Allen Park — When Chris Creighton took the podium earlier this month for the Quick Lane Bowl introductory news conference, the Eastern Michigan football coach captured the room with his enthusiasm.
And though she wasn’t there that day, the opposing athletic director had a laugh when told later about the first impression Creighton made, better than a strong cup of coffee in waking up the assembled media at Lions’ headquarters.
Heather Lyke had seen it before.
Lyke heads up Pittsburgh athletics these days, but once upon a time, she brought Creighton to Eastern, a no-name coach to resuscitate a moribund program.
"He will capture you. He has a gift about engagement and connection,” Lyke said recently by phone. “I hired him because he’s got great courage, great conviction, great confidence in himself and who he is, and what he’s going to build.”
The chance for another building block in the remarkable Eastern Michigan turnaround presents itself in the Ford Field bowl game against Pittsburgh (7-5), coached by former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
Lyke was quick to praise Narduzzi for the family atmosphere the coach has created at her new football program, but was equally effusive in complimenting Creighton.
"In all honesty, it’s not something that you would ever really wish to happen,” Lyke said of her current and former schools meeting. “Not because I don’t want to see everybody, and they’re good, dear friends, but it's always tough to play someone who you are fond of.”
While Lyke was confident she had her man for EMU in late 2013 when hiring Creighton away from Football Championship Subdivision Drake in Des Moines, Iowa, there were a few nervous moments.
Eastern wasn’t exactly capturing the hearts and minds of Ypsilanti back then. Coach Ron English had won 11 games in most of five seasons before he was dismissed, and Creighton joined EMU after back-to-back two-win campaigns.
The Eastern players slumped into the meeting room that December to meet their new head coach, a no-name from nowhere that didn’t exactly excite the student-athletes.
"They were walking in just kind of ho-hum,” Lyke said. “He walks in and we shut the door, and I don’t think I’ve ever been captured in 45 minutes as much as he captured that group, that day.
Lyke recalled that Creighton started his presentation with a phrase that resonated with her that day: "You didn’t choose me, but I chose you."
"And it gives me chills to this day," she said. "He was so thrilled to be there and he felt like he had a purpose for being there.
"And every kid on the way out the door went up to him, shook his hand and looked him in the eyes like, ‘Thanks for being here, Coach,’ ‘Psyched to meet you coach.’
"In 45 minutes, he had that room, and it was amazing. I’ve never seen that.”
But as Creighton was set to meet the media later, his new boss grew a little insecure.
A self-described “type-A” personality, Lyke read carefully prepared notes and grew concerned when Creighton wasn’t reaching for his own.
"I kept looking at him like, ‘OK, where are his notes? He’s got them in his coat pocket, he’s going to pull them out, right?,” Lyke said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘You know, Heather, this is your first big hire of a football coach, he’s not going to let you down at a press conference, right? He’s going to be prepared.’
"So I introduce him, and I shake his hand, we hold up the jersey, and he never did pull out a note. He just really has a gift. He’s really genuine in who he is, and it’s very easy for him to connect with an audience and tell his story and really capture the essence of who he is and what he’s about, to connect with the people in the audience.”
The 50-year-old former Division III quarterback at Kenyon College in Ohio is infectious with his excitement.
But in his early Ypsilanti days, Creighton wasn’t finding many doors open. So if the talent couldn’t always be exceptional, Creighton said, the character and resilience of those in the program would be.
"I just always believed that there are 17 or 18-year-olds out there, and there are coaches out there, that really want to put it out on the table because this is not a sure thing,” Creighton said. “Let’s bet on ourselves and try to do something that most people think is impossible.”
Lyke got in on the act, funding the payment of passports for the players before that first season in case a berth to the Bahamas Bowl was in the cards.
It certainly wasn’t for that first 2-10 season. Or the 1-11 second one.
But the Eagles made it to Nassau for Creighton’s third season in 2016, the program’s first bowl bid since 1987 and second since moving to Division I in 1975.
"He did something that no one believed could happen,” said Lyke, who left Ypsilanti for the Pittsburgh post in 2017. “And he really taught kids, and me, and anyone connected with him that you have to believe internally very deeply before something is going to happen.”
Now — at 6-6 and finishing the third season in four years at a bowl — Creighton said he’s studying ways to take that next step, to win bowl games and consistently compete for Mid-American Conference championships.
He’s read an iconic business book in “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins with hopes of the right kind inspiration to turn the corner.
Creighton is learning there’s not a shortcut sharp turn to greatness, it’s more of a hill to climb.
"We’re in it right now,” Creighton said. “A lot of (the book) is the concept of the flywheel where you get this big Ferris wheel. You’re pushing on it and pushing on it. At some point though, it starts to move. It slowly continues to move, and then it gains ground and gains ground. At some point, that flywheel starts moving on its own and going at a rapid pace.
"The question is, which push was the one that got that flywheel going? It’s unnameable. It’s so many different people and so many different things, continuing to persevere and to push, and to keep going, and to keep believing, and that’s probably my answer right now.
"We’re always analyzing, always figuring out how we can get better. But we’re just pushing, and believing, and persevering, and we really believe that we will have another breakthrough.”
Thursday, against his old boss and the Atlantic Coast Conference Panthers, Creighton and double-digit underdog Eastern Michigan will have another chance for one.
"I would say that the odds are so great that it would just take a magical evening,” Creighton said. “With Eastern Michigan fans, all wearing the green and white, and being there at Ford Field — if our guys were to play at a really high level, and just everything would go our way, it would be an absolute crazy, awesome, program-changing night.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Quick Lane Bowl
EASTERN MICHIGAN VS. PITTSBURGH
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Thursday, Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: ESPN/760, 89.1
Records: Eastern Michigan, 6-6; Pittsburgh, 7-5
Line: Pittsburgh by 11½