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The Hustle Belt Flashback Machine: Liberty at Eastern Michigan, October 14, 1989

With EMU and Liberty set to play later today, our own Kenneth Bailey recalls a game he attended when Liberty was just getting off the ground.

Finding a 30 year old picture is proving to be difficult.
Kenneth Bailey

When I heard that the Eastern Michigan Eagles would be facing the Liberty Flames in the LendingTree Bowl, my mind seemed to remember that Eastern Michigan had faced Liberty at least once before. The main reason that it stuck out in my mind was because I was there.

The Liberty Flames traveled to Ypsilanti to face the Eastern Michigan Hurons (now Eagles) on October 14th, 1989. This was their second season as a Division 1AA (FCS for you whippersnappers) team, and they had visions of bumping up to Division 1A (FBS for you whippersnappers), which were eventually realized in the late 2010s. They would be making their debut in their brand-new stadium the week after. It held 12,000 people but they had plans to expand it to the 36,000 required for Division 1A teams. Their coach was a testament to their 1A ambitions, as former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano was making his debut that season, replacing the previously-fired Morgan Hout.

The first step to bumping up a division is to actually start playing teams from that division to see how well you stack up. The Liberty Flames decided to use Eastern Michigan as their guinea pigs, the first Divison 1A team they would meet since the NCAA split Division 1 into two levels.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much information about the game itself, so I will go into my recollection. Usually, a group of people from my dorm would go to the games together. I ended up going with them. We were talking and saying that EMU should beat the Flames handily. The Hurons were 5-0-1 at the time. They handled Youngstown State fairly well. So what could go wrong?

Usually, when I’d go to the games, I would wear my surplus Dutch Army jacket and a black beret. I also had a Circle E flag that I would carry with me. You could still carry flags and what not into the stadium at that point. We would usually take the trail from the main campus to the stadium. It was kind of fun because there was usually a nice group of students that would go to the game that way. The games were pretty fun as a student and the late 80’s represented a brief golden age for Eastern Michigan.

Eastern Michigan was leading 24-17 with 11 seconds to go. Liberty was driving though. Their reserve quarterback Robbie Justino throw a 12-yard touchdown pass to bring the Flames within one. Figuring they had nothing to lose, they went for two... and converted to essentially seal the game.

That victory would have been a shot in the arm for the Flames, because Eastern Michigan was decent at that time. EMU would split their last four games and would finish the season 7-3-1. Their record ultimately wasn’t enough to leap over the conference champion Ball State— and it would be the last time they would finish above .500 until 1995.

Now, as the two teams meet once again, this old EMU alum hopes the result looks a little bit different this time around, and take some revenge for the result from 1989.

The trail we walked to the stadium. It was a rail trail before those were fashionable.
Kenneth Bailey