Surprising EMU 1 win from bowl eligibility

When Ron English took over as the coach at Eastern Michigan, he

was well aware of the challenge that lay ahead.

English had spent five seasons as an assistant at Michigan, and

after a year with Louisville, he was coming back to the Ann Arbor

area to take over the struggling program in the next town over –

the one without a winning season since 1995.

”The key when you’re rebuilding a program is to not waste

time,” English said. ”This thing has changed from top to bottom.

… I don’t know if you always have the opportunity to do something

from the bottom up.”

In just his third season at EMU, English has the Eagles one win

from being bowl-eligible. It’s been a swift turnaround for a team

that went winless two years ago and has always been in the shadow

of the Wolverines and Michigan Stadium, a few miles distant.

”I think we can carve out our own niche here,” athletic

director Derrick Gragg said.

This season, the Eagles have taken a big step toward doing that.

EMU (6-4, 4-2 Mid-American Conference) still needs one more victory

to become eligible for a bowl – the Eagles need seven because two

of their wins were against Football Championship Subdivision teams.

After beating Buffalo 30-17 last weekend in its home finale, EMU

wraps up the regular season with games at Kent State and Northern

Illinois.

No matter what happens down the stretch, the Eagles will snap a

streak of 15 straight losing seasons. They’ve already won more

games this season than over the previous three when they were a

combined 5-31.

”In the past when we’d lose a game, people would be like, `Oh,

typical Eastern Michigan football,”’ offensive lineman Bridger

Buche said. ”You can definitely see there’s a lot more pride on

campus about our football team.”

English was Michigan’s defensive coordinator when coach Lloyd

Carr retired after the 2007 season. He spent a season at Louisville

in the same role before getting a chance to be a head coach back in

a familiar area.

”When Coach E got here, you could definitely tell that it’s a

real football program now, as soon as he got here,” wide receiver

Trey Hunter said. ”Even with the rough seasons we had his first

two years, you could still see that where we were headed was in the

right direction.”

It wasn’t easy at first. The Eagles went 0-12 in 2009 and 2-10

the following season. But fortunes have changed, thanks to an

increased commitment from both players and the school. EMU started

this season with victories over two FCS opponents before being

routed – predictably – in road games against Michigan and Penn

State.

Even in the 31-3 loss to the Wolverines, the Eagles were

competitive early.

”Ron is a good football coach and before we played them, I

talked about that and how the team plays in his image,” Michigan

coach Brady Hoke said. ”They’re going to be physical and be good

on defense.”

In MAC play, the Eagles have been very competitive, sweeping

in-state rivals Central Michigan and Western Michigan.

Quarterback Alex Gillett has thrown for 1,273 yards with 13

touchdowns and only five interceptions. He’s also the team’s

leading rusher.

”One of our core values is: Embrace the process,” English

said. ”That means as we’re building, embrace the tough times as

well as the good times.”

The best evidence of what’s being built sits right next to EMU’s

30,200-seat home stadium. There’s a large bubble with the school’s

signature green ”E” on it – a new indoor practice facility

finished in 2010.

”If we had practice scheduled and it started raining, and

thunderstormed, we’d be in the gym with tennis shoes on walking

through stuff,” Buche said. ”Or just have meetings and push off

the practice until as late as we could go.”

No need for that anymore. And if things break right the rest of

the way, the school could be planning a bowl trip. It would be the

team’s first since playing in the California Bowl in 1987.

”That’s just exciting to be a part of those conversations,”

Gragg said.