It’s that time again. From Buffalo to Honolulu, Austin to New South Wales, and about 125 other places in between, it is time for college football. Be warned: I love it. I love the sights, sounds, nervous anticipation, last-second Hail Mary’s (mostly from CMU), and the goosebumps when I hear the pregame coverage start. Now is probably also the best time to give my disclaimer: my work is heavily biased by my desire for WMU to excel again. Take this whole article with a grain of salt.
1. Returning Talent
Western Michigan is returning high-powered talent and a lot of carried-over momentum. The issue is that much of this talent is either untested or under-reported. While they will certainly miss the likes of Corey Davis, Zach Terrell, and Keion Adams, the play must go on. Despite some key stars going on to do bigger and better things, some are still dressing each Saturday (or weekday or whatever). Chukwuma Okorafor, Darius Phillips, Jamauri Bogan, Jarvion Franklin, and Michael Henry, just to name a few. These big-name playmakers are primed for action behind a strong offensive line. I will admit that the Quarterback position is still in the air at this point, but that should be settled within a few weeks. Some high-pressure games will be battlegrounds for each of the wannabe starters, so expect high-caliber QB action as they fight for the starting role. Expect to see a fight out of this team.
However, with new faces on the team, chemistry and skill will be tested every down. WMU must play as a team to succeed, especially with the gauntlet they have scheduled ahead of them. Starting at #3 USC and Michigan State, going forward through a constantly-surprising MAC slate, every week will be either reassurance in their success or looming doubt. Perhaps the changeover has caused too much unrest and a key position is missing. Who knows? With all the questions surrounding this season, the key relies on the poise of the returning lettermen. Be cautiously optimistic.
2. New Coach
It wouldn’t be a WMU article written in 2017 without the words "Row the Boat" or P.J. Fleck. But enough about him, he has ditched the boat and taken recruits with him. Although he-who-shall-not-be-named built a rapid legacy and nearly cult-like following, he left a very bitter taste in the mouths of WMU fans from Kalamazoo to Austin. If this were a lesser publication, I would submit a conversation between my wife "TheBeanScreen" and myself, but I think it exceeds the expletive limit.
We have a dedicated alumnus now. I feel confident that he has nothing but the best interests in Western Michigan. Even when the time comes for Tim Lester to move on, I am certain he won’t dash in the middle of the night like the previous coach. He appears to have decided to build on what the previous coach has built. Discipline, tradition, and respect are some key takeaways from this season. He has a calibrated energy that is healthy for sustaining a successful program. He has embraced changes, but rejected failure. Lester has proven himself as a skilled recruiter already. Tim Lester knows what winning looks like and is poised to do it again. I expect nothing less than success from this year’s team.
On the other hand, I saw the Cotton Bowl in person. I know what about 35,000 people chanting in unison sounds like. I felt the energy when WMU took the field. That energy is hard to sustain and even harder to replicate. I took four years and 15 consecutive wins to get to that point (if you include the previous year, 13 if you do not). Hearing 2 separate NFL stadiums ring out with the fight song is the dream of every college team. Tim Lester has some big shoes to fill from his young predecessor. Will he have the stamina to stay with an energetic program? Can he achieve the standard of excellence the Kalamazoo faithful have put on his shoulders? Can he handle coaching at the FBS level? Be wary of mistakes and fatigue.
3. A New Chapter in Western Michigan History
The acquisition of Tim Lester marks a new chapter in history. Much like losing the previous coach, we will no longer use "Row the Boat". We have a tremendous opportunity to begin anew. We don’t have tradition dictated to us. Instead, we write it ourselves. We will reign. Let’s ride. Those slogans may not have the same ring to it as RTB, but it feels right. You can ride a bronco. It makes sense. "We will reign" is part of the fight song. Personally, I like it because of the pun of horse reigns and reigning/dominating the opponent. To each his own, I guess. Regardless, when Western Michigan fans hear these battle cries, it feels like home. That is where pride comes from. Fans will rally behind it, players will scream it in celebration. Tradition matters.
Much like any good book, the previous chapter always looks good until you turn the page. By that I mean our last coach left us in a state of bittersweet bliss. We had an excellent year but lost the coach and a few NFL-caliber players. Time is moving on, as with are the coaches and traditions. We may have just gotten famous for the Row the Boat mantra and now it is gone. It feels almost like a desperate scramble to find a new slogan to rally behind. (I think we have a winner, but this paragraph is supposed to be skeptical.) Will either new slogan work? Will it fall by the wayside like…well…Wayside West or "Power of Gold"? Can we settle on a slogan for more than a few years? Can we remove all traces of Row the Boat from the town, stadium, and our memories within the next few weeks? Cheer your heart out for the Brown and Gold, but don’t fall in love with a slogan.
4. Don’t Let My Son Down
Okay, maybe not. He isn’t even two yet. Play for whatever motivates you, but hear me out:
My little boy Logan is a huge fan of football. It’s what we do on Saturdays (and whatever weekday we schedule with ESPN). We each have jerseys, and I have my lucky yellow shirt. We have traditions and his tiny infant voice tries to cheer along with me. Picture an 8-month-old baby saying, "Row boat, Dad!" while running around in his little jersey/onesie carrying a football. These guys are his role models. He doesn’t expect them to win every game (I do). He expects to see tough, motivated football. He expects dazzling catches and insane plays only dissectible by instant replay and Twitter comments. We expect sportsmanship. We expect respectfully bitter rivalries. We expect mentors, on and off the field. That is why we watch the Mid-American Conference, and that is why we watch Western Michigan. Expect to see hard-hitting yet fair play. Expect great games. Expect the best, Kalamazoo. We will reign!