Welcome to our latest installation of State of the Program, a wide-ranging look into each and every MAC football program and how it’s currently functioning. If you missed out on previous versions, you can always catch up using our 2019 Preseason Coverage storystream at your own leisure.
This time around, we’re discussing the Central Michigan Chippewas, a program that finds itself in a both a competitive rut after a disastrous 2018 campaign and in a financial boon, with new facilities around the athletic programs being built seemingly every day.
2018, as previously explained, was a season to forget for Chippewa fans. The team suffered an 1-11 record, and looked non-competitive in doing so, sporting one of the worst offenses in the country while cycling between four different quarterbacks. The team squandered a stellar defense, which was near the top of the MAC in yards allowed and produced two NFL Draft selections.
They started the year in Kentucky and remained competitive in a 35-20 loss, but Jonathan Ward sustained an injury that severely affected their ability to run the offense. The next game was a humiliating loss in their home opener to Big 12 also-ran Kansas, who hadn’t beaten an FBS opponent on the road in several seasons. It didn’t get better from there.
Head coach John Bonamego was fired hours after a 51-13 loss to Toledo on Black Friday, and was summarily replaced with former Florida head coach Jim McElwain, who was at Michigan as a wide receivers coach in 2018.
That move alone makes 2019 a lynchpin year in the development of the program.
Assessing the talent pipeline
CMU has the distinction of graduating players into the NFL, and is currently the MAC program with the most current NFL players, claiming an incredible 13 in 2019. The most famous of the former CMU alumni, of course, is Antonio Brown (Oakland Raiders), but there are plenty of other contributors on NFL rosters as well.
Eric Fisher (Kansas City Chiefs) was a first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, while Joe Staley (San Francisco 49ers) was CMU’s first-ever first-round selection. Leterrius Walton (Pittsburgh Steelers), Kavon Frazier (Dallas Cowboys) and Tyler Conklin (Minnesota Vikings) are all recent draft picks which stuck onto teams as well. This offseason, Sean Bunting (now Sean Murphy-Bunting,) was a second-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Xavier Crawford went as a sixth-round draft pick of the Houston Texans.
Success isn’t limited to draft picks either. Cooper Rush (Dallas), Thomas Rawls (Jacksonville Jaguars), Nick Bellore (Seattle Seahawks) and Jahleel Addae (Los Angeles Chargers) all made rosters as undrafted free agents. Frank Zombo (most recently with the Kansas City Chiefs, currently a free agent) was a UDFA in 2010 before signing with the Green Bay Packers and winning a Super Bowl as a starting linebacker.
Hell, even former head coach (and CMU QB/WR) John Bonamego is back in the NFL as the Detroit Lions’ special teams coordinator.
That’s about as stacked as it gets in terms of a collegiate pipeline to the NFL, and doesn’t even consider JJ Watt, who was a tight end for CMU before transferring to Wisconsin.
In terms of current recruiting, Bonamego was about the middle of the road in his years at Central. He was certainly handed a tough slate to start, with a short class in 2015 due to the sudden resignation of Dan Enos, but in the last couple years, he’s managed to wrangle in some good prospects.
The 2019 class, recruited primarily by Coach Bono, though McElwain had to close on it, ranked sixth in the MAC, per 247Sports, with a composite rating of 0.80, and had nine three-star prospects. The 2018 class wasn’t quite as lucky, finishing eighth in the MAC with a composite rating of 0.79. But the 2016 and 2017 classes, which will be primarily important for the first couple of McElwain seasons, were the cream of the crop for Bonamego as a recruiter, as he reeled in the fourth (2016) and fifth (2017) best recruiting classes in the MAC, including a 93rd overall ranking in 2017.
Recruiting classes under McElwain tended to be volatile in his time at Colorado State, the last time he held a Group of Five-level job. McElwain took over the Rams in Dec. 2011, and closed on a 2012 class that ranked 120th in the country and last in the Mountain West Conference, per 247Sports. It was quite a departure from the previous season, where the Rams finished second in the league. His remaining two years fared better, as he finished 2013 with the fifth-best class in the league (84th nationally), and 2014 with the sixth-best class in the league (86th nationally.)
Of course, those numbers were from McElwain’s first coaching gig, and his reputation from being a head coach and coordinator in the SEC should have some cache with current recruits who might recognize him from his time at Florida. It’ll take some time to figure out where CMU is on recruiting, but they’re not in a bad spot by any means.
The name of the game is investments
Since taking over as CMU’s athletic director, Michael Alford has made no qualms that results incur investments, and has shown as much. Alford has made significant changes with coaching staffs to either hold up to the expectations of investments made in facilities or to spur investments in programs.
The McElwain hire was made with fundraising in mind, and it completely worked. The Champions Center, an athletic and academic facility that will be open to students and athletes alike, was once projected to be fully funded in the mid-2020’s. It’s now under construction. The move was even enough to get a massive new video board installed in the south endzone, a welcome change after years of fans complaints that the previous video screen, a 16 foot-by-30 foot LED square outside of stadium confines in the north endzone, was too difficult to see replays on.
Alford has set an expectation for the football program after investing $30 million-plus dollars into the program, and that is to be one of the most competitive programs in the conference and perhaps soon, the country.
A lot of the fanbase is still hamstrung on the success of the 2006-2009 Chippewas, which brought three MAC Championships, four bowl game appearances (including two victories,) and the graduation of countless NFL products, including Brown, Bellore, Zombo, Staley and Dan LeFevour (who went on to have a productive career in the CFL.) The head coaches from those illustrious teams went on to coach at Notre Dame and Tennessee, and the two coaches since Brian Kelly and Butch Jones haven’t lived up to this expectation.
The moves made by Alford were, in part, a message to such fans that competing for MAC titles and big bowl games is the expectation in Mt. Pleasant, and hiring McElwain is a confirmation of it. Fans have an emotional attachment to their sports teams, and CMU has not competed at the level a vocal portion of fans have expected in recent seasons. It will always be tough sledding to compete against powerhouses like Michigan and Michigan State, but CMU has an opportunity to etch out a unique niche if these investments Alford is making do indeed pan out into consistent results.
It is this combination of emotional and financial investment which makes the next several years of football results extremely important in the development of CMU as a program.
What’s the mission for 2019?
Alford has set a fairly reasonable expectation ahead of the 2019 season of just making a fair amount of progress in talks with the media. But of course, this is football, and the expectation is to “just win, baby.”
Da’Quaun Jamison keyed in on that thought during MAC Media Days, saying the team needed to buy into the culture and tradition of the program and should “win more games than one” in 2019.
There’s certainly no denying the Chippewas will have a big chip on the shoulder (no pun intended) when the season kicks off. The team’s lone victory in 2018 was to FCS Maine at home, by a final score of 17-5, which is certainly nothing to write home about. This season promises visits to two national powerhouse programs in Wisconsin and Miami (FL), as well as a favorable conference schedule, so the team will carry the weight of last season’s subpar performance as motivation.
The mission should be to be competitive, especially as turnover at basically every position of importance will severely affect the makeup of the team as a whole. Last season, CMU lost by double-digit totals in eight of their 11 losses, with only one loss being a one-score game (24-23 vs. Ball State.)
Is the program better than it was five years ago?
It depends on what you feel makes the program better, but I’m generally inclined to believe that yes, it is better.
On the field, the results have largely varied between six and eight wins since the 2010 season, which certainly hasn’t helped in stoking fan interest, even if it’s remarkably consistent. Prior to last season, CMU was working on a four-year bowl streak, and had qualified for five bowls over the past six seasons. The four-year streak between two different staffs tied for the longest consecutive bowl streak since… you guessed it, the 2006-2009 Chippewas. The Chips will be approaching the tenth anniversary of their last MAC Championship and last solo share of the MAC West division title heading into 2019 as well, so in terms of on-field production, the program has been steady, if slightly stagnant, even after being left in the cold by Enos without a warning.
Off the field, the university has done a great job of investing in the program. As previously mentioned, they’ve invested over $30 million of fresh funding into the team, even before taking into account the new coaching staff and the video board. They’re still actively working on it too, recently discussing the improvement of the gameday experience at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, which was named the best gameday experience by Sporting News back in 2012. The name recognition of the university has also helped greatly with the recruiting process, especially with the emergence of Antonio Brown as a university ambassador, who has remained active with the Mt. Pleasant community and was involved in the decision-making process in Alford’s hiring. Pulling in a coach with the resume of Jim McElwain will also surely be a boon for CMU in establishing itself as a serious player in the college football world.
CMU now finds itself at an interesting crossroads. The MAC West finds itself a bit vulnerable this season, with powerhouses Toledo and NIU showing signs of vulnerability. WMU seems to have largely crashed after reaching meteoric highs just a couple seasons ago. While CMU might not be competitive in the immediate term, they could certainly set themselves in the catbird seat for a chance at the MAC West division title a couple years down the road, which is more than can be said of the team over the last decade. If they make the right moves, CMU could set itself up to be a player in the MAC and G5 debate for years to come.