For Western’s Lester, the thrill is coming home

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — Tim Lester’s bond with Western Michigan University began with a spur-of-the-moment car ride to Kalamazoo back in the mid-1990s.

As a senior at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, located due west of Chicago, he decided to take a solo trip to the smallest, least-known school that had been recruiting him.

He also was high on the radars of West Virginia and Missouri, but a knee injury that senior year quieted things down.

So Lester hit the road without even telling his family.

When he returned, he had plenty to tell.

“He came home and said, ‘I think I like it there,’” said Pat Lester, Tim’s mother. “With kids, they get that feeling, and they know this is where they want to go.”

The next trip to Kalamazoo, Lester brought his family — and, as Pat Lester said, “That was it.” He committed to then-coach Al Molde.

Two decades later, Lester is the head football coach at his alma mater, having been introduced as P.J. Fleck’s replacement Saturday.

It was a homecoming that’s been expected since Fleck left for Minnesota a week ago. Lester was a candidate for the job four years ago, but lost out to Fleck — who took the team from 1-11 his first year to 13-1 and the Cotton Bowl this past year, his fourth.

During those four years, Lester bulked up his resume, with three years at Syracuse in the ACC, including some time as offensive coordinator. He spent the last year at Purdue in the Big Ten, coaching quarterbacks.

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

All the while, Lester kept one eye on Western Michigan.

“Since the day we met,” said Lester’s wife, Dawn, when asked this weekend how long Tim Lester had wanted the Western Michigan job. That was back in 2001. “Everywhere we went, he always referred to WMU as ‘us.’ Like, ‘Did you see us on the TV?’”

Now, officially, the program is Lester’s again. A head coach at the Division II and Division III levels, this is his first job as a Division I head coach. He receives a five-year deal worth $800,000 base per year, with an opportunity to make $1.1 million with bonuses.

That was the same contract Fleck was working under when he departed for Minnesota. Fleck turned down a new, 10-year contract worth at least $2 million annually to remain Western Michigan’s coach.

‘We were all crushed’

Alums and student-athletes were crushed to see Fleck go. They were under the impression he was staying for the foreseeable future, before things changed the day after the Jan. 2 Cotton Bowl — when Minnesota fired its coach, Tracy Claeys. Fleck was the instant front-runner.

And throughout all of Bronco Nation, there might’ve been precisely one alum not so sorry to see Fleck go.

That would be Lester, the obvious choice to take over.

It was awfully tough for him four years ago when Lester, then having just taken Division III Elmhurst College to the playoffs, was passed up as athletic director Kathy Beauregard was urged to think outside the box, and outside the Western Michigan family.

“We were all crushed, come on, let’s be honest,” Pat Lester said. “But look what P.J. did. Look what he did. You can’t fault that guy. The best choice was made at the time. It really was good. Now, you worry for your kid.

“He’s gotta keep it going, but I have faith.”

Lester was high on the list of Beauregard — who a reporter once mistook for Lester’s mother during his playing days — back in 2012, when she went looking for a replacement for Bill Cubit.

That, interestingly, would’ve been a more appropriate time to hire within the family. Western Michigan wasn’t on the national radar, the job wasn’t appealing to big-name candidates and alums didn’t have a single clue who this Fleck guy was.

But Beauregard decided a big change was needed. At that point, Western Michigan had never won a bowl game, and never been ranked.

So she went with Fleck, then 32 and the youngest Division I coach in the country. She had a hard time breaking the news to Lester, who she’s known since the day he committed as an athlete.

'Row the Boat' probably won't float in new WMU era

“As difficult as that decision was back then — which was extremely difficult — part of my advice to Tim at the time ...,” Beauregard said. “He was happy with Division III, but he had to make a choice. If he really wanted to get out in the next area, that he was going to have to make that change. I know that was a personal decision for their family to be able to do, but he did it.

“The opportunity to grow and really spend time in the ACC and also the same thing to spend that time in the Big Ten, certainly, has been an incredible opportunity for him. Some of those were some great, winning years in there, and sometimes we learn more about when it doesn’t go the right way.

“Those are all lessons that I know Tim has taken to heart. I know he has grown significantly from that aspect.”

Lester, 39, also acknowledged that while he had such high hopes for the job four years ago, Beauregard made the right decision.

While Western Michigan won its first bowl game last season, and won its first Mid-American Conference championship since 1988 and found itself in the national rankings for the first time this season, Lester was learning the big-boy jobs on the big stage, while developing some invaluable connections along the way.

That networking, almost certainly, will help in filling out his staff at Western Michigan. He was meeting with Fleck’s holdovers Sunday, and will interview external candidates throughout the next week.

“Oh, a lot more. A lot more prepared now,” Lester said. “It’s not one thing I’ve learned in the last four years that makes me more prepared. It’s everything that makes me more prepared.”

A longtime career goal

This time around, for the first time anybody at Western Michigan can remember, it had a football coach who was desired by bigger schools — after the MAC championship game, Fleck’s name was tied to all sorts of jobs, Purdue and Oregon among them.

He passed on Purdue, Oregon passed on him, and Western Michigan appeared safe. Until after the Cotton Bowl, that is.

So, this seemed like the time, with Western Michigan in the national consciousness, that the Broncos could go big-splash with the hire. But Beauregard, after five interviews, never saw the need.

“(This was) the chance to bring Tim home,” she said.

Lester played four seasons at Western Michigan, earning MAC freshman-of-the-year recognition in 1996, and second-team All-MAC as a junior and senior — the final year, having led Western Michigan to a 7-5 season and a spot in the MAC championship game. The Broncos lost to Marshall, 34-30.

Lester played from 1996-99, finishing with 11,299 passing yards (fourth in Football Bowl Subdivision history at the time) and 89 touchdown passes (sixth at the time). He established 17 Western Michigan records and eight MAC records.

His coaching career began after a brief stint in the short-lived XFL, and from 2005-06 he was on Bill Cubit’s staff at Western Michigan as the quarterbacks coach.

Lester also coached at two high schools back home, including his alma mater, Division II Saint Joseph’s in Indiana and Division III North Central College in Illinois, along with Elmhurst in Illinois, Syracuse and Purdue.

“Forever,” Pat Lester said, for how long her son had dreamed of one day taking over as Western Michigan’s head coach.

“When the point came that he knew he was gonna stop playing and start coaching, this was always foremost on his mind. Always. Yep. This place made a big impression on him, and his whole family.

“We love it here.”

Now the next generation of Lesters will grow to love it, too — including Tim’s four kids, Quinn, 17; Cooper, 7; Carter, 5; and Camden, 3 — even if not everything’s as it was when Lester last was here. Lester noted the Bob Evans near Waldo Stadium is gone now, but a winning culture has arrived.

“I’m thrilled to be here, thrilled to be back home,” Lester said, answering a question from a student reporter who was born in 1996 — the year Lester made his Western Michigan debut.

“There might be a little time frame between us, but we have one common strand of DNA, and that’s the love for this place.” @tonypaul1984