There was a bit of a feeling-out process in Tim Lester's first season as head coach at Western Michigan, his alma mater. He did all the traditional things, like letting his coordinators do what they're paid to do, coordinate.
It left him, at times, frustrated, especially as the offense was up and down — as Lester, a former star Broncos quarterback, continued to delegate the play-calling duties.
Once the season ended, in disappointing fashion as Western at 6-6 missed out on a bowl game, he sat down with his offensive coordinator, Kevin Johns, and discussed possible changes. One of them included Lester becoming more hands-on.
"He asked me, 'I want to you to get more involved in the passing game,'" Lester said. "The passing game was really poor, he knew it, and he wanted my help."
Two weeks later, Johns was gone, taking the job as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, which made the decision easier for Lester.
Jake Moreland, who was a co-offensive coordinator with Johns, had a background as a tight end, also at Western Michigan (a former teammate of Lester's), and he was on board. And that was that.
Twelve months later, Western Michigan (7-5) is bowl-bound again, set for a Potato Bowl showdown Friday afternoon with BYU (6-6) in Boise, Idaho — thanks almost totally to the improved offense. Consider the leap: This year, the passing offense was 54th in the country (242.6 yards) compared to 115th (164.8) last year, while the total offense was 30th (447.2) compared to 79th (389.6) last year.
"It was a different year. I called plays this year, which was totally different than my first year being involved," said Lester, who on Thursday received a two-year contract extension through 2023. "As opposed to being in meetings, I was running most of the offensive meetings, and I enjoyed that 1,000 times more. ... It felt back in rhythm for me, back doing what I've always done as a coach.
"I got a lot closer with players that way, a lot more face-to-face time, the relationships growing stronger. I really personally enjoyed this year a lot more, being hands-on offensively, and I think it shows. We had a great year offensively."
And the Broncos did that despite losing starting quarterback Jon Wassink, a junior, to an ankle injury in October. It required surgery, and he's almost certainly going to be out for the bowl game, too.
Western had to turn to freshman Kaleb Eleby, who had his struggles at times, but was poised enough to lead the charge in an upset 28-21 victory in the regular-season finale against Northern Illinois. That win almost certainly shifted the Broncos' fate from being left out of the bowl picture again to heading to the postseason.
The running attack gets plenty of the credit, too, with Western led by first-team All-Mid-American Conference pick LeVante Bellamy (1,172 yards, six TDs), a junior, and third-teamer Jamauri Bogan (702 yards, 15 TDs), a redshirt senior. They got plenty of help from first-team offensive lineman Luke Juriga, a junior, second-team offensive lineman John Keenoy, a senior, plus second-team receiver Jayden Reed (eight TDs), a freshman, and third-team tight end Giovanni Ricci (three TDs), a junior.
Lester said the biggest change was philosophy: More aggression, less rigidity.
"I put a lot of freedom on the quarterback and the receivers to create and adjust routes," Lester said. "In the passing game two years ago, we were counting steps and very rigid.
"We took the kid gloves off a little bit, and were looser and faster that way."
But while the offense was clicking, at least most of the time, the defense was floundering, again, most of the time.
The Broncos allowed 104 points in their first two games (losses to Syracuse and Michigan), then 39 to Miami (Ohio), 35 to Bowling Green, 51 to Toledo, 59 to Ohio and then 42 in an overtime loss to Ball State — a loss that ended with Western Michigan going for two and failing. Lester said he had to go for two, because he knew his red-zone defense was essentially a lost cause.
After that loss, Lester faced another big moment in his head-coaching tenure. He knew he had to make a change on defense, so he fired coordinator Tim Daoust. They were good friends, complicating the situation. To a point.
"I tell everyone the same thing, the decision was easy. As a guy who's a math major and looking at our numbers and how our defense was fairing, it wasn't a hard decision," he said. "Yet, it was the hardest thing I've done. You bring in a guy, one you're friends with, and you have to make a change, that was really hard to do because he's a great man and a great coach. But, for whatever reason, it wasn't working out. He knew that.
"But my job as a head coach is to get the team and players in the best position to win, and the guys responded."
With Lou Esposito in charge of the defense for the finale (Lester will decide on what if any changes to make after the bowl game), Western certainly did respond with one of its more impressive defensive outings of the season in the victory over MAC championship game-bound Northern Illinois.
The Broncos spent Selection Sunday still sweating whether they were bowl-bound. But without that win over Northern Illinois, they almost certainly wouldn't have been sweating. They would've been sulking.
Instead, they get to play one more game — another new experience in Lester's young tenure as a head football coach.
WESTERN MICHIGAN VS. BYU
Kickoff: 4 p.m. Friday, Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho
Records: Western Michigan 7-5; BYU 6-6
Line: BYU by 12