Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ron English has the Toughest Job in College Football

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly once said that he has the toughest job in college football. It's a phrase that gets thrown a lot and is often applied to coaches who are in the hot seat at football programs which are big, storied, and successful, where the expectation to win is astronomically high. 

It's no secret that Notre Dame's fans and alumni expect—nay, demand—that the coach bring them the National Championship. It was one of the reasons why Charlie Weis was given the boot: his seasons were far too mediocre by their standards. The expectation—and, by extension, the phrase "toughest job in college football"—carries over to dozens of other programs as well: Rich Rodriguez when he was at Michigan, Urban Meyer when he was at Florida, and now Luke Fickell who is the interim coach at Ohio State.

But is it really the toughest job in college football to win at a program where wins are expected? No. The coaching jobs at Michigan and Notre Dame come with a high amount of pressure, yes, and those who take the job must be well aware of the expectations. Those who fail to do so will be fired. However, pressure alone does not and cannot dictate the level of difficulty had by a college football coach. Michigan, Notre Dame, Florida, and Ohio State, among other successful programs, do not struggle to get high quality talent. They compete for it against each other, yes, but every one of those programs can and often does have a legitimate shot at landing a five-star recruit. If you're a coach, and you've got the talent, and you're expected to win, all you have to do is coach and you'll be successful. It's not the toughest job you could have. 

Here's what is: the head coaching job at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), currently held by Ron English. He is tasked with practically building its program from the ground up. Eastern has not had a winning season since 1995. They haven't gone to a bowl game since 1987. Even though the MAC is considered a relatively weak, mid-level conference, Eastern still struggles to win against opponents like Toledo, Ball State, as well as Western and Central Michigan, which are the school's sole rivals. In the MAC's West Division, Western and Central are the two most powerful teams and easily beat out Eastern in the in-state recruiting battle.

Although I am a Michigan alumnus, I sympathize with English's predicament. He's trying to bring a U-M winner's mentality to a culture where losing is not only expected, it is practically a tradition. After English's first season, where the Eagles went 0-12, he concluded that the program required a complete overhaul. "I'm frustrated with the run defense," English said, according to AnnArbor.com. "I'm frustrated, really, with the defense, period. I mean, it's ridiculous. The way we play defense here is a travesty. What we have to do is look at ourselves as a staff and figure out how to get this thing fixed."

English has long held a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense, defensive-minded coach. He was previously Michigan's defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, where he coached top-ranked defenses and was named the National Defensive Coordinator of the Year in 2006. When Lloyd Carr retired in 2007, Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez as head coach, and Rodriguez wanted to bring in his own staff, which meant that he would not retain English as Michigan's defensive coordinator. That may have proven to be one of Rodriguez's most fatal errors because, in the coming years, he would struggle to find someone to effectively fill the defensive coordinator position. It resulted in numerous losses at Michigan and, ultimately, Rodriguez's firing. Had he retained English, it is possible that Rodriguez would still be Michigan's head coach today. English spent a year at Louisville before he was finally offered the head coaching job at Eastern.

Yet despite his proven abilities to coach defense, English suffered a winless season in his first year. To say that he was frustrated would be a massive understatement. English had not been accustomed to losing. "I'm tired of it at this point," he told reporters. "Losing is losing. It's the same to me. It's always difficult to swallow."

It got tougher as the team started to fall behind. While many players may have started to think that they simply weren't talented enough to win games, English strove to maintain their focus. This is what's referred to as mental toughness. "If you haven't won, you don't appreciate how hard it is to win and you're not willing to do the work," English said. "You see a lot of close games where a team loses at the end and that's because they're not really willing to do what it takes. I think you need to teach people how to win and there's a point where it's not a talent issue. It's a mentality issue."

There were other problems. English's quarterback Kyle MacMahon transferred to Grand Valley State, and the top incoming recruit for Eastern, quarterback Ryan Williams, de-committed. Still, English tried to stay positive throughout the rest of the 2009 season, even as the Eagles failed to rack up a single win. When they eventually finished 0-12 in 2009, the Eagles were picked to finish last in a 2010 preseason poll.

Feeling that he needed to completely start over, English replaced six members of his staff and asked as many as twenty-five players not to return. According to an Ann Arbor report, the players who departed did not have the right attitude. They were "either unwilling to compete the way [English] wanted or didn't want to put in the necessary academic time."

"A lot of guys didn't really care," English later told the Detroit Free Press. "I think they were beat down. These guys [at Eastern] haven't been successful in a long, long time. It takes a special group of guys to come in here and change it, and not only in terms of ability as a staff, but the ability to understand it's going to be hard."

English compared the program's necessary overhaul to revamping property in Detroit: "If you go to Detroit right now and you buy one of these old houses, are you going to try and refurbish it or are you going to knock the thing down and start over? You're probably going to knock it down and that's what we did. We said, 'We're going to take a hit here, but we're not going to tread water.' We're going to knock the thing down and start over."

He had already been making some strides in turning Eastern around. English convinced the athletic department to spend $3.9 million dollars on a brand-new indoor practice facility. For Eastern, a university that was previously rumored to be cutting its football program, such an investment was huge.

The goal, English had said, was to show recruits and players that he and the athletic department were serious and committed to turning the program around. "We have been able to invest in football for the first time in the program's history," Derrick Gragg, EMU's athletic director, told the Detroit News. "Obviously, when you invest this much into the program, the payback is that you win. And that increases school spirit and school pride with the alumni. About 80 percent of our alumni are in the state, and everybody roots for their alma mater when they win."

Then, on July 31, 2010, English found himself in hot waters with the media when he said that he was aiming to recruit players who simply loved the game of football and who had come from a family with two parents, particularly a father who was in the picture. It was the second part which sparked controversy. 

Taken in context, English had been having some difficulty coaching players who were not committed to giving him their full effort in practice, who had either resigned Eastern as a bad team not worth playing for or that finishing the season was pointless. Many of these players had problems with authority. In their minds, when someone like English arrived, demanding excellence and instilling punishments, it may have been difficult to completely accept his role and submit to his coaching. In assessing some of these players who rebelled, English determined that their problems with authority may have come more from their character or background, and so he told reporters that he wanted to recruit players who weren't projects, who at least already understood what it was like to have a strong male authority figure in their lives.

Here is English's direct quote from MAC media day:
"You know what the real focus was? We wanted to recruit football players that love football. I felt like we had a lot of guys who really didn't love football. They maybe were playing football so that they could go to school or whatever, but not for the love of playing football. So when we went out, we wanted to do two things. We wanted players who love football, who have the physical ability to play football and then the other thing we wanted was guys that could be coached. We wanted guys that had a father in their background because, if you don't, the hard part is some guy like me coming in and corrects you. So you're working—that's a whole other dynamic. A guy that's raised by his mom—and please don't take me wrong—but the reality is you have to teach that guy how to be taught by a man. That's part of it."
It may have been a little too candid of a comment. NBC Sports called English a jerk and wrote that it was an insult to single mothers everywhere. In the Detroit Free Press, Mick McCabe wrote that "English has insulted every single mother in Michigan, not to mention a ton of high school coaches…Don't take him wrong? How do we take him right? English was given ample opportunity to explain his seemingly moronic and sexist comments, but declined to return several phone messages."

Although English initially shrugged off the media reports as inconsequential, he eventually apologized for his comments. "It was my error," he explained. "Where I've been, in high-profile situations, you always have to be very careful about what you say. But I want to say I made a mistake."

When asked if he meant to deliberately offend single mothers, English responded, "I don't know how you could say that. It doesn't even make sense. I know with families with the way they are today, there are going to be divorces and there are going to be single parents. As a program, if we said we're only recruiting players with two parents in the home, our recruiting pool would go from big to very small."

It is further reinforced from the fact that English himself came from a relatively broken home. In an open letter to parents and readers following his public apology, English described at great length his own background and how he did not mean to insult single parents. "Had it been a discussion on those topics, I would have shared that my twin brother and I are products of being raised by our grandmother, Mamie Blaylock," he wrote. "My mother (who was not married to my father) passed away when I was 18 months old. In addition, I would have spoken about several coaches and other men who played an equally important role in whatever I have been able to achieve as a person...To suggest I would dismiss or negate the critical role played by single parent mothers or, men who serve as mentors in young men's lives, would contradict the very way I was raised, which would be absurd."

His coming season in Fall 2010 would not be any easier. Eastern started out 0-6, losing a close battle at home to Army, 31-27, in the opening game. The Eagles were later blown out mercilessly by Ohio State, 73-20, in Columbus. The Buckeyes' victory included a trick play where quarterback Terrelle Pryor received a 20-yard pass in the endzone late in the third quarter, when the Eagles were already down 45-20. English was reportedly upset by that play because it was unnecessary and unsportsmanlike. Eastern Michigan would go on to lose its next two games against the Ohio Bobcats and the Vanderbilt Commodores. Both games were lopsided defeats.

Then, English and his team finally snapped the losing streak. In a game that was almost certainly a nail-biter, EMU won in overtime against Ball State. The Eagles made a 21-point comeback that was the biggest in school history. It was also English's first victory as a head coach.

"You could have easily fallen into the trap of saying, 'Oh, here we go again—another loss,' but we were confident in ourselves and I think that's what got us the win," said Alex Gillett, Eastern's sophomore quarterback. "It takes a little while for it to set in and say, 'This really happened for us and we finally got this win that we've been working so hard for.' Everyone was out there and everyone's emotions were just on their sleeves."

The Eagles celebrated in the endzone after the game-winning touchdown, crying and embracing each other. When they went back to the locker room, the players doused English in Gatorade. He said the win was more gratifying than relieving. "I was happy," he told reporters. "Don't get me wrong: I was happy, but it's sad because you can never really enjoy it because you have to get onto to the next game. It's sad because you should enjoy the wins more, but you don't because you're trying to win the next game."

Eastern's victory over Ball State showed the Eagles they could win. More importantly, it showed progress. For English, a Michigan Man, it seemed like his efforts at rebuilding the program were finally paying off. The Eagles went on to win only one other game in 2010, against Buffalo. Perhaps the most crushing defeat came on November 26, as the Eagles looked to leave the season with a win. Instead, they were blown out 71-3 by Northern Illinois. Eastern finished the season 2-10.

Few are aware that English is saddled with obstacles that other programs, other coaches do not have to face. While admittedly some other struggling programs may be facing similar obstacles, the perfect storm of problems that Eastern deals with makes its situation unique. EMU is located in Ypsilanti, which is literally a stone's throw away from Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. As such, many people who grow up in Ypsilanti and are fans of college football are more likely to be fans of Michigan than they are of Eastern. Fan turnout at Eastern's Rynearson Stadium for football games on Saturday is abysmal. The Eagles are lucky if 4,000 of the stadium's 30,000 capacity show up to watch a game, when other, more exciting games (such as Michigan's) are happening at the same time.

Keeping morale up is also a constant battle. The players are so used to losing games that it is sometimes difficult for English to rally them to play a decent second half. In one the most depressing press conferences that I've ever seen a coach give, English and two of his players (defensive back Chris May and tailback Dwayne Priest) took questions from reporters after a 45-17 loss to U-M in 2009, English's first year. If the reporters harbored any sympathy for English and his team, they certainly didn't show it by sparing them any tough questions. English was asked if he had seriously expected to beat Michigan at any point in the game or going into the second half. May and Priest then looked at the reporters, their faces marked with defeat, pain, and disillusionment. Still, English answered with resilience.

"We expect to win," he said. "We really do. I know people think that's hard to believe. We expect to win every game. So the mood was we need to do what it takes to win the game."

Finally, English faces a tough battle in recruiting. Though he cannot go after the four and five star talent as Michigan or Alabama can, thus by definition making his job as a coach tougher to win tough games, he still can target recruits who are ranked or given three, two, or even one star. Yet even those are not easy. Eastern is rarely a recruit's first choice when they have Western or Central as options. The proximity to Ann Arbor perpetually keeps the Eagles in U-M's shadow, which also might have a negative effect on recruits, who want to have fan support on game day. There is no such competition for attention in Western Michigan's Kalamazoo or Central Michigan's Mount Pleasant. There is also the overall statistic held by Eastern of 428-519-47. The Eagles cannot be seen as a winning program in anyone's book.

These obstacles make winning at Eastern a nearly impossible feat. No one has a tougher job in college football than Ron English. However, despite his setbacks, he is convinced that he can make Eastern relevant again—or at least make it into a better program than when he found it. To some degree, he has already done that. He believed that the number one reason why Eastern and its previous coaches were largely unable to be successful in the past was from the lack of support. Now, the university's president, the regents, and the athletic department have all met English's requests and have committed to bettering Eastern Michigan's football program. They have upgraded their campus from a rough outdoor practice field to a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility as good as any out there. English and his staff are hoping that it pays off with recruits, who will see that Eastern cares about its program.

Some would say that it all starts with wins, but having any type of winning streak at Eastern right now is unforeseeable. Instead, English must focus on winning the games he can, and particularly beating the rivals, Central and Western. Defeating your rivals is a strange thing and has an odd effect. Even in a losing season, it is satisfying. It lifts morale, and it keeps alumni, fans, and donors happy. If English could do one thing to show that he's moving in the right direction, it would be that. Beat the rivals.

English was asked if he had a message he wanted to give to fans about believing in Eastern's football program. "If you look at it, basically our president and regents bought into the message, and they tried to do the things that it would take for our program to be successful, and we can't be successful without people in the stands," he said. "I mean, it's just so hard to do that because the players are motivated, obviously, by a home crowd. We really want you to come. We're going to play as hard we can play, and we're so excited. And you can come out and see our new uniforms. There are going to be a lot of giveaways; you know, we have a great promotional campaign and a great marketing campaign going. So I think it will be a different atmosphere in Rynearson, and I think the people will have fun, and I really hope that they come out."

For the players at Eastern Michigan who still have doubt, English has put up a sign along the wall of the locker room that reads "Embrace the Process." It is similar to Bo Schembechler's sign at Michigan which said "Those who stay will be champions."

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