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Yes, it’s true: EMU football is trending up

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

On Friday night, Eastern Michigan’s rising seniors will gather at football coach Chris Creighton’s house for a home-cooked meal of steak and such.

So, will Creighton be doing the cooking?

Eastern Michigan head coach Chris Creighton is 15-34 in four seasons at Eastern Michigan, but 12 of those victories have come in the past two seasons.

“Nah, I wish, and so does my wife,” he said, laughing. “She’s all in.

“I’ll do the dishes. That will be my contribution.”

And, really, in many ways, that makes sense. Ever since Creighton arrived in Ypsilanti in December 2013, his sole focus has been cleaning up one heck of a mess.

He’s made strides, to be sure, like leading Eastern Michigan to its first winning season since 1995 and its first bowl game since 1987. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was the hoarding cat lady’s house cleaned out in a week, and, as they say, there are many miles to go.

The road is long, and it is rocky, and as much momentum as Creighton and company thought they had built coming off that 2016 season, frustration resurfaced in 2017 as the Eagles finished 5-7 and missed a bowl game — even though, in Creighton’s estimation, this team was better than the year before. And, depending who you ask, perhaps markedly so.

“Everybody gets to measure how good a team is in their own way,” he said recently, while taking a break on a recruiting trip in California. “Our theme for the year was, ‘For real,’ and then we defined what that was, and that was to go to a second consecutive bowl game and to win the bowl game, and, honestly, we didn’t do it, the ‘for real.’ So we failed. But I never imagined that the whole ‘for real’ theme was really gonna be about testing our character.

“We definitely did prove in ways we didn’t foresee that we were ‘for real.’ If you ask anybody that played us, those teams that played us would not want to play us again.

“It was not a deal where they’re playing Eastern Michigan, they’re chalking up a ‘W.’ They were going, ‘I can’t believe we won that game.’ ”

Eastern Michigan started the 2017 season 2-0, including a win over Rutgers — the program’s first win over a Big Ten or Power Five team. And then, well, for a lack of better words — mess happened.

The Eagles went on a six-game losing streak, during which they lost all six games by a combined 23 points, all on the last drive of the game, all to bowl-eligible teams — three in overtime, including Western Michigan, and one in double-overtime.

At some point during the skid, Creighton started wondering not if his team was “for real,” but, “Is this for real?”

“I’ve been coaching for over 25 years, I think 21 or 22 years as a head coach, and I’ve never been through anything like it,” he said. “This is probably something I shouldn’t say, but there’s something eerie about it. It’s football, I get that. That’s football.

“But it was like, ‘What’s going on?’”

Recently, Creighton spoke at length to The Detroit News about the current state of the Eastern Michigan program, which for decades prior to his arrival was so irrelevant, there have been calls to drop the program to Division II or even eliminate it all together.

Despite some progress — mild in real-world terms, but monumental considering Eastern Michigan’s past — Creighton is far from satisfied, yet totally committed to seeing the process through, as evidenced by the five-year contract he signed in June that will take him to 2022, at which point he will be earning at least a half-million a year.

Chris Creighton just finished his fourth season as Eastern Michigan’s head football coach.

From the ground floor

Creighton, whose gray hair is the only giveaway that he’s actually 48, had 17 years head-coaching experience — at three stops, at three different levels — before he left Drake of the FCS for Eastern Michigan, where he has a 15-34 record. He’d never had a losing season in 17 years. Eastern Michigan hadn’t had a winning season in 18.

The Eagles won two games the season before he arrived, and two the year before that.

In his first year, they won two. Then, they regressed to one. You could count the fans at Rynearson Stadium using an abacus. Then, in the spring of 2016, before Creighton’s Year 3, an even-bigger blow — a national report from HBO that exposed how much student-tax dollars are used to subsidize athletic departments across the country. The report sent shockwaves across the country, using Eastern Michigan as its prime example. Or, in Eastern Michigan’s view, it picked on Eastern Michigan.

Some in the university educational community wanted the program cut altogether. Others suggested a drop to Division II. Then-athletic director Heather Lyke and the Board of Trustees stood firm, saying no-go —and the football team then went out and had a season for the ages, even if it’s a bit sad that a 7-6 season is a season for ages. But, hey, this is Eastern Michigan football.

“To be honest with you,” said Creighton, “it was like the most incredible response to an erroneous yet damaging article, or whatever you want to call it.”

A real eye-opener came at the homecoming game in 2016, against Toledo. Eastern Michigan has long been among the least-drawing teams in Division I football, and if not for a sweetheart deal with Pepsi — which for years has bought thousands of tickets for every home game — it would’ve struggled to get to the NCAA minimum attendance threshold to stay Division I.

But Oct. 8, 2016, with Eastern Michigan 4-1 and hosting perennial Mid-American Conference power Toledo, the fans showed up. A lot of fans. So many fans that, after the game, Creighton’s wife Heather told him, “I got caught in Eastern Michigan traffic coming to the game.”

“And we’re sitting there laughing,” Chris Creighton said. “It was awesome.”

Lyke always swore there was a fan base for football in Ypsilanti, despite being in the shadow of the University of Michigan; it just needed a reason to show up.

This past March, Lyke, who hired Creighton to replace Ron English — fired during his fifth season, after a profanity-laced, homophobic rant toward his players — left Eastern Michigan for the athletic-director position at Pittsburgh.

Then, in June, Eastern Michigan hired Scott Wetherbee as athletic director, from Mississippi State — the announcement coming, interestingly, weeks after Creighton agreed to his new contract. That struck some as strange, but that wasn’t a problem for Wetherbee, even though a new athletic director typically wants some significant say in his marquee coaches.

“I think they had that deal pretty much in place in the spring, and everything got finalized in June,” Wetherbee said. “I was comfortable. ... I would’ve raised a red flag if I didn’t support it. He was part of the reason I took the job, actually. I felt strongly about him.

“We’ve just come off the best two-year stretch we’ve had since the early 1990s,” Wetherbee continued. Creighton calls this a “backhanded compliment,” given the record was 12-13, but again, Eastern Michigan. “Now, I’ve not been around to understand how much losing, I guess, we’ve done, but what I like it is not tolerated now. Coach has got it going in the right direction.”

There were some more decent crowds in 2017, like for the Western Michigan game, also homecoming. Overall, attendance was up 7 percent from the year before, despite only having five home games; and season-ticket sales were at an all-time high, Wetherbee said. Specific numbers weren’t available.

Wetherbee also is working on improving the game-day atmosphere, like new LED lights, fireworks, green smoke for the players’ introductions. More in-game promotions are planned for 2018, and a new videoboard is coming, as part of a $35-million upgrade to the athletic and football training and practice facilities.

In the end, though, it’s winning — and, dare we say, winning consistently — that will make the difference.

Wetherbee knows it — and was mighty impressed Creighton’s Eagles closed 2017 with three wins in the final four games, despite knowing a bowl bid was unlikely — and so does Creighton.

“We’ve gained ground, it’s coming to fruition,” Creighton said. “But it hasn’t yet. We’re not there yet.”

For three years, Creighton has kept a quote — attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, correctly or incorrectly (depending on which source you believe) — on his computer in his office. It reads: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

The ignoring? Eastern Michigan has long been ignored. Forget comparing it to Michigan or Michigan State. It rarely compared to Western Michigan or Central Michigan, who have combined for 17 bowl appearances in the same span Eastern Michigan has made one. The MAC didn’t include the Eagles in its mid-week MACtion lineup until 2016.

The laughing? Well, that needs no explanation for a program that from 1997 to 2015 won more than four games in a season precisely once. In 43 years, it has two zero-win seasons, one 10-win season. Eastern Michigan once lost 27 consecutive games. Lyke, candidly and incredibly, once told The News it canceled a game with Michigan State, in part, because of injury concerns, likening it to a “varsity-vs.-junior varsity game.”

Done laughing yet?

Creighton hopes so. Because he believes his program is in the “fight” stage now, with “win” around the corner.

Iowa quarterback Tyler Wiegers (8) bolstered Eastern Michigan’s cast of newcomers for next season when he announced he’d be heading to Ypsilanti as a graduate transfer.

‘The tide has turned’

The fighting has been taking place on the field, but also, and more importantly, on the recruiting trail, where Eastern Michigan — once greeted with all the enthusiasm of an eviction notice — is making impressive strides.

During last month’s early signing period, Eastern Michigan signed 16, 12 of whom were nationally ranked by recruiting services, five of whom were considered three stars. Then came the news Wednesday that Creighton had landed Iowa graduate transfer Tyler Wiegers, a former Detroit Country Day standout who in his high-school days was considered the sixth-best quarterback prospect in the state. The last Iowa quarterback to take a graduate transfer, Jake Rudock, chose Michigan. This one chose Eastern Michigan, and he immediately becomes the front-runner to replace outgoing standout quarterback Brogan Roback. Bryant Koback, a running back from Ohio, is transferring from Kentucky and is considering Eastern Michigan, he recently told WTOL, the CBS affiliate in Toledo.

“I’m telling you, it is a little surprising how much the tide has turned,” Creighton said of the recruiting part of the job. “There’s just a genuine respect that we’re getting from people, from recruits and from coaches.

“It’s good. I think people know that we’re not going anywhere.”

Just two years ago, let alone four, that would’ve been incomprehensible.

Eastern Michigan wasn’t somewhere you wanted to go, it was where you went when you had no place else to go.

“You hit on it. Our perception, in the state of Michigan, was just so bad, that that was sort of the No. 1 thing that we had to overcome and to change, and that’s happening,” Creighton said. “People are choosing us over other people, and that’s an awesome deal.”

It’s especially awesome for Creighton, given he chose Eastern Michigan.

He was an up-and-comer at Drake, after stops at NAIA Ottawa (Kansas) and Division III Wabash (Indiana) College, and could’ve waited it out in Des Moines, Iowa, for a much-better Division I opportunity to come along. At the time, after all, almost any other Division I opening would’ve been seen as a much better opportunity than Eastern Michigan, which owned all of six winning seasons in 39 years, with all but one of those coming in the 1970s or 1980s.

While Central Michigan and Western Michigan coaches eventually have landed as head coaches at places like Notre Dame, Tennessee, Minnesota, Illinois and Cincinnati, none of the previous five Eastern Michigan coaches had lasted more than five years, and only one had landed another college head-coaching job after departing Ypsilanti. That was Ron Cooper, who left for the job at Louisville in the mid-1990s.

A career killer, Eastern Michigan may not have been. But it hardly could be mistaken for any kind of springboard, either.

Creighton wasn’t scared, though — little seems to scare him. Not the second game of his Eastern Michigan career, against Florida (65-0 loss). And not even the second-guessing that came with going for two and the victory against Army this season, a decision that backfired and, who knows, could’ve cost the team that elusive second consecutive bowl game.

“I knew there was gonna be the unknown; I just knew I was supposed to be here,” said Creighton, who is proud of more than just the on-field product — such as the hundreds of hours of community service his team performed over the last year, or the grades, tops in the MAC two of the past three years, his players are earning. “It’s been a challenge. It is a challenge. But it’s a love affair, to be honest with you. It’s not something where you get frustrated, or disgruntled, or all that. Nope.

“We have a chance to do something great and do something really special.

“Because it’s not easy.”

At Eastern Michigan, it never is — and never has been.