Chris Creighton takes Eastern Michigan to new heights but his mission isn't complete

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Chris Creighton

Ypsilanti – Chris Creighton has taken Eastern Michigan’s football program from doormat to competitive and a Mid-American Conference West Division contender.

While Creighton admits the program has made strides, he says it’s still in the mediocre stage and he wants it to get to that next level – that of a perennial MAC title contender.

The Eagles will try to go 4-1 for just the third time in the last 25 years when they play their MAC opener Saturday in Mount Pleasant against Central Michigan (2-3, 1-1).

“We’ll take 3-1; sure, you’d love to win them all,” said Creighton, who is now in his sixth year as EMU head coach. “When you’re playing two Power Five programs (38-17 loss to Kentucky, 34-31 win over Illinois), and going to Coastal Carolina (30-23 win), which beat Kansas, we’ll take 3-1, and we’re fortunate because we got outplayed last week (34-29 win over Central Connecticut). So as much excitement as there is with the record, in some ways it’s worked out well for us because we really don’t feel good.

“I think we’ve proven that we’re good enough to beat anybody, and we’re not good enough to beat anybody if we’re not playing good football. It’s really that simple.

Mike Glass III

“The game still needs to be played with energy and emotion, and Central Connecticut was getting yards after first touch, just grinding things out, just wanting it more, so it almost cost us winning the game.”

EMU senior receiver Matt Sexton showed just how important special teams play are, blocking a punt and then returning it 30 yards for a TD with 20 seconds left for the difference in the win in the Eagles’ home opener.

EMU has one of the premier quarterbacks in the MAC in Mike Glass, who has completed 103 of 150 passes (68.7 percent) for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Eagles played their first three games on the road, including a Week 2 meeting at Kentucky. That was originally scheduled to be played in Ypsilanti, but moved so EMU could use the near $1 million payday to finish the $20 million EMU Student-Athlete Performance Center.

That facility is a two-story 60,000-square foot structure and showcases locker rooms, coaches’ office, a players’ lounge, along with sports medicine and equipment offices. It also has “TJ’s Garage,” a $500,000 weight room, built with a donation from EMU alum and longtime NFL offensive lineman TJ Lang.

Creighton is happy and comfortable at EMU, saying he has no plans on taking another job; he says he hasn’t been offered one. He received a $425,000 salary for his first three years before signing a new five-year deal in 2017, which started at $450,000 and runs through 2022, when he will make $500,000.

“First of all, during the season I absolutely would not ever be thinking of entertaining anything,” Creighton said about job offers. “This is an unfinished (job) and people are jumping the gun with bringing that kind of thing up. We have just gotten ourselves during the last three years to mediocrity. We’re trying to get through another breakthrough.”

Creighton is 25-41 at EMU but 22-20 since 2016 – the best run since Jim Harkema went 29-13-2 from 1986-89, including the 1987 MAC championship and California Bowl win over San Jose State.

“We’ve taken on a monster challenge and we’re seeing progress,” Creighton said. “What we’re doing is special.”

In 2014, Creighton took over a terrible program that had not enjoyed a winning season since 1995. Ron English was EMU’s coach for five seasons before Creighton, and in his final year in 2013, the Eagles allowed an average of 44.5 points per game. The Eagles lost 20 of their last 23 games under English.

Chris Creighton

Things didn’t come easy for Creighton in his first couple of years at EMU. He was a surprise hire by then-EMU athletic director Heather Lyke since he came from Drake – which didn’t offer scholarships – and admitted he knew little about the Eagles when interviewing from the job.

Creighton was on the hot seat entering Year 3 in 2016, coming in with a 3-21 record (1-15 MAC) and off a 1-11 season in 2015, when EMU gave up an average of 42 points and 316.8 rushing yards.

Publicity surrounding the program couldn’t have been worse, with HBO Sports announcing during its Real Sports program that EMU’s athletic department lost $52 million during a two-year period and ranked last in Division 1 football attendance, leading to talk of dropping the football program to a lower division or killing the program altogether.

Lyke and the EMU administration stayed the course, kept their faith in Creighton, and he responded by giving them their first winning season since 1995 and first bowl game since 1987 when the Eagles finished 7-6 (4-4 MAC), led by a defense that showcased standouts in linemen Pat O’Connor (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Jeremiah Harris and Maxx Crosby (Oakland Raiders), limiting opponents to an average of 30.3 points and 164.3 rushing yards.

More: MAC notes: Western Michigan tackles run-first Toledo in key West showdown

More: Detroit News college football picks: Week 6

The Eagles have been competitive since, earning wins over Big Ten teams – Rutgers in 2017, Purdue in 2018, Illinois in 2019 – in each of the last three years after going 0-58 against Power Five opponents previously.

“Did I believe that we could realize the vision? All I knew is that I was going to give it everything I had, and I was going to die trying,” said Creighton of the turnaround. “But it’s still not realized, though. We’re close, but we want to win championships and have sustained success.”

More favorable outcomes in close games will help the Eagles in their championship quest.

In 2017 the Eagles lost six games by a combined total of 23 points, then finished 7-6 last season (5-3 MAC) after dropping four games by a TD or less, including a triple-OT loss to MAC champion Northern Illinois. A win there would have given the Eagles a spot in the MAC title game if they had converted on a field goal after forcing a turnover in one of the earlier overtime sessions. They led the MAC in total defense (353.8 yards) and scoring defense (22.1 points).

“We had a quote up outside of our team meeting room: ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do.’ It was just a constant reminder, because we were in tough times,” Creighton said.

“Now we have a quote up that says, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.’

“We’re not being ignored or laughed at, and I’ve experienced both in my six years.”