — an outside-the-family ordeal, so to speak, and that's what led her to Fleck.

Fleck spent four years at Western Michigan, taking the program from 1-11 in the first year to 13-1 this season, the lone loss being to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2. The Broncos finished the season 15th in the final Associated Press and College Football Playoff rankings, and 18th in the final coaches' poll. Before last season, they'd never won a bowl. Before this season, they'd never been ranked.

Fleck and Western Michigan were well down the road on a contract extension following the Mid-American Conference championship, the program's first since 1988, in early December, but never got the deal done before the Cotton Bowl. Beauregard called the offer, driven by desperate donors, "incredible."

It was believed to be for as many as 10 years, at more than double the $800,000 base salary he was working on in 2016.

But the deal was never signed, and when Minnesota fired Tracy Claeys the day after the Cotton Bowl, Fleck's exit to a Power Five job was set in motion. Fleck signed for five years and $17.5 million at Minnesota.

And almost just as quickly, signs started pointing to Lester and Beauregard getting together again. The two met for eight hours Wednesday, and he was the front-runner from the get-go.

Ed Pinkham, defensive coordinator under Fleck at Western Michigan, was the last interview, early Friday. Northwestern running-backs coach Matt MacPherson interviewed with Beauregard on Thursday. Michigan running-backs coach Tyrone Wheatley was in the mix for a time, but was ruled out Thursday.
A press conference to introduce Lester will be Saturday morning on campus.

Contract information wasn't released Friday, as the school said details still were being finalized. He almost certainly will make less than Fleck earned in 2016, when bonuses pushed Fleck's final annual pay well past $1 million.

As a player, Lester earned MAC freshman of the year honors in 1996, and was second-team All-MAC as a junior and senior. He finished his Western Michigan career fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards (11,299) and sixth in touchdown passes (89). He was inducted in the Western Michigan Hall of Fame in 2011.

As a quarterbacks coach, he worked with Western Michigan's Tim Hiller when he was MAC freshman of the year in 2005, and this past season he worked with Purdue sophomore David Blough, who threw for 3,352 yards and 25 touchdowns, 21 interceptions.

At Western Michigan, he'll have to find his new quarterback, as record-setter Zach Terrell is graduating. Tom Flacco, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Joe Flacco, is one candidate to win the starting job. Lester inherits an experienced and talented defense, quality lines, and a fantastic running game.

MEET TIM LESTER

Age: 39 (Feb. 8, 1977)

Hometown: Wheaton, Ill.

Alma mater: Western Michigan

Playing career: Quarterback at WMU from 1996-99, setting a number of school passing records.

Coaching career: 2000, Wheaton Warrenville South High (OC); 2001, St. Benedict High (OC); 2002-03, Elmhurst College (OC); 2004, Saint Joseph's (HC); 2005, Western Michigan (QB); 2007, North Central College (AHC/DC); 2008-12, Elmhurst (HC); 2013-15, Syracuse (QB/RC, then OC/QB); 2006, Purdue (QB)

Notable: In 2001, he played with the Chicago Enforcers of the short-lived XFL. In 2011, he was inducted into the Western Michigan Athletic Hall of Fame.