New WMU football coach Lester talks CMU rivalry, friendship with Bonamego
CANTON, Ohio — The days of Western Michigan “rowing the boat” are over.
Former head coach P.J. Fleck took his famous catch phrase with him to his new job at Minnesota, leaving the 2016 Mid-American Conference Champion Broncos searching for a new identity.
Like Fleck, Tim Lester is an energetic and confident coach. Lester, 39, spent last season as Purdue’s quarterbacks coach and was the offensive coordinator at Syracuse for two seasons before that. He was hired to replace Fleck, who led WMU to its best season in program history and an appearance at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
At the annual Mid-American Conference Football Media Day in July, Lester was introduced to many new faces and was presented with several questions surrounding his predecessor and the state of his program.
One topic Lester needed no introduction to? The rivalry between the Broncos and Central Michigan.
“It’s like a north/south rivalry in high school,” Lester said. “You don’t appreciate it until later in life. I love it. It’s my favorite and the one I’ve been in the most.”
Like CMU head coach John Bonamego, Lester also played in the rivalry game. He played quarterback for the Broncos from 1996-99 and finished with a 2-2 record against the Chippewas.
Lester said he’ll never live down allowing CMU to come from behind to narrowly win each matchup in Mount Pleasant. His team’s victories in Kalamazoo were truly satisfying.
“It was always a battle when we played,” he said. “I played (at CMU) twice and lost twice. Both close games. We were up big at halftime and they came back and won both of them. At home, we beat them pretty good both times. It is just such a fun game with the families and the students.”
One thing that stuck with Lester all these years was the intensity and passion from the students, especially from Central Michigan.
“I remember one game at home,” he said. “It was the Wednesday before the game and you couldn’t tell who was a student of what school because (CMU students) all came down for the game. It was the entire school. It made it such an unbelievable rivalry and made everyone better.”
When Lester was hired Jan. 13, the first coach to congratulate him was none other than Bonamego — his new nemesis. Since then, the two have struck up a friendship and always talk for long periods of time at different conferences.
While the two will compete endlessly on the field and off it, Lester has nothing but respect and admiration for Bonamego.
“I hang out with him more than any other coach when we get together as coaches,” he said. “He’s just such a great guy.”
Bonamego wouldn’t go into details of the conversations he’s had with Lester, but said his previous experience with the rivalry raises the intensity.
“I think Tim coming into it as a new coach, having played at Western, has a much better understanding than someone who’s coming from a place who hasn’t been in it,” he said. “It is the biggest game of the year.”
Since 2011, the rivalry has seemingly been one-sided. The Broncos have won five of the last six meetings and have won three straight in the series (under Fleck), including a 49-10 thrashing at Kelly/Shorts Stadium last season.
Lester said the recent outcomes mean nothing in the overall rivalry and each team has withstood periods of high success. He said the fans will show up no matter what.
“We could play on a Tuesday in a parking lot. If it’s Central/Western, people will show up,” he said. “There’s been years where they went on streaks. It’s all about all the split households with mom and dad where one went to one and one went to the other. I can’t wait to play each other.”
The Chippewas and Broncos meet at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo on Wednesday, Nov. 1. Kick-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.
WMU leads the all-time series 48-37-2.