Chris Creighton long has been familiar with challenges, particularly on the recruiting trail. He's always been at, for lack of a better word, "secondary" colleges in the shadow of much bigger football programs.
His first head-coaching job was at Ottawa, an NAIA school in Kansas. His second was at Wabash, a Division III program not far from Purdue. His third was at Drake, a Football Championship Subdivision program a half-hour drive from Iowa State.
And in early December 2013, he became head coach at Eastern Michigan, a Football Bowl Subdivision, sure — though it hadn't had a winning season since 1995, hadn't been to a bowl since 1987, and had a stadium, Rynearson Stadium, that was inconveniently located 10.9 miles from Michigan Stadium.
"Recruiting? It was impossible in Michigan," Creighton said recently. "OK, impossible probably isn't the right word, but it was very, very hard. Then, in the Midwest, we were viewed as the bottom of the (Mid-American Conference), around the country we were viewed in MAC. Now, we're able to beat the other MAC schools on guys in Michigan and in the Midwest, and even around the country.
"Recruiting's always hard, even whatever the best place in America is. If you're doing it right, it's still hard. But it's definitely gotten better."
Creighton and Eastern Michigan are coming off their second winning season and second bowl appearance in three years. They're 19-19 in the last three years, which doesn't really sound like much, but if you're familiar with Eastern Michigan football, it actually sounds like everything.
And the success — measured not just with wins and bowls (albeit, two bowl losses), but also in competitiveness (13 of their last 15 losses have been by a touchdown or less, including six overtime losses, and both bowl games) — is starting to get recognized.
Eastern Michigan has the eighth-best recruiting class in the MAC for 2019, out of 12 teams, as measured by the 247Sports Composite. The Eagles were sixth-best in 2018.
The 2019 class, set to be mostly finalized Wednesday on National Signing Day, features six recruits who are considered three stars, often the star ceiling for the MAC. The top recruit is running back Darius Boone, of Tulsa, Okla., who remains firmly committed to Eastern Michigan despite offers from Iowa State and Tulsa. The class also is expected to include offensive guard William Racely, a three-star from Flushing, Mich.
Creighton still was trying to round out the class earlier this month, while pulling double-duty in preparing his team for its appearance in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., where it lost, 23-21, to Georgia Southern on a last-second field goal Saturday night.
"For us, this was a vision that we absolutely believed in, and the opportunity to be a part of something and do something that most people didn't think was possible," Creighton said. "Most 17-year-olds want to go to a place that's a proven deal, but there are 17-year-olds that really believe in themselves and want that challenge.
"We're able to find them, identify them, and sold them the vision. And now, you know, we can say we've gone to two bowl games in three years. That matters.
"We have proof of what we're saying we're going to do is actually happening."
That's not to say Creighton and his staff have it easy, by any means. The Eagles still need to search for diamonds in the rough, as evidenced by the fact Eastern Michigan's 2018 roster featured players from six different countries (United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan and New Zealand), tied for third-most in the country.
Eastern also still lacks in the facility department, though that's improving, given a new multi-sport, two-story student-athlete performance center that's being built as part of a $76 million university-wide facility-upgrade project — the progress of which Creighton enjoys monitoring by just glancing out his office window.
And on the recruiting trail, there's still room to make up between Western Michigan, which boasts the top-ranked class in the MAC for 2019 as it continues to build off the reputation that flourished with a Cotton Bowl appearance three years ago. Even Central Michigan, which just hired Jim McElwain, the former Florida coach, seems a bit ahead of the game, and already has gained commitments from a couple of big quarterback recruits, including Houston graduate transfer Quinten Dormady, who also played at Tennessee.
Western has four commitments from The Detroit News' Blue Chip list, and Central has three, to Eastern's one.
"It's been five years," said Creighton, 49, who never had a losing season as a head coach until his first two years at Eastern (3-21). "We still have plenty to do and accomplish and build and all that."