You oftentimes hear positions in college football described as “tough jobs.” Whether the meaning of that phrase is interpreted as "tough places to succeed" or "tough places to win championships at," the word “tough” is usually confused with a larger notion of a job which is loaded with abundant “pressure.”
Pressure-filled jobs like Alabama, Michigan or Southern California do not make them any more arduous. A subpar coach at these schools will meet a hasty termination of duties, but that does not make the job a difficult one - resources exist in abundance at Bama, Michigan and USC; if you're not winning at those schools, you're clearly failing to make use of obvious advantages.
Having such a job - chock full of pressure, I admit - can make for more demanding days as a head coach. What I will not admit is the notion of any job like an Alabama, Michigan or Southern California being coined “the toughest job in America.”I proffer a question: What if you were a head coach at a school where winning was not expected? Where there were zero expectations? A job whose placeholders had received zero financial commitment? One of those jobs – have your pick – is in the discussion of “toughest job in America.”
Welcome to Ypsilanti, Michigan; population of 19,000, a small and quiet town known for being the birthplace of Domino’s Pizza. If you are in Ypsilanti and you walk six miles east beyond the town limits, do you know where you will be? Ann Arbor, Michigan; the home of the beloved Michigan Wolverines. The Big House. The consummate darling of the college football world.
Had you driven through Ypsilanti on your way to Ann Arbor for a Michigan home game, you may have missed Eastern Michigan University, the Eagles they are called. There, in Ypsilanti, lies one of “the toughest jobs in America,” a position currently held by Ron English, a coach who is underappreciated for what he has accomplished in Ypsilanti. I have exclaimed all year what a remarkable job he has done. Now, it is time to answer the question: How the hell did he do it? How did he win?
Ron English was named the National Defensive Coordinator of the Year in 2006 while he coached in the Big House for the Michigan Wolverines. When Lloyd Carr retired in 2007 and Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez – who wanted to bring in his own staff – English was not retained. He then went to Louisville where he was defensive coordinator for a season (2008) before accepting the offer from Eastern Michigan – a program which finally gave him the much sought-after opportunity to become head coach.
English, known as a tough, hard-nosed, no-nonsense type of a coach, finally had the chance he had longed for. Englishtook over an EMU team that had not had a winning season since 1995, had not gone to a bowl game since 1987, and routinely struggled in the Mid-American Conference – a conference the Eagles began playing in 1976.
English is a man used to coaching winners and teaching defense. When he went winless (0-12) in his first year in Ypsilanti, he moved quickly to build the program. If winning breeds winning, English had to find a way, somehow, to teach that. He had to find a way to teach a bunch of players who did not know what winning felt like - not in an intimate way.
The year prior to English’s arrival Eastern Michigan was ranked as the No. 96 defense in the country (No. 65 pass defense, No. 104 rush defense). During his first year, English noticed something in his team, something he did not approbate. Englishdetected his guys – unused to being successful, unused to winning – simply not caring about what they did (or didn't do). When you have a group of players that do not care, it usually shows in their attitudes and effort. Eastern was under-manned. It did not have the talent it needed, but it possessed a level of apathy it certainly did not need... not for one more second. English caught a glimpse of a team unable to tackle or make a stop on the ground. With that effort, or lack thereof, Eastern finished 2009 dead last in rush defense. He did see improvement in the secondary, however; due in part to teams not needing to throw often against Eastern, the Eagles finished 2009 ranked No. 1 in pass defense. Following 2009, English replaced six coaches on his staff and reportedly asked almost thirty players to not return. If you were not going to give maximum effort for Ron English, you were not going to play for Eastern, plain and simple. English made a decision, after that 0-12 season, to tear down the wall which stood between lackadaisical and winning football; he had to gut the program and build it back fresh from scratch, the correct way, with players who wanted to play football for him and Eastern Michigan University.
When English convinced the Eastern athletic department to spend nearly four million dollars on an indoor practice facility, eyes started opening around the state of Michigan. Eastern, mired in a budgetary crisis once-upon-a-time, faced a once uncertain football future. Now, the school was writing the check and investing inRon English, in his idea.
In English's next season (2010), Eastern got off to an 0-6 start, running its losing streak to 18 games. The streak would end in record-setting fashion as EMU, down 21 points, came back to beat Ball State, snapping the losing skid as well as giving English his very first win as a head coach. Had the wrong coach been at EMU, it would have been very easy for the streak to turn into 19 games and beyond. EMU had the right coach, not the wrong one.English got his first win, and gave his young group of football players a taste of what it felt like to celebrate victory and dump Gatorade on their leader at the end of a satisfying triumph. That is every coach's dream.
Though EMU finished 2010 as the No. 118 team (up two spots) in rush defense, it was still a marked improvement. EMU shaved 600 yards off the total it allowed in 2009. As the rush defense improved, slowly but surely, teams began throwing more on the Eagles which resulted in EMU falling back to No. 66 in the nation in pass defense.
Some of the obstacles that befell Eastern Michigan can be found inside other programs across the country. While you may pick and choose an obstacle here or a barrier there, EMU’s problems are unique in themselves: a location six miles from one of the most prestigious universities and football programs in all of America, the University of Michigan; being anchored to a tradition of not even a “little brother complex” but a very distant cousin (maybe 10-times-removed) complex.
If you grow up in Ypsilanti – whether you went to Eastern Michigan or not – you are 9.9 times out of 10 a Michigan Wolverine fan. The Big House – one of the grandest stages in all of America – welcomes over 110,000 fans each and every gameday during the fall. If EMU and Michigan both have home games on the same day you are lucky – and I do stress lucky – to get a few thousand fans inside Rynearson Stadium, which has a capacity of 30,000.
The arms race that is college football makes it that more difficult for a school like Eastern Michigan to find donors, to encourage boosters to give, to continue to support a football team that houses players that now, under the direction of Ron English, do want to play football.
Obviously, English and his staff are realistically unable and unequipped to go after any four- and five-star recruits, usually not even the three-star prospects. Remember, even recruiting the “lesser-known” recruit is difficult. A man in English's position must convince a player to come play football in a stadium that is not darkened by lack of light, but because it looms in such a large shadow six miles east.
When you (English) have to convince your university president, the athletic department as a whole, and the entire infrastructure of Eastern Michigan University that you are serious about winning football games, that becomes step one in a 100-step process to building a program that's never been built before.
When the bowl season gets started this season,Ron English and his staff will be busy recruiting, fighting what many view as an unwinnable fight, what many say cannot and could not be done. Eastern Michigan will not play in a bowl game this year andRon English probably will not be recognized nationally for the job he did in Ypsilanti, but what he did in 2011 – in just his third season, following a complete overhaul of the program - entitles him to be lauded.
Eastern Michigan played the team they lay in the shadow of, the Wolverines, for the tenth time this past season. EMU – 2-0 for the first time since 1989 – trekked six miles east with the goal – as English says is the goal every time – to win. EMU last played Michigan in 2009 – English’s first season – losing 45-17. EMU had obviously never defeated its larger-than-life distant relative. The closest game EMU had versus Michigan was a 33-22 defeat in 2007; before that, the Eagles had scored only 20 points combined (yes, an average of 2.7 points per game) in its previous seven meetings. This year was no different. EMU did lose 31-3, but there was a different, overriding feeling that came from this defeat, a feeling much different from that 45-17 defeat in 2009 when reporters openly questioned English, toeing the ledge of poking fun at the program for actually believing the Eagles could defeat the mighty Wolverines.
EMU lost its next game on the road to Penn State, 34-6. Even getting this game scheduled was a feat in itself. EMU and Penn State had only played one other time in the two schools' history, a 1992 EMU loss 52-7 in State College. This game - and more importantly the payday that comes from it - is an enormous win for the program’s bottom line.
Eastern moved forward, defeating Akron (31-23) to start with and then taking down its two biggest rivals, Central Michigan (35-28), and Western Michigan (14-10). EMU then handled Buffalo (30-17) for a fourth MAC triumph. With a 6-4 record and two games to play – needing one more win to become bowl eligible – there was an ubiquitous feeling of change pervading the campus in Ypsilanti.
From No. 118 to No. 50 in rush defense, from No. 66 to No. 44 in pass defense, and from No. 113 to No. 35 in total defense, Eastern made substantial improvements across the board. All these ameliorations of a program once belittled, bad-mouthed and just simply anonymous to the college football world stood as proof of English's remarkable handiwork.
EMU fell short of its seventh victory, finishing the season 6-6 overall. This record may have been and may continue to be disguised as subpar. Considering what you have now learned about the Eastern Michigan program, would you say this season was meager and unmeaningful? I would hope not.
Ron English: How the hell did he win at Eastern Michigan? We now know. Eastern Michigan - the toughest job in America – is in the commendable hands of a coach who will turn young men from apathetic wanderers into dedicated, hard-working adults.
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