HOW DID I GET HERE? – Tim Lester
HEAD FOOTBALL COACH OF WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY

STORY JAKE FREDERICKS | IMAGE STEVE HERPPICH

1977 | BORN IN WHEATON, IL

I grew up in a very tight-knit, family town. I think it was (a question) on Jeopardy (once) for having more churches per capita than anywhere else in the world.

We also love our football in Wheaton. Harold “Red” Grange was from Wheaton. He was arguably the best college football player of all time—people called him “The Galloping Ghost.” We all tried to live up to his legacy. Starting in 1988 there was a 22-year stretch when we were in eleven state championships; I was proud to be a part of that.

1994 | GRADUATED FROM WHEATON WARRENVILLE SOUTH HIGH SCHOOL

I played high school football from 1991 to 1994. I was so lucky, mostly because I had John Thorne as a coach. He was the best coach I have ever been around, still to this day. He’s in every hall of fame possible, but he never talked about winning because character and integrity were much more important.

Because I was surrounded by terrific teammates and coaches, a lot of opportunities opened up. I used to dream about where I would play after high school. I wanted to go to the University of Florida, UCLA, Nebraska, or any of the other places that were sending me offers. Everything changed my senior year when I blew my knee out during the second-to-last game of the season. I was so frustrated with the timing that I tricked the trainer into letting me play the final game. That lasted four plays before it happened again and I needed surgery.

A few of schools like Penn State and West Virginia stayed with me through the injury. But I needed to re-evaluate my options, especially when all the Mid-American Conference (MAC) schools that initially thought I wouldn’t be interested started calling me. I realized that I had to change my priorities; I decided to base my decision not on prestige, but on people and environment.

1995-1999 | STUDENT AND QUARTERBACK AT WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY (WMU)

Normally, kids choose their school very carefully and weigh their options. WMU must have spent so much effort to recruit me, but none of that had any effect on my decision. The first time I drove through campus, I looked around and immediately thought, “This is where I’m going.” I remember driving down Stadium Drive with this big brace on my knee. I was awestruck at how beautiful the campus was. I thought, “Man, even if I never play again, this is where I want to go to school.” I could have gotten offer letters every day, but my mind was made up—I was going to go with my gut.

I was the third quarterback taken in that class. I learned a lot through the whole process of being hurt and then coming in with two other quarterbacks. I was at a disadvantage, and I had to beat everyone else out. I got benched a few times but fought through that first year. Eventually, things turned around, and I figured out a way to win. When you screw up as a quarterback, you end up getting hit by a 300-pound guy. That helps you learn fast. I think I set an NCAA record for getting hit that year. I think that might have been my first record—getting sacked.

2000 | MATH TEACHER AT AURORA WEST HIGH SCHOOL

I think the best coaches are teachers, just because they know how to motivate people. I think the core of teaching is the relationship you build with your students. Coaching is the same thing: I think there are many parallels between the two professions. I may be teaching different content now, but I’m still teaching.

I always knew that I would eventually become either a teacher or a coach, and if were to teach, I knew that math would be my subject—I love math. Even football is easier if you know math. Numbers tell us everything if you’ll just listen to them. I still do a statistical analysis of every single stat.

2001 | QUARTERBACK FOR XFL CHICAGO ENFORCERS

A lot of people have a negative impression of the XFL because the league was so short lived. The funny thing about being in the XFL was that our team was actually very solid. Our training was excellent; the problems didn’t come until our first game. That’s when I realized that it was a rock concert and football game with both going on at the same time. It wasn’t quiet when you needed it to be quiet, and interviews were going on during plays. Some positive things came out of the league though, and it ultimately made football better. The NFL and other outlets saw what worked and what didn’t and adjusted their practices.

2004 | HEAD COACH AT ST. JOSEPH COLLEGE AND NAMED INDEPENDENT FOOTBALL ALLIANCE COACH OF THE YEAR

At this point, I knew I wanted to make coaching my career. I really enjoyed building a relationship with each player. Coaches can’t hide from their players, and players can’t hide from their coaches. As a coach, you spend too much time with the team not to know the ins and outs of each and every one of them.

2005-2006 |QUARTERBACK COACH AT WMU

I have been both an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator, but I’m a quarterback guy at heart. I love training them. The thing about being the quarterback is there’s only one person in your position—it’s not like offensive line or anything else. You’re on your own.

2008-2012 | HEAD COACH OF ELMHURST COLLEGE BLUEJAYS

One of the things I learned was that, if the players don’t trust their coach, they can’t win games. If you tell a guy to run down a kickoff and throw his head through that wedge, he better trust you. It’s not an easy thing to get somebody to do.

2013-2015 | QUARTERBACK COACH AND RECRUITING COORDINATOR AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY

It’s hard to come up in this profession without having been on a ton of different teams. I’ve learned so much from every coach I’ve worked with. I think a small part of myself belongs to each of them. As long as you are willing to put your ego aside and just listen, everyone can teach you something.

2015-2016 | QUARTERBACK COACH AT PURDUE UNIVERSITY

At the time, Terry Malone was the offensive coordinator for Purdue. He was one of the main reasons I took that job over the other positions I was considering. Terry is of the best men in the game. He spent ten years as the offensive coordinator for Lloyd Carr, he won a national championship and even coached Tom Brady. Terry ran that offense and then went to the New Orleans Saints, spent ten more years there, and won the Super Bowl. He’s got a national championship ring, but he’s also the nicest person you’ll ever meet. I knew that this would be a position that would allow me to grow.

2017 | HEAD COACH AT WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY

My job is to build a team of great men—that’s it. The one thing people don’t realize is that, if I can continue to teach my players about life, they will continue to grow together as a team. We bring speakers in, we do leadership training with them, and we even teach them how to cook.

But here’s the deal: We’re hard on them, especially when it comes to their attention to detail. Every team has a culture, and it’s set by the head coach, there’s no doubt about that. Our culture is a championship culture. If I build a team of great men, we’ll win. Great men are disciplined. Great men have excellent attention to detail. Great men are on time every time. Great men win football games. If I can accomplish that, then the football will take care of itself.

HOW TIM LESTER BALANCES WORK AND FAMILY

Years back my middle child, Carter, was standing on the sidelines and one of the players came right down on top of him during a play. At that point, Carter was crying, so Emmanuel, our defensive back, picked him up, put him on his shoulders, and started running around the field with him. In just a few seconds, the tears went away, and Carter was laughing his head off. He still talks about it to this day.

I think it’s important to include family in everything you do. Especially in this profession because the work never ends. You can never watch enough film, and you are never done reviewing plays. I encourage people to bring their families to practice, or to come eat dinner with us. We invite them to everything we can.

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