Cruising through the grasslands and cornfields along Iowa’s I-80, an FCS head coach and his assistant drove the short hop from Des Moines to Omaha, Nebraska.
Little did they know they were going to have to turn around halfway through the trip, as a phone call interrupted the trip to a recruiting event in Nebraska.
Chris Creighton was that FCS head coach, and at the other end of the phone was the Director of Athletics at Eastern Michigan University, Heather Lyke.
Creighton and his assistant made a u-turn to head back home to Drake University to break some life-changing news to his wife and kids. He was preparing to tell them they had to find a new home in Michigan. He had been named the next head football coach at EMU.
Through years and years of being in shambles, the Eastern Michigan football program had hired and fired numerous coaches, hoping to find someone who would take EMU to a promising future. But in this situation it’s not as easy as hiring just a good football coach.
AD’s mission: Eagles Unite
‘Everyone Must Unite,’ was an acronym for EMU that Heather Lyke came up with when she took the job as EMU’s athletic director in 2013. She used the mantra to start a movement at EMU, to get everyone on board as being one program, to bring a new identity, culture and attitude towards athletics at the university. She called the movement, ‘Eagles Unite.’ To unite the athletic programs, unite the community, the students, the faculty and everybody else with ties to EMU. The mission required exceptional effort from administrators, support staff, coaches and everyone else on the athletics staff.
This position of leading EMU football demanded someone with patience, charisma, character and a good football background but most of all dedication. Not someone who viewed EMU as a stepping stone job, where a coach could come in, win some games and leave for a bigger school to earn a fatter paycheck.
Lyke knew filling the position would be an important one by which her tenure would be largely defined. Then there was Chris Creighton, eager, motivated, hand-raised, ready to take on the challenge.
“People say that I motivate people, I don’t. I recruit and hire motivated people,” says Creighton. “Because when you have someone who is motivated and you say, ‘Let’s go!’ They’re like, ‘LET’S GO! [Creighton takes off running] But if that person or that group isn’t motivated and I say, ‘Let’s go!’ they’re like this [stares blankly and pretends to pick nose].”
Creighton understood the challenge confronting him. He reached out to coaches who had rejuvenated programs in a similar state to EMU. Coaches such as Art Briles at Baylor University, Bill Snyder at Kansas State University, David Cutcliffe at Duke University, and Joe Novak, the former Northern Illinois University head coach.
“I asked them to write the team about what they had gone through,” said Creighton. “I identified programs that had been down for a significant period of time, where coach had been instrumental in changing the program and then had sustained success. I asked them to write a letter to the team, and they all did. And we have them in our champions manual, and we read them during camp.”
He spoke with Novak, who started his tenure at Northern Illinois in 1996 and was in his fourth season at NIU with a 3-33 overall record until they started winning.
“We spoke for a really long time,” Creighton said. “I think I was recruiting and I was doing a lot of driving and cleared some time and we talked about … everything. We talked about staff, we talked about administration, we talked about facilities, we talked about recruiting; the early years.”
Creighton was taking in all the information Novak provided and bounced around ideas that came across as important to him. Cutting corners or looking for the quick fix wasn’t the answer to have long-term success.
“There were a lot of nuggets, but the biggest thing that came through was just be who you are and stick to your plan,” Creighton says.
The stories of revival at Baylor, Kansas State and Duke offer intriguing similarities to the challenges faced at Eastern. Each coach took over a program lacking identity, fan interest and talent.
Rebranding the Culture
When Snyder was hired at Kansas State, the football program had many similarities to what EMU has gone through. He took over a program that hadn’t had a notable winning season since “Moby-Dick” was a minnow, or when William Howard Taft was president. They had a stadium that held 43,000 people, but got an average attendance of 20,975 in 1988. The only reason the attendance was as high as it was is because opposing schools would bring a mass amount of fans to Manhattan, Kansas.
The Wildcats played in the Big Eight Conference (present day Big 12), and there had been many rumors about Kansas State being kicked out of the conference for these types of issues the football program was having. They also heard suggestions to move down a division.
In previous seasons, Nebraska and Oklahoma who were two of the best teams in the country, didn’t even want to play at Kansas State knowing nobody would be there to watch.
But the show goes on. In 1987, when the K-State program was just about as relevant as a battleship with no ammunition, Oklahoma played the Wildcats, where the Sooners led KSU 35-0 at halftime. The Sooners were the cream of the crop in college football that year, having won the Big Eight Conference championship after beating No. 1 Nebraska, and went onto play in the Orange Bowl, where they lost to an ACC school.
In 2015, just this season, Eastern Michigan played Northern Illinois; the “class of the conference,” as Creighton would call them, led EMU 35-0 at halftime. NIU had just won the MAC Championship in 2014 and not too long ago in 2012, where the Huskies went to the Orange bowl, and lost to an ACC school.
In 1989, Snyder went to a design professor at Kansas State to give the team a new look and new brand. The previous logo had a purple cartoon style wildcat, with “K State,” written in a “Times New Roman” text font. The new logo, now known as “Powercat” was basic, yet creative. It’s the same logo Kansas State uses to this day on helmets, jerseys, and apparel.
In 2014, Creighton and Lyke announced the rebranding to Eastern Michigan’s logo. The former logo known as the “Swoop E” was now gone, and replaced with the “Block E.” They also incorporated a diamond plate design into the uniforms, helmets and on buildings all around campus. Rynearson Stadium was now nicknamed, “The Factory,” after the installment of college footballs first gray field turf.
In Snyder’s first season, Kansas State went 1-10 overall and 0-7 in the conference, and gradually improved in each year following that. In his fifth year, Snyder took Kansas State to its first bowl victory in the schools history, and followed that eight straight bowl bids. Under Snyder, Kansas State has won five division titles and three Big 12 championships, along with three Cotton Bowl and three Fiesta Bowl appearances.
More eerily similar instances in Waco
A similar series of actions had unfolded at Baylor. In 2002 and 2003, Baylor’s athletic department had gone through a rough patch. They had just fired head coach Kevin Steele with three games remaining in the season; a player on the basketball team had been shot and killed; the football program had finished last in its division 11 of the last 12 years; and there were many other issues surrounding the university.
The first coach failed to show results in his tenure, but then Baylor hired Briles in 2007. He had started his coaching career at Stephenville High School in Texas, a school that hadn’t made the playoffs in around 30-years. Briles led the school to four state championships in the 11 years he was with the program.
Like Baylor before Briles, EMU faced a similar series of setbacks prior to Creighton’s arrival. During the tenure of Coach Ron English, the campus was jolted by the shooting death of a football player in 2014, and English was fired with three games left in the 2014 season.
Briles recruited mature athletes that played with a certain gritty attitude with the will to be champions. His mantra while coaching high school football was, “48 minutes to play, a lifetime to remember.” He places great importance on the lives of his players, and the experience and bond they create as a team.
Creighton’s mantra echoes Briles. “Our vision is this, to make playing football at Eastern Michigan University one of the most incredible experiences of our guys’ lives. We have a chance to do life together for four and a half years, and then for the rest of our lives.”
Since taking over, Briles went 4-8 in his first two seasons with the Bears and has since led Baylor to back-to-back Big 12 championship seasons; five straight bowl bids with the Cotton Bowl and Fiesta Bowl being two of them; and coached a Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III.
The Duke Difference
Cutcliffe took over a program that had won 19 games in an 11-year span, four of those seasons going without a win. He built his Duke program on the trust he places in his players and staff. He took all the locks off the lockers in the locker room, believing his players were trustworthy enough to not need them.
Creighton takes a similar approach in trusting his team, regarding limiting mistakes, dealing with sudden changes and learning from the past.
“We have to trust ourselves,” Creighton says. “We have to trust each other, we have to trust our technique. The answer we came up with is trust.”
Duke adopted a style of play that has become common college football. They practice fast, they learn fast, they play fast, and everything they do is going to be fast, under Cutcliffe’s guidance.
Creighton and his staff take the same approach. He says they approach practice, games and each week at an upbeat tempo.
Cutcliffe didn’t have a winning season at Duke until the sixth year of his tenure, which was the first 10 win season in the history of Duke football. He’s managed to take his program to three straight bowl games, but still searching for the programs first bowl win since 1960.
Building an identity
With such intriguing stories about these coach’s, curiosity struck as to how is it possible to start a winning tradition at a school that has never won before. Whose to say the same success can’t happen at Eastern Michigan? Have you heard the saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in one day?’
“The thing is, there’s not a blueprint for Eastern Michigan, that Kansas State knows, or that NIU knows, or that Duke knows, or that Baylor knows,” said Creighton. “The Eastern Michigan blueprint is special and unique in its own way. Just like those other schools are. I think a lot of people say, ‘yeah I’ve taken over a program that was down and turned them around.’ But I don’t know of many others that are in the category of the schools I’ve talked about.”
Snyder, Briles, Novak and Cutcliffe didn’t build college football palaces in just one season. All these coaches combined went 25-67 in their first two years as the head coach of these programs.
Creighton is using eerily similar philosophies as these coaches, on the field, off the field, in the film room, in the classroom, on the recruiting trail and more. He’s had his philosophy since he stepped foot on the campus of Eastern Michigan University.
The recruiting philosophy especially hasn’t changed. “[It] has not changed. At all. We are looking for winners on and off the field. You’ve got to be talented; you got to be talented to play division one football. But talent is not enough, not here,” says Creighton. “[Do you] want to just be a part of something that’s already going and really not do anything about it? Kind of be a cog in a wheel? Or do you want to go somewhere that’s been down and build it up? In sport there’s nothing better then a comeback.”
Every practice and every press conference, Creighton will say his team needs to get better. No matter what he’s talking about, the answer to solving the issues on the field is getting better.
“I’ve said we need to get better for 19 years, and that’s when we’ve been 12-0, 11-1, 2-10, 1 and whatever we are right now,” Creighton says. “People think that’s coaches speak, but when people think about their life and their day, how many of us wake up in the morning and are actually trying to get better at something? And like really setting a goal and taking steps to get better? I don’t think most people do that, and it’s phenomenal what can happen in your life when you’re never satisfied, you’re not apathetic, and you want to improve and you want to get better.”
Creighton shares the fans’ and players’ frustration at not winning right away but also focuses on what the developmental aspect of what needs to happen in order to win.
“Obviously, everybody wants to win,” Creighton says. “But people talk about winning so much… It’s a given we want to win; nobody wants to win more than we do. But talking about winning is not the solution. Figuring out the areas in which you need to improve and the areas that are vital to winning, focusing on those and getting really good at those, will enable you to win in the end.”
Coach Creighton believes his blueprint for EMU can be similar to the coaches that have revitalized programs before.
“It’s a thrilling thing to be a part of,” says Creighton. “I mean it really is. If you're able to stay in the moment, but looking big picture it's amazing what's happening.”