Examining the MACtion: What Did Ron English Teach Us About Eastern Michigan?

Leon Halip

Welcome to a new part of Hustle Belt. We will take some time every week or two in order to take a good long look at a certain topic or event. To start, we will examine the world of college football coaching changes through the prism of the Ron English Incident at Eastern Michigan.

College football's "coaching carousel" happens every year. Heck, former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will be Arkansas State's fifth different head coach in the last five years. How they retain recruits well enough to have a 8-5 record be a down year is beyond me.

Here's a fun logic chain for you: at the other end of the coaching turnover spectrum is a school like Penn State, which is now hiring its third head coach in the last six decades. The Nittany Lions play in the Big Ten, which is home to one of their most intense rivals in the Michigan Wolverines.

Michigan's current head coach is former Ball State head coach Brady Hoke, whose former squad just faced that Arkansas State squad in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Michigan may also be most responsible for the past five years in Ypsilanti taking place under the watchful eye of Ron English instead of the tutelage of Chuck Martin.

That's the same Chuck Martin who was just hired to be the new head coach at Miami (OH), the school in the MAC so notorious for being a coaching springboard it is nicknamed the "Cradle of Coaches."

How Did It Get To This?

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? When English was hired, there were rumors that former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr and Jim Stapleton (a regent at the university) stepped in and got English the job after the school had interviewed Martin (then the coach at Grand Valley State) and Martin had said he wanted the job. Further stories had Martin ready to move in and start working until this possibly 12th hour intervention.

What does all this tell us? Well, if it's true, it tells us that it's most definitely a blessing in disguise that Heather Lyke is in place as the new athletic director as of this past summer. Any AD who would allow that kind of meddling in general doesn't deserve to retain their position, let alone meddling from a clueless member of the board of regents and a famous coach.

Stapleton said after the firing that he didn't think English was the real problem, and that the six years he needed to succeed were undermined by bad players. Carr has very loose ties to the program - he was an assistant for two years in the mid-70's but is not from Michigan and did not attend EMU.

Perhaps Stapleton's disagreement with the firing lends credence to this rumor, but it's still just rumor as far as I know, since I haven't seen any concrete evidence. Outside of that, what about the hire itself? English's entire coaching career prior to this was on the defensive side of the ball, so how did that go for the Eagles?

Not well. During English's tenure, here are the sack totals by year: 17, 10, 22, 7, 14*. Now here are the interception totals: 12, 2, 5, 7, 4*. I know those metrics aren't the be-all and end-all, but look at that. Seven sacks last season?! English coached his team to 21 sacks and 11 interceptions in his last 21 games, and they recorded eight sacks and three interceptions in the three games after he was fired (a 32 and 12 pace extrapolated to a full season). If that doesn't serve as evidence of addition by subtraction, I don't know what does.

Turnovers aren't everything, but there's also the massive scads of rushing yards - Eastern Michigan had the worst rush defense and overall defense (by yardage) in the conference in four of his five years. None of these statistics are OK for a man who was reportedly hired for his "pedigree" as Michigan's defensive coordinator.

When your defense (and your overall record) only reaches the middle of a lower-level conference in what is by far your best year, you may have oversold your skills. There are very few jobs, especially in today's climate where you need to win to pull in a crowd, that will allow you four seasons of double-digit losses in five years (and an 11-46 overall record) without kicking your butt out the door.

Then again, his Louisville defense was hardly elite, and the Michigan defenses were very good, but not drastically better than they were before he arrived. In addition to that, there's a big difference between coaching and scheming the defensive talent at a big-name school that someone else recruited for you, versus trying to do the same with whatever talent you recruited yourself to a much smaller school.

Therein lies another likely flaw. The Eagles haven't had a winning season in forever, which no doubt has something to do with, as Stapelton so readily points out, the difficulties of recruiting and playing in Michigan's shadow - the schools are, after all, only six and a half miles apart, and they have very different levels of everything including athletic money and success.

What Does All That Mean?

But that is the exact reason why English (and Jeff Genyk before him) was not the right guy for the job. You need someone with a firm grasp of everything that goes on in a football program, who therefore knows how to take advantage of being UM's little brother instead of wallowing in the shadows. It's hard to possess that kind of knowledge and skills and find the small edges that will make a difference when you come into Ypsilanti with zero prior head coaching experience.

The rant heard round the world by English was a terrible, awful thing. It was also what got him fired with three games left in the season rather than at the end of the season. That isn't really the issue though, since while his tirade was horrific and wrong for numerous reasons, the language he used is the only thing that separates it from other locker room tirades throughout the ages. It also is merely yet another symptom of a coach who clearly was overmatched in the transition from "coordinating the defensive talent" to "coordinating everything."

This is nothing new. Numerous coaches (Dave Wannstedt comes readily to mind as a native Pittsburgher, as does Norv Turner) have had situations where they were promoted based on their offensive or defensive acumen, only to find out that expanding their responsibilities to include recruiting the right talent, coaching every player in some capacity, and all the other duties that come along with being more than "just a coordinator" was stretching their abilities too thin.

What Comes Next?

So where does that leave the team now? They did the smart thing and hired Chris Creighton, recently the head coach at Drake University. The Bulldogs are part of a school that is dwarfed by even little old EMU, but Creighton has several things going for him.

One, he has an extensive history as a head coach totaling 16 years; two, that experience (and success) has come at three different levels, so he has shown the ability to advance to a higher level of competition and still succeed; and three, he has at least some experience with this shadow thing.

See, Drake is in Iowa, and it is a mere 38 miles south of Iowa State University. Obviously Iowa State is a far cry from the University of Michigan in terms of football might, but so is Drake compared to EMU. He had to pull his talent no doubt from the guys who either couldn't afford ISU or weren't quite good enough, and so forth - in a sense, learning how to be successful with a nearby bigger university's run-off as part of your recruiting base.

This is obviously a much smarter hire than English, but many questions still remain. Will Creighton be able to bring the team back to relevancy, or can he go further? Will he be able to do it quick enough that the student body and alumni will even care? Or is "existing in Michigan's shadow" the kind of hurdle that can only be overcome by a coach so skilled and well-connected that he would never come work at Eastern Michigan in the first place?

*Numbers this season through 9 games when English was fired.

[h/t to the boys at Eagle Totem for a fair bit of backstory and reading.]

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