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'Normal' won't cut it for Tim Lester at Western Michigan

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Tim Lester

​Kalamazoo -- Last week, Western Michigan said goodbye to P.J. Fleck.

This week, Western Michigan said welcome home to Tim Lester.

Lester, the former Broncos quarterback who was crushed when he didn't get the head coaching job at his alma mater four years ago, was introduced as Fleck's replacement during a news conference on campus Saturday morning.

"I would want to work at Western Michigan no matter how good or bad they were," Lester told a packed room at the Seelye Center, a Hail Mary pass from Waldo Stadium.

Lester comes back to Western Michigan after spending the last four years coaching at Power Five schools -- three years at Syracuse, where he rose to offensive coordinator, and this past season as quarterbacks coach at Purdue.

He receives a five-year contract worth $800,000 in base pay annually, with bonuses that could push him to $1.1 million.

It's the same contract Fleck was working under when he departed to be head coach at Minnesota. Fleck was close to a 10-year extension worth more than $2 million annually to stay at Western Michigan before the Minnesota job came open shortly after the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.

Lester will receive a budget of $1.1 million for his nine-man assistant coach team. No assistants have been hired; he plans to meet with Fleck's holdovers on campus Sunday.

Western Michigan interviewed at least five candidates for the job, including Fleck's defensive coordinator, Ed Pinkham; Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley; Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson; and Mario Cristobal, who had been the offensive line coach at Alabama before taking the co-offensive coordinator position at Oregon this week.

‘Row the Boat’ probably won’t float in new WMU era

Many Western Michigan alums were hoping for a big-splash hire by athletic director Kathy Beauregard, especially after the Broncos' national prominence skyrocketed after a 13-1 season that included a Mid-American Conference championship, a berth in the New Year's Six Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin, and a spot in the final national rankings -- 15th in the Associated Press and College Football Playoff rankings, and 18th in the coaches' poll.

Lester, 39, understands that sentiment, but shrugged it off.

"They said the same thing when they hired P.J. Fleck," Lester said of a coach who was 32 -- and had never been a coordinator at any level, let alone a head coach -- when Beauregard made the bold choice to hire him four years ago.

"He handled himself pretty well, I thought."

Lester was a candidate for the job four years ago, as well, losing out to Fleck.

At that time, when Lester was coaching at Division III Elmhurst College, Beauregard suggested he get some more experience at a higher level.

It was time well spent, Lester said Saturday. Lester also has been head coach at Division II St. Joseph's, and was a quarterbacks coach at Western Michigan for a couple years in the 2000s.

Through all the stops elsewhere, though, Lester never stopped using the word "we" when talking about Western Michigan, said his wife, Dawn.

"I had a great last year watching the Broncos play," Lester said.

Lester was flanked by his wife, Beauregard and president John Dunn at the dais, with his mother, sister and children in the audience -- with several other Western Michigan coaches.

Beauregard presented him with a No. 1 jersey. It wasn't the number he wore as a Bronco -- that was No. 13 -- when he was quarterback in the late 1990s, under Gary Darnell. But Beauregard noted it represented his place in the community now.

Immediately after Fleck's departure for a five-year, $17.5-million deal at Minnesota, Lester emerged as a leading candidate at Western Michigan.

While WMU was in a different place four years ago, and thus Beauregard was urged to think outside of Bronco Nation in picking Fleck, WMU’s football program is healthier now.

So a homecoming seemed more appropriate.

"It is really a family business," Dunn said.

Lester, three years older than Fleck, was introduced to the current roster of players Friday afternoon, shortly after he got word the job was his around 1 p.m.

He was met with a rousing, standing ovation from the current Broncos, who return a talented defense, a great running game and big, experienced lines -- but will have to break in a new quarterback, following Zach Terrell's graduation, and find a replacement for receiver Corey Davis, a likely first-round NFL pick.

Lester then had dinner with recruits, as this is a big recruiting weekend at Western Michigan, with basketball and hockey games Saturday. Lester had a lunch planned with recruits Saturday.

Western Michigan's 2017 class, not long ago ranked in the top 50 nationally by Scout and Rivals, lost nine recruits to Fleck and Minnesota in the last week.

"We're not slowing down," Beauregard said. "We didn't need to blow up the culture. We don't need to start over."

While Lester is energetic and excitable, he acknowledged he's not on the level of Fleck in that regard – not that he needs to be.

"If you're juiceful, you're useful," Lester said with a smile. "If you're juiceless, you're useless.”

He emphasized a lot of the things Fleck always did, including relationships with the student-athletes, and focusing on a six-hour radius around Kalamazoo when it comes to recruiting.

But he still hasn't decided whether he'll keep some of the other Fleckisms, the Bronconese, if you will -- like use of the word "elite," or "Row the Boat," which is trademarked by Western Michigan but could be purchased by Minnesota.

All that secondary stuff will be up to the players, said Lester, a math major at Western Michigan who's more of an X's and O's and numbers guy than Fleck.

"We're definitely going to keep some things," Lester said. "That culture is a winning culture.

"Winning isn't normal. Not everybody wins.

"They don't want to be normal."


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.

Twitter @tonypaul1984