English strives to make Eastern Eagles soar
LON HORWEDEL / ANNARBOR.COM COURTESY PHOTO
For 12 straight seasons, Eastern Michigan University hasn’t had a winning season. It’s been 22 years since the Eagles made a bowl appearance. Ron English was hired as head coach to change that.
English was defensive coordinator at University of Louisville and University of Michigan before landing his first head coaching job in Ypsilanti.
“I came here because I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to come to a place where football was important and were the president decided to support the football team whole-heartedly,” English said. “I thought we’d have a chance to win.”
Then he went about doing what’s necessary to turn the beleaguered program around.
“No one likes change, but we all just bought into Coach English’s philosophy,” said Brandon Downs, EMU co-captain and defensive tackle. “It’s been a good change. The program’s headed in the right direction.
“He brings consistency; we always know what we’re going to get from him.”
“The one thing I never liked as a player, and I’ll always remember it, is when a coach made one game bigger than another game,” English said.
Whether it’s Army to open the season, Northwestern from the Big Ten, as in the second game of the season, or perennial national power Michigan— where English and some of his players once toiled—his approach to the games never varies.
And English is under new illusions about turning around a long-suffering program in a few games. In 1987, he was a freshman playing for a California Golden Bears team that only won three games. California consistently got better, and by the time he was a senior the team finished with seven wins including a victory in the Copper Bowl.
“At Cal, it was the leaders of the team and the core of the team having had enough losing, and they started holding the fringe players accountable,” English said. “You better get on the boat or you better get off. We’ll play without you; we’ll play with 32 guys or 40 guys. We don’t have to play with 85.
That I remember clearly as why we turned that program around.”
A few games into this season, his EMU players have already started asking the most out of each other.
“We all gotta be accountable,” said Andy Schmitt, Senior Quarterback from St. Johns. “The little attention to detail it can change a game with one play.”
Schmitt wasn’t the only Eagle to notice the attention to detail. Former Michigan star Tyrone Wheatley is finding it out quickly in his first year coaching under English.
“He’s a clear cut deceive person,” Wheatley said. “He doesn’t use a lot of words, very clear, very short. Just ask him for directions. It’s longitude, latitude, north, south. He’s a very detailed guy.”
Fifth-year senior Zach Johnson is starting to believe in his new coach’s philosophy.
“It’s all about believing,” Johnson said. “You have to believe in what you’re doing and that you can win.”
With both head coach and running back coach having thick Michigan roots, it’s not surprising that some of the what made the Wolverines a success is rubbing off on the Eagles’ program.
“Things I’ve taken from places like Michigan I’ve tried to bring here,” said Wheatley, whose only other coaching experience came from Robichaud High School in Dearborn Heights, were he once starred.
English won’t just take all his coaching philosophies from Michigan though. He explained he takes things from every place he’s been.
Johnny Sears, a former Michigan player who now plays for Eastern, has noticed some similarities from his days in Ann Arbor.
“Coach Carr kept the team tight-knit and focused, just like English,” Sears said.
Wheatley is very supportive believer and is buying into English’s plan for the program. He respects how English tries to run his program off of two basic things, first integrity and belief in the process.
“Trust and those other things are good, but the first two are integrity and embrace process,” Wheatley said. “Football is an incredible process. It thickens the skin.”
English’s start isn’t exactly what he would have scripted, starting out 0-4, but it’s easy to see progress in noticeable increments.
During the second quarter of the second game in the English era, EMU was down 21-0 at the University of Northwestern. With the game in hand, it looked like just another typical blowout between Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference.
But the Eagles showed a resilience that hasn’t been seen from an EMU team in a long time. They scored 24 of the next 27 points in the game to forge a tie with 2:40 left in the fourth quarter.
They eventually lost on a field goal with six seconds left, but the toughness the Eagles showed to fight and claw their way back in the game has not gone unnoticed.
“I told them at halftime, ‘I hope you’re having as much fun as I am,’cause I’m having fun,’” said English. “I want our players to enjoy playing the game; they finally started doing that in the second half of that game.”
His message was well-received, and better fortunes for the program are just a matter of time, his players said.
“Coach English is very intense and very focused on detail,” Schmitt said. “That detail is what gonna help this university turn the corner.”