Published October 3, 2016
It was the humorist Mark Twain who once opined that the sport of golf was nothing more than a fine walk spoiled.
Football Homecomings at Ypsilanti have been too often a fine Saturday spoiled.
If only they didn’t have to play the football game, the festivities would have been just fine.
The students at Eastern Michigan University have had a work around, however.
The travesty taking place on the gridiron was relegated to background noise. In the foreground was “spirited” socializing, in order to dull the pain of another football loss.
Things are different this year, however.
The Eagles are coming back to their nest, er their Factory, this Saturday. And their record is a reverse image of EMU football teams of years past.
EMU is four up, one down.
You read that right.
The football program that hasn’t been able to get out of its own way for the better part of two decades is 4-1, with a Homecoming tilt this Saturday against the Toledo Rockets at Rynearson Stadium, aka The Factory—which features the football field with the gray turf.
Eastern is riding the waves of a three-game winning streak, which to most schools may seem modest, but for EMU, it’s Joe DiMaggio-like.
Earlier in the year, the football program’s ineptitude caused some leaders within the university to call for the jettisoning of football, period. They wanted the money spent elsewhere on campus.
To a 1985 alumnus like myself, it’s “Where have I seen this show before?”
I was in the middle of my academic career at EMU when the Mid-American Conference threatened to boot Eastern out of the MAC unless football attendance improved dramatically.
Eastern pulled out all the stops and did whatever it could to cram fannies into Rynearson. And it worked.
We wore t-shirts around campus that screamed “I Survived the Big MAC Attack!”
According to a report in August, EMU football recorded the lowest average football attendance in the U.S. among Division I FBS schools last season, when the team’s record was 1-11.
Eastern’s record has too often been 1-11, or 2-10, or the like. And Rynearson was a great place to catch up on your reading. Or to take a nap.
EMU’s Athletic Director Heather Lyke was steadfast, however, when some regents and others circled around the football program like financial vultures last spring.
“I’m undeterred,” said Lyke during an interview in early July. “We have a phenomenal coaching staff. We’re part of an amazing conference.
“I believe in what we’re doing.”
Another who believes is Coach Chris Creighton, to whom some may have wanted to suggest a psychiatric evaluation after accepting the Eastern job in December 2013.
Creighton came to Ypsilanti from Drake University, which sent a bunch of us to Google upon hearing that nugget.
First, we wanted to know where Drake was (it’s in Des Moines, Iowa).
With the geographical question out of the way, we found out that Creighton was a winner at Drake (42-22 in six seasons). So that was a start.
But why leave such success to come to Eastern, which has been not only a football wasteland, but also a burial ground for coaches?
The tombstones are strewn around campus.
Ron English, whose pedigree seemed terrific (University of Michigan and Louisville), but to whom the job at EMU destroyed his character and basically forced Lyke to fire him after a leaked audio recording that was less than flattering.
Jeff Genyk, a Michigan-born kid who played quarterback at MAC school Bowling Green. Genyk came to EMU after a nine-year run as an assistant at Northwestern University and today he’s a special teams coach at Vanderbilt.
Jeff Woodruff, who had four years at the helm before getting the ziggy toward the end of the 2003 season.
“Jeff Woodruff has helped develop our program with quality young men, but the team is not on the competitive level that we felt should be after four years,” said then-AD Dave Diles in announcing Woodruff’s canning. The part after the comma in that statement could be the epitaph for practically every EMU football coach not named Dan Boisture or Jim Harkema.
Before Woodruff there was Rick Rasnick (1995-99), who was minding his own business as the offensive coordinator at Utah when Eastern came calling.
“After undergoing a very thorough and comprehensive assessment of our football program I’m convinced that Rick Rasnick is not the person to take our football team to a Mid-American Conference championship level,” Diles said in yet another sobering press conference.
That was 17 years ago.
So the question was obvious for Chris Creighton, who by taking the Eastern job turned into the poster boy for every self-help guru who ever espoused “getting out of your comfort zone.”
The question for Creighton basically went like this: “WTF?”
“These kids want to be great,” Creighton told me about his players on The Knee Jerks sports podcast in the summer of 2014.
But what about you, coach?
Creighton said that he believed in the program’s potential, which he compared to a sleeping giant. He believed in his new boss, AD Lyke. He loved the campus. He liked what he saw Lyke doing in improving Rynearson’s facilities, including apparently the gimmicky gray turf.
I wished him well, not only as a podcast host but also as a concerned alumnus. We still share text messages from time to time.
This year, all that belief that Lyke and Creighton have seems to finally be rubbing off on the players in the form of on-field performance.
EMU is 4-1. That bears repeating.
This is the best start for the football program in some 21 years. It has gotten some national observers’ attention, too; over the weekend, EMU received a vote in the Amway coaches poll.
Eastern hadn’t gotten national poll consideration, before now, since the 1987 season where under Harkema, the then-Hurons beat San Jose State in the California Bowl.
Since Harkema left in 1992, however, the coaching carousel has been spinning freely and the football program returned to national laughingstock status, as it was in the early-to-mid 1980s.
In those days, the slings and arrows came from the MAC. Earlier this year, even EMU’s own Board of Regents wanted to scrap football.
Lyke would have none of it. She issued a statement that fully supported Creighton and his staff, and the program as a whole.
Some say that Coach Creighton was crazy to take the head football coaching position at Eastern Michigan University. One of those “some” is banging away on his keyboard at this very moment.
The Eagles were 3-21 in Creighton’s first two seasons. Des Moines must never have looked so attractive.
But this year’s squad can score points, and even the defense, which for years has been like a sieve, is holding its own for the most part. Creighton changed d-coordinators after last season. Neal Neathery is in charge now after coming over from the University of Texas at San Antonio, which at least doesn’t beg the question of where the school is located.
Eastern likes to call its stadium The Factory, which is another Creighton-inspired thought.
“We’ll play anyone, anywhere,” Creighton crowed when EMU announced the “Factory” name and its gray turf in 2014.
“We’ll even play on a parking lot,” the coach said in trying to explain the symbolism of the gray.
Yet here we are, after two years of very typical EMU football records (2-10, 1-11); Eastern is raising eyebrows instead of causing eyes to roll.
The 2016 season is far from over. A 4-1 start could be torpedoed and by the end of the schedule the goodwill may be evaporated.
But that would be negative, pessimistic thinking.
And certainly no one who supports EMU football could possibly think that way, could they?