For years, the head coaching job at Eastern Michigan University has been considered one of the better jobs in the realm of Mid-American Conference basketball due to its facilities, tradition and proximity to Metro Detroit. It is these points of pride which led EMU to hire a highly regarded, past national champion assistant coach in Rob Murphy from Syracuse back in 2011.
But those supporting factors haven’t produced the success expected in Ypsilanti. As I look at the history of Eastern Michigan basketball, I noticed a down turn with the upturn of another regional mid-major.
The Oakland University Golden Grizzlies began play as an NCAA Division I basketball program for the 1999-2000 season with the now venerable Greg Kampe at head coach. The Grizzlies since then have become a consistent program, winning 20 or more games six times with three NCAA appearances as members of the Summit and Horizon Leagues.
The Grizzlies have built a brand highlighted by a yearly home and kinda home series with in-state power Michigan State and their “blacktop” at the O’Rena Court.
When Oakland came about, the Huron/Eagle program was coming off of perhaps the programs glory days. From 1988 to 1999, EMU won 20 or more games five times with four NCAA tournament appearances.
Since Oakland’s arrival as a Division one foe?
Three twenty-win seasons with no NCAA tournament appearances, all of which came under Rob Murphy.
(For what it is worth, Oakland’s arch-rival Detroit Mercy, the other metro-Detroit mid-major, has also struggled since Oakland’s arrival as a D-I school, competing directly against Oakland in the Horizon League. The Titans have only made it to the tournament once, in 2012.)
The Eagles lead the all-time series against Oakland, 10-6. However, just 10 of those games have come with both schools as NCAA D-I foes. Of those 10 game, Oakland leads the series 6-4. The two schools last played in 2017-18, with a home and home series that they split.
Prior to Oakland’s emergence, Eastern served as the school in the area for a lot of Metro Detroit’s top talent. Not only among players coming out of high school but talented players looking to return to the area as transfers. In recent years, OU has added numerous transfers from Power Five schools and many of those transfers come with ties to the Detroit area.
Oakland has another major benefit as well: the campus has been steadily growing.
EMU has famously seen their enrollment stagnate— then drop precipidously— as the school has struggled to stay out of debt. In contrast, Oakland’s enrollment is now just roughly two thousand students less than Eastern’s, and has recently announced an increase of students living on campus, while Eastern closes residence halls.
One reason why Oakland has such interest in their basketball program is that they do not sponsor a football program. Per the NCAA, Oakland reported 48,276 fans across 16 home games which is good for a 3,017 average. Eastern reported just 30,452 fans across 18 games which was good for a 1,692 average attendance.
While basketball at Eastern has predominately seen more success than that of the football program in Ypsilanti, football games have remained a bigger campus and community event.
Oakland officials are able to put more money into their basketball program as that is their major sport where Eastern sponsors the two major college sports in both football and basketball.
How much of the change in the mid-major basketball climate of southeastern Michigan is due to Oakland? It’s hard to say, for certain, but we can reasonably ascertain the addition of another public institution allowed for more choice.
Yes, Oakland has recently started to become more of a metro-Detroit school than Eastern Michigan, but who is to say that Eastern would even target many of the recruits or transfers who have been attending Oakland?
This could be especially true during the Rob Murphy tenure as Murphy runs a very specific scheme. Murphy is a Detroit native and a former head coach at Detroit Mumford, so one would have to believe that if he wanted to, he could have a bigger impact inside Detroit’s recruiting scheme.
Also, in recent years you have seen other coaches with Detroit ties, such as Alabama head coach Nate Oats, who had been the head coach at Romulus High School, dip into the Detroit area talent pool, which dilutes the available talent for other in-state institutions to choose from.
The case could also be made that college basketball has more parity now than ever before, so even with the addition of Oakland, this particular situation would have been inevitable.
It isn’t easy for a school to have a consistent five-or-six-year run atop of their region. It is very possible that adding Oakland, next to Detroit and EMU has simply diluted the pool of potential recruits in the area, meaning that the margin for misses has shrunk.
With technology improving to the point where it’s ever-present in our lives, the prospect of staying close to home may not be as daunting as it once was, resulting in some players choosing to leave the state entirely, or stray from home to take root elsewhere in the state.
Perhaps it’s the conference schedule EMU has to face on a yearly basis (and being merely decent) which has haunted the program for a bit. The MAC has a higher RPI than the Horizon League, of which Oakland has been one of the marquee programs. But wins draw crowds in, and EMU has been more or less middling over the last 20 seasons. That’s something you can’t say about Oakland.
Perhaps some of Eastern’s fall from MAC/regional mid-major power has to do with the ending of the Ben Braun era.
Braun left EMU for Cal following the 1995-96 season, and it took some time for his recruits to move out of the program as the culture shifted from Braun to Milton Barnes (who made the 1997-98 tournament), to Jim Boone (who never topped 15 wins in 5 seasons) to native son Charles Ramsey.
(Side note: who knows what would have happened had Eastern hired then assistant Gary Waters to be head coach over Milton Barnes in 1996.)
If you ask a certain segment of longtime Huron/Eagle fans, they’ll tell you change in program trajectory has less to do with external factors like Oakland, and has more to do with some of the identity lost when they moved home games from Bowen Field House to the Convocation Center starting in 1998... on top of some other things.
Regardless of if you think Oakland’s existence as a D-I program has any effect on Eagle basketball or not, you can’t deny that it makes sense for the programs to play every year.
As both schools struggle, like many mid-majors, to schedule quality opponents both home or away, there seems to be little excuse for Oakland and EMU to dodge one another. Eastern this year plays Oakland’s conference foe in Valparaiso while Oakland plays Northern Illinois, Toledo, Bowling Green and Western Michigan. It seems odd that they wouldn’t agree to play one another.
There is also apparent fuel for a heated rivalry. Prior to last season, Eastern forward Jordan Nobles took a graduate transfer to Oakland where he had an abbreviated career before going pro mid-season. The two schools had a minor spat in 2018 when EMU athletics director Scot Weatherbee misidentified Oakland as a D-II program, which prompted Oakland to remind Weatherbee of their recent successes against both EMU and the MAC via Twitter.
Stuff like that would make a great rivalry for fans, which would certainly place more butts in the seats than games random NIAA schools, such as Siena Heights (thank you for Ben Braun), Rochester and so on.
In the meantime, the debate will rage on about if EMU’s current position is of its own doing, due to outside causes, or a mixture of both.