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Thoughts About Rob Murphy and Ideas for His Replacement

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What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Murphy at his first game as head coach for the Eastern Michigan Eagles. That also happened to be my first game photographing basketball from the court.
Kenneth Bailey

I found myself kind of torn as I read the joint statement that Rob Murphy and Eastern Michigan will be parting ways after ten years. On one hand, I’m glad that he will be able to land on his feet with a position with the Detroit Pistons G-League team. I wish him all the success he can get there and I hope he does well.

Coach Murphy became the head coach of the Eastern Michigan basketball team in 2011. His first game was against Marygrove, which is a small school in Detroit. It was also an exhibition game. It also happened to be my first game photographing basketball from the court for Eagle Totem. Because of that, I kind of feel a connection to Rob Murphy that many Eastern fans do not have. It was kind of nice to watch him grow as a coach while I grew as a photographer.

On the other hand, the results of that growth may ultimately have been what did him in after a decade at the helm.

Because of a clause in his contract, every time Murphy had a 20 win season, he would automatically get one year added to his contract. He had three 20 win seasons which means he got 3 years added to his contract. Many people will say that those 20 win seasons were padded with soft teams in the off-conference portion of the schedule. Eastern Michigan would often schedule a couple of Division II or NAIA schools at the beginning of the season. Those were nice for big wins but not nice for seeing where Eastern Michigan stood in the MAC. And it seemed like they would lose the first couple games of MAC play and that tended to put them behind the eight ball when it came time to play in the tournament.

In his first season as head coach, the Eagles went 14-18 overall but 9-7 in the conference. That conference record was enough to tie them for first place in the MAC West. They lost to Northern Illinois in their first game in the Championship and didn’t have the record to get them to the post season. In his second season, he was 16-18 overall but only 7-9 in the MAC. That was good enough for 4th place in the MAC West. It was in his third season that he broke 20 wins overall. He made it fairly deep in the MAC Championship and found himself in the CIT. He won the first game of the CIT, but lost the second. The next year would find him in the CBI after winning 21 games overall in the season. It took a couple more years for Eastern Michigan to return to the CIT. This season he was 6-12 overall with a 3-11 record in the MAC. Because of the abbreviated Championship due to COVID, that meant Eastern Michigan stayed home. Overall, he would finish 166-155 and 79-93 in the MAC.

To get to the point, Murphy was brought here to get the Eagles back to basketball respectability too. He didn’t deliver and now he’s gone.

For the next part, these are more thoughts of a fan of Eastern Michigan basketball and not the result of any serious analysis on my part. When people think of Eastern Michigan’s success in basketball, they think back to the Ben Braun era.

Ben Braun started as an Eastern Michigan coach in the 1985/1986 season and ended in 1996 when he got an offer to coach at the University of California. In that time, he took the Eagles/Hurons to the NCAA Tournament three times and the NIT once. In the 1990/91 season, Eastern Michigan was 26-7 overall and 13-3 in the MAC. They also made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. They were also one of the early 5-12 upset teams. Everything seemed to click for them that season. They returned to the NCAA Tournament in the 1995/96 season where they made it to the second round. It was in that season that they beat Duke. Eastern Michigan hasn’t been back to the NCAA Tournament since. And honestly, it’s not because of the lack of talent because Eastern Michigan has had some pretty good talent in the years between 1996 and now.

So anyways, back to my thoughts about a new head coach. Eastern Michigan doesn’t have a ton of money in order to hire a coach and that pretty much means they will be looking at assistants, lower tier head coaches or higher tier head coaches that want to make a comeback. I figure that while they are doing that, they should look at players from their glory years or perhaps the coach that brought them those glory years.

California Golden Bears v USC Trojans
Can they coax him out of retirement?
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

For the coach, perhaps Eastern Michigan could pluck Ben Braun out of retirement. Granted, he is 67 years old but maybe he might want to return to the team that brought him the glory that led to his career at California and Rice. He resigned from Rice in 2014 and is retirement now. It would be interesting to see if he wants one more go at things.

Prep Basketball
You want to connect to the glory years, here’s your man.
Photo by Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

As for the players, one of the symbols of that Eastern Michigan run was Earl Boykins. He played in the NBA for a large number of years and was the second shortest player to play in the NBA. After his NBA career, he was a high school basketball coach and is currently an assistant at Arkansas. Given Arkansas’ run through this season’s March madness tournament, it would be at prudent to at least do a courtesy call and see if he’s available.

A player from the earlier portion of that era was Lorenzo Neely. He is currently an assistant at Wayne State and may be popular with the fan base. It might be a long shot but sometimes that is what you need.

Miami Heat v Washington Bullets
would Grant Long be a possibility?
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Another player is Grant Long. He is currently a broadcaster for the Pistons and doesn’t have any coaching experience. As much as I would like to see him as a coach, my taste for broadcasters as coaches has soured due to other local experiments in that realm.

A more likely candidate would be Carl Thomas. He was an assistant at Eastern Michigan in 2011. He had head coaching experience at Jackson and is currently an assistant at Duquense. His brother Charles, also a Duquense assistant, could also be considered for a job in Ypsilanti.

Bringing back a glory years player seemed to work for Michigan, and a variety of other programs in the college basketball landscape (hello, Jeff Boals and Ohio!) and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for Eastern Michigan. It would be nice to have someone who understands the situation they are walking into. It would also be helpful if they already have ties to the school, if only to give the community something to finally cheer for again.

Regardless, EMU will be in a tough position, given the limitations on contact and the forever-bubbling nature of movement for coaches and players. What is apparent is that this time around, EMU can’t afford to make a bad choice.