WMU president John Dunn welcomes new football coach Tim Lester on Saturday in Kalamazoo. Tony Paul, Detroit News
Kalamazoo -- The University of Minnesota has initiated discussions about acquiring the trademark and licensing rights to the popular "Row the Boat" mantra from Western Michigan.
Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard confirmed the talks Saturday afternoon, following the introductory press conference for new head football coach Tim Lester.
"It is really one of those issues that needs to be discussed," Beauregard said. "We certainly hope that we come to a conclusion for what's going to be the best for everyone."
P.J. Fleck brought the "Row the Boat" slogan to Western Michigan four years ago, and it's served as a perseverance rallying cry.
Fleck came up with the theme following the death of his infant son.
It took a while to catch on at Western Michigan, but in the last two years, it's been everywhere, latched onto by the student-athletes, the general student body and the community as a whole.
Western Michigan trademarked it in 2013, and has since benefited greatly, financially and from a marketing standpoint. "Row the Boat" or its short-hand, "RTB," has been splashed on a lot of merchandise, from key chains to mugs, flags to T-shirts.
It’s also been put on official athletic wear, including coats and jerseys, and "Row the Boat" is in big letters atop the tunnel leading to the Waldo Stadium playing field.
Letting it go would be a massive undertaking for Western Michigan and its brand, which has grown, nationally, thanks to the football team's recent success.
But it's the right thing to do, for a number of reasons, Beauregard said.
"It's been a huge part of what this community bought into and what Coach Fleck really instilled in the culture of the program, and we're thankful for that," she said. "But it's his personal story.
"It also was important when we hired a new coach, I wasn't going to tell somebody, 'This is where you need to go and what you have to do.'"
Financial discussions have not been made public.
Western Michigan will receive $600,000 from either Fleck or Minnesota, or a combination of the two parties, as part of the early buyout clause in his contract.
Big to-do list
Lester has a lot to do in a short amount of time, particularly on the recruiting front, with National Signing Day set for Feb. 1.
He also will have to fill out his coaching staff. No hires have been made, though he will meet with Fleck's holdovers on campus Sunday.
Much of the defensive staff remains at Western Michigan; Fleck took most of the offensive staff with him to Minnesota.
Beauregard said Lester will have $1.1 million to spend on his nine-man coaching staff. The hires will be up to him, though she noted there is a benefit to retaining at least some of the staff -- since many of the current student-athletes have formed such bonds.
Defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham, a candidate for the head coaching job, could be one who stays, though nothing's been decided.
"Sometimes, consistency in assistants in that way is extremely helpful," Beauregard said.
The holdovers have been busy trying to keep the recruiting class together since Fleck took nine of the commitments with him to Minnesota.
"Which is not something they had to do," Beauregard said.
Scott Shafer, a former Western Michigan and Michigan assistant who had Lester on staff when he was head coach at Syracuse, will not be re-joining Lester in Kalamazoo.
WMU athletic director Kathy Beauregard introduced new football coach Tim Lester on Saturday in Kalamazoo. Tony Paul, Detroit News
Lester ‘perfect for the situation’
As a Group of Five school that plays in the little-thought-of Mid-American Conference, Western Michigan rarely has been in a position like this in terms of a coaching search.
In its history, it usually parted ways with coaches on its own terms, because the program was scuffling.
That wasn't the case this time, as it lost Fleck to a Power Five conference, the Big Ten.
The recent success -- 13-1 this season, with a MAC title and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl -- made this job more appealing than it’s ever been, meaning Western Michigan could've gone bigger and bolder than Lester. Many fans and alums were hoping Beauregard would do just that.
And while she understands the sentiment, she didn't think it was necessarily proper.
"Every hire is different, every hire is unique," Beauregard said. "Yeah, that could've been where we went this time, an opportunity for a bigger splash or maybe a bigger national name."
But she called the Lester pick "perfect for the situation," with him coming home to his alma mater.
Lester was one of five candidates to get a formal interview with Beauregard.
Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno did not interview, though The Detroit News reported his interest in the job, and Western Michigan did not have any discussions with former LSU coach Les Miles.
Fleck texted Beauregard on Saturday, calling Lester, "the perfect hire."
"Which meant a lot to me," Beauregard said.
Fleck was 32 when he got the Western Michigan job; Lester is 39.
... Steve Hawkins (men's basketball) and Billy Gernon (baseball) were among the Western Michigan coaches in attendance for Lester's press conference.
... Like on Fleck's last deal, the university will pay $225,000 of Lester's $800,000 base salary, with donors contributing the balance.