'This is home': EMU's Chris Creighton sits out coaching carousel, makes another bowl
Every year in late November and early December, as the college football coaching carousel kicks into overdrive, you rarely if ever hear a peep about Chris Creighton.
It makes no sense for a relatively young man (52) who has won everywhere he's been — most notably, at Eastern Michigan, which, before he arrived in 2014 hadn't had a winning season since 1995, and hadn't appeared in a bowl game since 1987.
Or, maybe, it makes all the sense in the world for a man who more and more with each passing year sure sounds like he's found his "forever" home.
"I'll tell you what, that's a good way of saying it," Creighton said earlier this month, speaking to reporters ahead of his team's appearance in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
"I've been here for eight years. This is home. I'm in love with this program, and all the people in it."
Creighton has led Eastern Michigan to its fourth bowl game on his watch, all since 2016, and its sixth overall. The Eagles (7-5) play Liberty (7-5) at 5:45 Saturday night at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
A win would give Eastern its first eight-win season since 1987, when the best team in program history — they then were known as the Hurons — went 10-2. That team beat San Jose State, 30-27, in the California Bowl, the lone bowl victory in program history.
When Creighton arrived on campus, he was chasing mediocrity. The program had won six games in a season just twice since 1990, and, given the financial drain the program had become on the university, there were increasingly calls from the campus community and nation to drop the program, or drop it to Division II. Early in her tenure, then-athletic director Heather Lyke once cancelled a game against Michigan State (and a lucrative payday), in part, she said on the record, because she was concerned her players might get hurt.
Now Creighton — 37-56 overall at Eastern Michigan, but 34-35 with the four bowls in the last six seasons — is chasing 1987 and history. His teams have lost the three bowl games by a combined 12 points.
"First of all, I want to continue to give props to the 1987 team, the MAC championship, they went to the bowl and won it. Whenever we have events, there's always guys from the '87 team that come, and just the pride that they bring, they wear the rings ...," Creighton said. "We can't match that, but we can fulfill our theme.
"We've been really close to some really good teams in bowl games, but haven't won one. Honestly, for our program internally, we would be able to say that we were different."
Doing something different won't be an easy task.
Liberty, an independent program, is no slouch, having joined the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2018, and winning bowl games in 2019 and 2020. It's coached by former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, and led by quarterback Malik Willis, who's expected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick, likely the first QB taken, in April.
Willis, a dual-threat quarterback, has rushed for 1,171 yards and 14 touchdowns, and thrown for 2,626 yards and 24 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
In this era of top NFL Draft prospects opting out of bowl games to protect their health and stock, Willis has decided to play his final collegiate game — bad news for the Eagles, who are ranked 101st out of 130 programs in FBS in total defense, and even worse (111th) in rushing defense).
"It's a monster challenge," Creighton said. "He's super talented."
That's going to put the spotlight on Eastern Michigan's defensive line, led by sophomore Jose Ramirez (six sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss), a third-team All-Mid-American Conference honoree; senior Turan Rush (3.5 sacks); and sophomore Mikey Haney (three).
Senior quarterback Ben Bryant leads the Eagles' offense, which despite no first-round NFL Draft picks in the fold, is pretty on par with Liberty in terms of scoring. Eastern has topped 50 points three times, and 40 points four times. Bryant is protected by senior lineman Sidy Sow, Eastern's lone first-team All-MAC player, and junior Brian Dooley, third-team. Some of Bryant's favorite targets are senior receiver Hasson Beydoun (Dearborn), junior receiver Dylan Drummond and senior tight end Thomas Odukoya. Senior running back Jawon Hamilton is the biggest threat out of the backfield, though he was limited to just one attempt in the regular-season-ending loss to Central Michigan because of an injury.
Hamilton's status for Saturday isn't known, but Creighton's status at EMU sure is. This is his fourth coaching stop (he was a winner at Ottawa, Wabash and Drake), and his longest yet. He almost surely didn't see EMU as a final destination when he arrived in Ypsilanti, but with two kids in high school and another in middle school locally, he just might now.
This summer, he signed a contract extension through 2025, in a deal that pays him more than $500,000.
Clearly, he's fully committed — and, perhaps, for the long haul.
"It's a two-way street," Creighton said. "In the world of college athletics, you can coach two games in a season and get let go. So everybody's gotta be on the same page.
"But I continue to feel grateful to be able to lead this program. We're working our butts off to make people proud of our guys, and to have an unbelievable experience."
Four bowl games in six years, at Eastern Michigan? Yep, that's pretty unbelievable.
EASTERN MICHIGAN VS. LIBERTY
►Kickoff: 5:45 Saturday, Hancock Whitney Stadium, Mobile, Alabama
►Records: Eastern Michigan 7-5; Liberty 7-5
►Line: Liberty by 9.5
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