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Western Michigan football coach Tim Lester sat at the podium following his team's 52-24 victory in the Quick Lane Bowl on Monday with the pride of a bowl-winning head coach.
But also, with the pride of a head coach that completed his bowl game without it being canceled.
For the second straight season, schools had to battle COVID-19 problems throughout the season. Already this bowl season, four games have been canceled and there could be more as the week goes on.
For Lester, there was some relief but also a melancholic feeling knowing some were not as lucky.
"Every time you open up your phone, another player, or another game is gone," Lester said. "I really believe those early bowl games, everyone stayed together and stayed in their bubble. We had to send them home, let them spend time with their families."
"We came back and we have some guys sick — we had more flu than anything when they came back. You can test for both now. Our training staff did an unbelievable job, I mean if you came in and even looked funny, you were out of the building. You never entered the building. We were able to dodge any bullet of it spreading."
Lester credits the training staff for having gone through COVID-19 restrictions and protocols a year ago to prepare them for a slightly more relaxed, yet arduous task.
"We've done that for two years now, our training staff seems ahead of the curve and they never let one (case) turn into two. That's how it takes out a running back room or the whole O-line room and our guys did a great job wearing masks. They were diligent in that and we aren't perfect, but we stay all over them. I do think some of those cancellations helped, woke 'em up a little bit. This could be canceled quick."
There were a few WMU players that didn't get a chance to play in the bowl game due to COVID protocols: running back La'Darius Jefferson, safety Jake Moertl and linebacker A.J. Thomas. While Jefferson and Moertl were known to be out of the game, Thomas' status was officially ruled out once the team got to Ford Field on Monday morning.
"We found out (about A.J.) when we got here," Lester said. "He wasn't looking good and we got him away. The Lions did an unbelievable job of getting him away in a room, his parents came and got him — he's a local kid and from around here (U-D Jesuit). But that was their last game. I text them from the locker room, told them I was proud of them and everything they'd done for this program. Not exactly how you wanted your career to end but we're proud of them and we're gonna take care of business for them."
The Ken Wilson era begins
A trend that is picking up in college football is coaching changes around bowl season, and Nevada finds themselves in the latest cycle of coaching changes.
On Dec. 6, Jay Norvell was named the new head coach at Colorado State and just a few days later, Nevada named former assistant Ken Wilson as Norvell's replacement. Wilson has spent the last few seasons at Oregon as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
Wilson is no stranger to the Nevada program; he spent 1989-2012 as a member of both the coaching staff and athletic administration. Nevada's interim head coach for the bowl game, Vai Taua, will remain on the staff as an assistant head coach under Wilson. Taua said he has remained in constant contact with Wilson during the crazy month of bowl prep and a coach search.
"We've been in constant communication since he's gotten the job," Taua said. "About recruiting and everything so our relationship is great."
Wilson, who was at Ford Field for the Quick Lane Bowl on Monday, won't officially take over at Nevada until Oregon finishes its season in the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma on Dec. 29. Despite all of the air miles piled up between commitments to Oregon and Nevada, Wilson made it to snow- and sleet-covered Detroit to support a program he's been a part of for a long time. He discussed his commitment to the program during a sideline interview with ESPN in the first half of Monday's game.
"It was important for me to be the biggest cheerleader for this team," Wilson said to ESPN. "I think Vai (Taua) and his staff did a great job getting these guys ready, putting a lot of work in and battling through adversity and I just wanted to be there to support them"
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Western Michigan's Tim Lester relieved to get past bowl season