Commentary: EMU’s Creighton makes gains, deserves time

By Art Brooks
Special to The Detroit News
Chris Creighton

Eastern Michigan is in it for the long haul with coach Chris Creighton, who has produced some glimmers of hope instead of what had been for years and years a whole lot of gloom.

Creighton (15-34, 8-24 Mid-American Conference in four seasons) is under contract through 2022, which would provide ample time to see how the program is faring and how much interest there still is in it after nine years.

A good guy, Creighton, 49, is a principled person, a straight shooter and very sincere in his convictions. Regents like his program, where players stay out of trouble, get good grades, are active on campus and in the community and come together as a unified team, much like a family.

Creighton would be adept at that, instilling values and virtues in players. He's got the temperament.

Sure, some of his shtick is a bit hokey -- like players toppling a brick wall as they charge onto the field before kickoff. And he's said things like we'll be "E tough," then go 3-21 his first two years, outscored, 996-487, plus huffing, "We'll play anybody, any time, anywhere ... We'll play in a parking lot."

But to his credit, Creighton has stuck to his guns in building his program, and there are positive signs -- a winning season, 12 victories over last two years and a 2016 Bahamas Bowl appearance, a 24-20 loss to Old Dominion. Not to mention winning at Big Ten/Power Five conference opponent Rutgers, 16-13, in 2017.

"I love my guys," Creighton has said, and there's no doubt the feeling is mutual.

More: EMU fans sound off on Chris Creighton

He surely is a breath of fresh air and a culture changer after the dour, brooding, stand-offish Ron English, quickly dumped after being caught on tape unloading an expletive-filled rant at some of his players during the 2013 season.

However ...

Creighton can glibly and smoothly default to babbling coach speak with the best of them, telling you what he wants you to hear without addressing or acknowledging the flip side of things. Kind of like a politician, he's a persuasive master salesman.

In a January Detroit News story, Creighton was roaring in rare form about last season: "If you asked anybody that played us, those teams that played us would not want to play us again."

"Whoa, Nellie," as the late, great broadcaster Keith Jackson often said.

Calm down, will you, coach? You're 19 games under .500 with one winning season in four tries at last check. Sorry, but some of those teams are back, ignoring your silly bravado and just trembling about the mere thought of engaging the mighty green and white. Win and achieve consistently, then get all full of yourself, OK?

You had to win one game out of seven last year to be bowl-eligible. One. You didn't. That's not bad luck; that's bad, gagging finishing. Enough already, then.

Chris Creighton is 15-34 (8-24 MAC) in four seasons as EMU's head coach.

Eastern fans who believe 2018 just couldn't be as cruel as 2017 was -- a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking 5-7, with fourth-quarter or overtime breakdowns in every loss -- perhaps you might want to settle down.

And look at the schedule for a team whose defeats last season came by a total of 35 points.

Factor in heavily an inexperienced quarterback who will have a new top-three receiver group for an offense that last season essentially got two-thirds of its yards throwing (3,093-1,560).

Even with seniors in those four spots, and including one game in 2017 against a porous, handicapped team, the Eagles didn't exactly light up the scoreboard (21 touchdowns passing, including 17 to the top three seniors, and 14 rushing) last time out.

So, here's what awaits Creighton and the Eagles:

* Non-conference: Monmouth, an FCS team in the Big South Conference from New Jersey, and Army, which trampled EMU for 413 rushing yards (zero passing) in 2017, at home. Purdue and San Diego State on the road. Three bowl teams there from this past season.

Monmouth was 9-3, winning seven in a row at one point and losing in the first round of the playoffs, 47-6, to Northern Iowa.

* Home in the MAC: Akron, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Toledo. Ouch. All went to bowls. Whatever happened to scheduling a pushover for homecoming?

* Away in the MAC: revenge-crazed Ball State, Buffalo, Kent State and Western Michigan.

Eastern pounded the Cardinals, 56-14, in 2017 but faced a fourth-string quarterback. That's not likely to happen again. Kent State is terrible, granted, and has a new coach. Western and Buffalo were 6-6 last year, with the Bulls winning their last three.

Creighton is 0-4 against Western, outscored, 174-83. Against Central, he's been outscored, 136-91, and is 1-3. In those eight games, the Eagles have allowed 35 points or more six times.

Creighton is the right one, for sure, to effect any resurrection. It's tough to root against someone so fervid in his beliefs.

But he also is pushing a big boulder up a steep hill. Out with the old, in with the new takes time.

Players come and go; progress comes slowly, in increments. It's awfully tough to have everything fall in place at one time and have everyone on the same page then as well, as you need to do. An imperfect juggling act at best, it is, especially when you're cleaning up someone else's mess.

Jumping from consistently competitive to consistently winning is no walk in the park or quick undertaking, either. He'll need time.

Eastern is stuck behind Western, Central, Toledo and Northern Illinois in the MAC West. The East has Akron and Ohio. No slouches among those teams.

Creighton will have to find a quarterback in August, with Brogan Roback gone. And should the losing continue -- and interest and actual crowds presumably wane -- how will Creighton keep the program relevant and make anyone care?

Good luck, coach.

Art Brooks is a retired Detroit News sports copy editor and a longtime volunteer adviser to EMU's student paper, the Eastern Echo. At Ithaca (N.Y.) College. he missed an extra point; sliced the kickoff from the right hash out of bounds, drawing a 5-yard penalty; sent the next kickoff from the 35 to the 3 on the fly; and, as the last one back, dived and failed to tackle the return man, who went 97 to the house. He landed right at the coach's feet.